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Monday, May 23, 2016

10 Cheats to "Tell" Well

Back in January, I did a whole post on when it is appropriate to "tell" something instead of "show" it. I talked about the difference between showing and telling, about how telling actually has in important role, and gave eight reasons you should use telling instead of showing. I touched on the fact that some telling is done better than others and also promised that in a future post I would give some pointers on how to tell well. Today is that future.

If you need a refresher of my post on telling, don't hesitate to give it a glance over.

In it, I gave this example of how boring, monotonous, and ineffective telling can be:

They went to their friend's house to see some cats. They liked them a lot. When they got tired, they called their mom to pick them up, but their mom couldn't come for two hours. It was cold out, so they went inside and got something warm to eat. Then they drew some pictures before watching t.v.

Ack! Who wants to read a whole story like that? Not me! One of the problems with telling is that it can be too vague and it fails to immerse the reader in the story. But that is an example of truly awful telling. Here are some techniques to make your moments of telling shine by lessening or overcoming some of those cons.

One approach is to use showing techniques when you tell.

Appeal to the Senses

Good showing appeals to the senses. Basically, we have to appeal to the senses to really show a story. There is no reason moments of telling can't appeal to the senses in a similar way. Appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can strengthen your telling the same way it strengthens your showing, it's just that with telling, it's usually brief, or done in a way that seems "in passing." Look at this example, which appeals to sight, sound, and touch, to see what I mean.

We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick strangled tongues . . . At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. - This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes

Some telling doesn't easily lend itself to the senses very easily, because of the subject matter that needs to be told. In cases like that, you can try tying in a concrete comparison to suggest a sense. Here is an example of my own. Since I'm dealing with an experience that is purely based on minds, I'm forced to do a lot of telling about it, but I try to make it more tangible by comparing it to physical experiences the reader can relate to:

At night awake in bed, he’d remember her presence. How their minds had been connected, ethereal like spider webs. How just her being there brought a sense of comfort, like a childhood blanket he hadn’t realized he’d still had.

Sprinkle in Details

Just as you use detail to make your showing great, you can and often should include detail in your passages of telling. Mention a red leather jacket here or a specific cologne there. One way to combat the vagueness that telling often brings is to simply include more details. Again, not as much as you do in showing, but some. Detail makes the telling more realistic. Instead of just saying that your character's friend was late to brunch, mention in passing that she was late because she got pulled over for an expired license plate. One key to making this work is to pick significant details, or at least details that aren't cliche. Read about that here.

Here is a bit of telling that I wrote:

Their mom had stressed the importance of eating dinner as a family, of stir fry nights and cloth napkins on laps; of staying home to care for James, Scott, or Alaina when they were sick, with steaming honey-lemon drinks and movie marathons; and she had spent bedtimes chasing away nightmares with a flashlight in their closets, all for fourteen years, almost like she meant it.

Elevate Your Writing Style

You can make the telling in your story better by making it more literary. Elevate the prose with smart word choices and by paying attention to rhythm and sound. You can also bring in the similes and metaphors, or better yet, extended metaphors that tie together. Basically you are finding a way to make what you are telling particularly pleasing to the ear or mind. You are making it poetic. I hesitate to use the word "poetic" because what a lot of new writers think is poetic is actually purple prose. Take a creative writing poetry class and study some poetry. In "The Love Song," by J. Alfred Prufrock, we get some great telling about fog. Here is just one stanza:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

But if you aren't into poem examples, here is another example from the novel Crossed by Ally Condie:

In the night, it feels like we’re running fast over the back of some kind of enormous animal, sprinting over its spines and through patches of tall, thin, gold grass that now glimmers like silver fur in the moonlight.

The air is desert cold, a sharp, thin cold that tricks you into thinking you aren’t thirsty, because breathing is like drinking in ice.

(Again, see how good telling sounds a lot like showing?)

Bump up the Tone and Voice

But the literary avenue won't work for everything. If you are writing a comedic passage or an angry one, the poetic approach may (but not always) clash with that for horrible effect. Instead, bump up the strength of the tone. Pull in the narrative voice or let the character's voice bleed into the narrative at the deepest point of POV penetration. Channel the emotion of the narrator or character and write your telling in ways that reinforce that. To learn how to create, establish, and control tone, read my article that explains how to do just that. To learn about character voice, read my post on that.

Here is an example from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak that gives us both a strong voice and good tone:

Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

Then, bombs.

This time everything was too late. The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks on the radio. All too late.


Is that what glued them down like that?

Of course not.

Let's not be stupid.

It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.

Make it Entertaining

This one is similar to tone, and yet different from it. Write your telling in a way that makes it entertaining. Show your reader a good time. Think about what you have in play in your content and how you can tell it in a way that is amusing. Here is an example from Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief.

The warehouse was filled with more statues--people in all different poses, wearing all different outfits and with different expressions on their faces. I was thinking you'd have to have a pretty huge garden to fit even one of these statues, because they were all life-size. But mostly I was thinking about food.

Go ahead, call me an idiot for walking into a strange lady's shop like that just because I was hungry, but I do impulsive stuff sometimes. Plus, you've never smelled Aunty Em's burgers. The aroma was like laughing gas in the dentist's chair.

