By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
At some point, nearly every writer struggles with show, don't tell. It's just one of those aspects of the craft that's integral to good writing and difficult to explain well. Which is funny, since explaining is part of the show, don't tell problem. The more you explain, the more told your story feels.
Anytime you stop the story to explain why a character is doing what she’s doing, or how something came to be, you’re probably telling. People rarely halt their actions to think about the why—they just do it. This is why simply putting the information into an internal thought doesn’t work.
Not only does explaining risk telling, it frequently kills the tension of the scene because you’re not leaving anything for readers to figure out on their own. Rare is the person who will watch a sporting event after hearing the final score.
Writers frequently add explanations for fear their readers won’t understand why the characters are acting or what something means. But more times than not, if you have to explain it flat out, you haven’t laid enough groundwork for that reason to be clear. That’s an issue with the writing, not the told prose, so just "fixing" the told prose doesn't always fix the problem.
· When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slapped him.
· Kim ran from the room because she didn’t want to see him with another woman.
These explain the situation and reasons behind the actions, but it wouldn’t take much to show enough details for readers to understand what’s happening and why. Let's add just a few details to show what we're explaining:
· Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it. She trembled, the words a mantra holding back her fury. “Enough!” she screamed, slapping him.
This allows readers to see the character's frustration build until she "couldn't take it anymore" and acted. They don't have to be told that's how she feels, they can figure that out by what she thinks, says, and does.
· He stood by the fountain, smiling at the woman who’d replaced her in his life. Kim frowned and turned around. No way was she walking in there.
This shows Kim acting like a person struggling with seeing an ex with a new girlfriend, and letting readers figure out why. It also allows you to show Kim's emotional state and use that to connect with readers. The emotional impact of, " she didn’t want to see him with another woman" is much different than Kim's defiant refusal to look at the new couple. Readers can wonder what she's feeling and what will happen next.
Storytelling is all about dramatizing, while exposition is about explaining, which is why you typically find a lot of it in the beginning of a story. Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but it hangs out with some pretty unsavory characters—infodump and backstory. Unless handled carefully, they can be story killers.
The basic definition of exposition sums up the pitfalls nicely: writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.
That’s also a solid definition for told prose. In writing terms:
· It’s when the science fiction protagonist gets into an anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.
· It’s when the romance protagonist has a bad date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past.
· It’s when the young-adult protagonist visits her dad at work and the story stops to explain how unhappy he is in his job and why this is upsetting her.
Notice the key phrase in all of those: the story stops. When the characters stop acting like themselves and your author-ness sneaks in to make sure readers understand some aspect of the scene, you’ve probably dipped into the telling type of exposition.
This is so easy to do (and so common) that Mike Myers even named a character after it in his Austin Powers movies: Basil Exposition, whose job is to come on screen and explain the relevant plot information in that scene. Need a summary of what the bad guy’s been up to? Just ask Basil and he’ll explain it all. While this is a clever way to spoof the cliché in the movies, it doesn’t work the same for a novel.
In the worst cases, explaining the story can insult your readers' intelligence. It can look as though you don’t think they can “get it” unless you explain it, and that can be a little condescending. If you’ve ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is. Trust your readers to get it.
However, sometimes you do need to explain things to readers so they can understand and enjoy the story, and there’s no natural way to write it without spending pages dramatizing something you could just explain in a line or two. In these cases, there's no harm in a little telling. Just make sure it's the best thing to do for the story.
Knowing when to show versus tell can be a challenge, but if you look at what you're explaining, and think about what character actions and thoughts get that same idea across to your readers, you avoid a lot of unintentional telling.
Do you struggle with show, don't tell? Have you ever explained too much in your story?
Check out my new book, UnderstandingShow, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)