To make a world rich and real to the reader and, more prosaically, so the reader knows what is going on, writers need to include details. We don’t have the movie-maker’s luxury of the camera (and designers, set dressers and prop people) to put our readers ‘in the picture’. We need to tell ’em some stuff.
Now, sometimes, just sometimes, the writer gets carried away with the stuff; this is why advice like ‘show, don’t tell’ exists.
The temptation to tell ALL we know, whether because we made it up and it is our baby (I’m looking at you, fantasy writers) or because we have researched our eyes clean out of our head (historical and political writers take note) or just because our characters are soooo interesting and soooo damaged and the reader will never understand them if we don’t tell them RIGHT NOW about all the bad things that happened when they were three… (Who are you looking at? Me? What? Really? Oh. Hmmm. Contemporary writers don’t get a free pass here? Dang.)… is strong.
If we have been at this game for more than five minutes, we know that the reader doesn’t want a bucketload of backstory shovelled down his or her throat at the beginning of a story. Nor do they need to know every tiny detail of our characters day, life or personality.
We may know, for instance, that our hero used to have a blue Siamese cat called Fred that was killed by a dog, but unless his love interest has a Doberman, we probably don’t need to hear about it.
Likewise, if the detective in our murder mystery decides to have a nap and sleep on the problem, we don’t need to ‘see’ him walk up the stairs, one at a time, put on his pyjamas, brush his teeth, say his prayers, close the window, change the sheets, and so on – unless we are trying to establish that he is very methodical, or the bad guy is watching him as he does it.
Which brings us to our problem. Sometimes detail is good, sometimes not. How do we decide when to fork over juicy morsels of the information stew that our brains are bursting with? I will tell you. You give up the details….
…when they are relevant to the story.
And, preferably, when you can make them a naturally occurring part of something happening in the story.
Let me demonstrate:
Our hero, Joe, is down on his luck. He needs a job, fast, and can’t afford to be fussy about where he goes and what he does. There are positions open on Slartibartfast 5, but the natives there are so different from humans that he is not sure whether he is going to be able to handle living among them. This is what we need to convey.
Here’s one way of dealing with it:
Joe got to the part of the form that asked him to put down his preferred planet and stopped. Slartibartfast 5. Did he really want to go there? The natives were blue. They had triangular heads and tentacles. They only had one eye and, people said, they didn’t have mouths. Was he going to cope?
Here’s another way:
Joe stepped up to the counter and for the first time, came face-to-face with a Slartibartfastian – a female one, if the name plate on the desk was anything to go by. He swallowed and a light sweat sprang up on the back of his neck. He opened his mouth, but before he could get a sound out, the phone beside her rang.
The enormous eyeball in the middle of her head rolled slightly and she held up one blue tentacle in a universally recognisable symbol for ‘wait a minute’. With another tentacle, she picked up the phone; with a third, she rubbed the skin above her eye in a weary gesture and with the remaining four she plucked out four different-coloured forms from the console behind her. She held them out to him with an apologetic-looking expression. It wasn’t a smile, exactly, as he couldn’t see anything that he could identify as a mouth. But the furrow at the top of her triangular head spoke of frustration and her eye said clearly that this wasn’t her fault and she would make it different if she could. Joe took the forms, and smiled back at her. Maybe he would be able to make this work after all.
In both cases, we have revealed detail at a time in the story where it is relevant. We may know other things about these Slartibartfastians; it may be that these aliens can morph into human form and enjoy crazy monkey sex with guys who look exactly like Joe. But we don’t need to know that NOW (although I sincerely hope we get to find out later!). So we have satisfied the first requirement – tell me the details when they are relevant to the story.
But the second one does, I think, a better job of incorporating those details into a story event. It ‘shows’ the details.
A good way of testing for yourself if you are showing or telling is to ask yourself if the scene could be done as it is, in a movie. The first couldn’t. The second could.
Now, before you stab me with your detail fork, I know that written fiction and movies are not the same thing. One of the advantages that novelists have over scriptwriters is that we CAN get inside people’s heads and say what they are thinking. You could also argue that in the first example, something IS happening: Joe is filling in his form and worrying about whether he will cope.
But let’s face it, thinking is not a very dynamic something. Also, when it comes to things like making lists of details, as Joe did in the first example, I would argue that we should only do it if comes naturally to the character, even when we don’t need him to do it for the sake of exposition.
A good example of this would be a character like Jack Reacher in Lee Childs’ thrillers. Jack is frequently in dangerous situations and he has a military special-forces background. When Jack looks at a person, building or town, it is completely natural for him to size it up quickly and without frills and yes, sometimes with a list. SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis is as natural to him as breathing and the reader would find it odd if he didn’t do it.
But Joe? I don’t know about Joe. If he is the cautious, think-hard-before-you-act, list-the-pros-and-cons type of guy, how did he end up in this predicament in the first place? For me, the second one works better at showing who Joe is, as well as his predicament. (It’s also more fun, at least for me!)
There are times, though, when just ‘telling’ details or events and moving on is what you need to – well – move the story on. Not all elements of the story are pregnant with emotional meaning. Some things just have to be said so that we can get to the next juicy bit, without dallying and without feeling as though we’ve missed a step.
If you have just had a scene where they plan the heist, and your next big scene is going to be the heist, you don’t need to ‘show’ them getting in the car and driving there. You can just say they did it – or leave it out altogether.
As you have probably noticed by now, showing often takes more words and involves more emotions and senses and that is not always what you need. Don’t be frightened to ‘tell’ when what your story needs is a quick burst of info that will lead us to the next important moment fully informed and ready to appreciate it. In YOUR version of Joe’s story, the first paragraph might be better.
You can also use telling to help with pacing. Pace is a big topic on its own, but for now, I’ll just say that telling can be used as a release from the emotion of big scenes. It’s important to keep the story moving, but you don’t want to leave the reader breathless; there has to be light and shade. Your character and your reader might need a break from the action to enjoy a meal, to cuddle their cat or do some gardening and it’s okay to let them – it can be refreshing for all concerned. Just don’t let them go on too long.
So, when it comes to choosing WHEN to tell, once again, we come back to being true to your characters and true to your story. If you have a character, like Hermione in Harry Potter, who is very well-informed and loves to show off, let her tell the other characters things you need the reader to know (as long as the other characters don’t already know!) and well done you, for setting up such a handy exposition device.*
If you have a character who has OCD, or hyper-observant because of their background, then sure, you can have them list things about their surroundings in their head because that is what they would do – just make sure that you establish their condition or background clearly, so the reader doesn’t just think they are just an exposition machine.
But if you, the writer, find yourself regularly describing things at length, independent of any story developments, you might want to think about whether you can incorporate all that lovely descriptive detail into something happening. Apart from anything else, you will then make sure that your reader doesn’t miss things you think are important when they skip the descriptive passages. 😉
What do you think? Does this explanation work for you? When do YOU think it is good to ‘tell’?
*Please note that Hermione is not JUST an exposition device. If she were, readers would never have put up with her for seven books, much less loved her! To be a know-all is true to her character – but also undeniably useful to JK!