Sometimes It is Okay to Tell (Instead of Showing)

I’ve written about how important it is to sometimes ignore all the rules in writing.  This morning I thought about that again as I realized that many times it is appropriate to tell, rather than show. 

I know, I know, you’ve all heard a million times to show, not tell.  And most of the time that is excellent advice.  In critiquing manuscripts, I’d say that the most common comment (hows that for phrasing?) I make, and hear from others, is "put this into scene," or "dialogue here," or even, "show here." 

But there are also times when telling is more germane to the story.  This morning I was working on a scene between two people, Ralph and Josephine, boyfriend and girlfriend, sorta.  Josephine likes to think Ralph is her boyfriend, but he is not so sure.  She has been deluding herself as to how much he actually likes her.  Here’s the paragraph (and bear in mind this is from a rough, rough draft so its not been edited):

One of the things that had endeared her to Ralph in the first place was his timeliness. Josephine herself had always had a loose concept of time, but now Ralph was teaching her that being on time, if not getting places early, was an important aspect of success. Still, wasn’t it just the tiniest bit annoying? She glanced at her watch. Just a few minutes past one, and the funeral started at two. The ballroom was only ten minutes away.

When I read back over that, my instinct at first was to put the last part in dialogue, with Josephine actually saying to Ralph the part about how it was only a few minutes past one, and so forth.  But then I stopped, thought about it, and did not do it.  Why?  Because more important than showing in this instance is letting the reader into Josephine’s mind.    What I want the reader to see is how she’s built him up in her mind, learning from him about success, and yet there are also these little tiny cracks in his facade.  She doesn’t want to get to the funeral nearly an hour early, and she knows it is not necessary.  She has her doubts: Still, wasn’t it just the tiniest bit of annoying? But, of course, she does go on to leave early with him because she is still mostly in the blind adoration stage.

So that is my mini-lesson on telling, not showing.

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Lynda Lehmann
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12/17/2007 07:51

Good point! I actually think it would be quite awkward to hold ourselves to a standard in which we felt compelled to “show” everything. In my opinion, doing so would add a lot of digression and excess fat (read, “flab”) to a plot!

So as you have suggested, we need to pick what to show and what to tell.

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