Include Thought-provoking or Emotion-buzzing Concepts

I've been reading the His Dark Materials trilogy. I will admit that there are some things I don't like about the way Pullman renders the story. A lot of it is telling, and I feel like it could be told better--at least for my preference. But man, one way his telling excels is by including thought-provoking concepts. It sometimes feels like I'm being exposed to a new fascinating idea on every other page, even if it's a tiny one in passing. What Pullman excels at with his telling is stirring up a strong sense of wonder in the reader again and again. You can tell similarly in your story. Bring in thought-provoking ideas into your telling or concepts that give the reader a slight buzz of a particular emotion. If you are writing fantasy, you can do what Pullman does and drop in concepts that create a sense of wonder in the reader, almost like a tease. You can do something similar with romance. Or you can appeal to your reader's intellect by suggesting something interesting or unusual or wise.

In His Dark Materials, people's souls live on the outside of their bodies, rendered in the form of an animal called a daemon that is the opposite gender. So the main character, Lyra, who is a girl, has a daemon who is a boy, but in paragraph of telling we get this:

Bernie was a kindly, solitary man, one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex as himself. It was Bernie she'd shouted at in her despair when Roger was taken. And Bernie had been telling the gyptians everything! She marveled.

Bernie really has no important part in the story. But Pullman adds an interesting concept when telling about him. Bernie's daemon is a male like him. Up to this point, we didn't know it was possible. It doesn't play an important part later and is never talked about again. But in that sentence, Pullman creates a buzz of wonder that leaves us thinking, what does it mean when someone has a daemon as the same gender as himself?

Another example where he does this is when Lyra and her friend Roger discover that skeletons have coins that represent their daemon.

The catacombs under the oratory kept Lyra and Roger busy for days. Once she tried to play a trick on some of the dead scholars, by switching around the coins in their skulls so they were with the wrong daemons. Panalaimon [her daemon] became so agitated at this that he changed into a bat and flew up and down uttering shrill cries and flapping his wings in her face, but she took no notice: it was too good a joke to waste. She paid for it later, though. In bed in her narrow room at the top of Staircase Twelve she was visited by a night-ghast, and woke up screaming at the three robed figures who stood at her bedside pointing their bony fingers before throwing back their cowls to show bleeding stumps where their heads should have been. Only when Pantalaimon became a lion and roared at them did they retreat, backing away into the substance of the wall until all that was visible was their arms, then their horny yellow-gray hands, then their twitching fingers, then nothing. First thing in the morning she hastened down to the catacombs and restored the daemon coins to their rightful places, and whispered, "Sorry! Sorry!" to the skulls.

Pullman again gives us plenty to think about with his world by including interesting concepts in passing.

In-character Introspection

Some telling is focused on the character's interior. If you need to tell more than a sentence or two about what your character is thinking, I suggest getting deep into their viewpoint and rendering it in their voice, mood, and tone, which can make it more interesting.

On the other hand, if your story is more narrator focused, you can get deep into how your narrator would explain those thoughts and feeling and make it more interesting that way.

Here is an example from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We don't get to the deepest viewpoint level in it, but close, and imagine how much better it is than J.K. Rowling simply just saying these things straight out.

He felt dirty, contaminated, as though he were carrying some deadly germ, unworthy to sit on the underground train back from the hospital with innocent, clean people whose minds and bodies were free of the taint of Voldemort. . . .

And then a truly terrible thought occurred to him, a memory bobbing to the surface of his mind, one that made his insides writhe and squirm like serpents. . .

"What's he after apart from followers?"
"Stuff he can only get by stealth . . . like a weapon. . . ."

I'm the weapon, Harry thought. . . . I'm the one Voldemort's trying to use.

 Create Tension, Even if Only on a Small Scale

Good tension will always keep a reader invested, even through telling. See if you can include tension when telling. It can be tension that lasts only for a sentence, or, better yet, promises of conflict yet to come.

The Dursleys had everything they ever wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

They didn't think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.

-Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Provide Interesting or Entertaining Commentary

Your viewpoint character or narrator can color your telling with a particular opinion of the subject. It might be subtle, or it might be obvious. But even if your telling is on something as simple and perhaps somewhat unimportant to the overall story as say March Madness, your character or narrator can have an opinion on it--and that in and of itself might make the telling interesting.

Here is an excerpt from Lemony Snicket, who is known for including commentary on the story of the three Baudelaire orphans in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

There are many, many types of books in the world, which makes good sense, because there are many, many types of people, and everybody wants to read something different. For instance, people who hate stories in which terrible things happen to small children should put this book down immediately. But one type of book that practically no one likes to read is a book about the law. Books about the law are notorious for being very long, very dull, and very difficult to read. This is one reason lawyers make heaps of money. . .

The Baudelaire children had a slightly different incentive for reading these books of course. Their incentive was not heaps of money, but preventing Count Olaf from doing something horrible to them in order to get heaps of money. But even with this incentive, getting through the law books in Justice Strauss’s private library was a very, very, very hard task.

[Justice Strauss] had let them in the house but immediately went into the backyard to do her gardening, leaving the Baudelaire orphans alone in her glorious library.

So those are ten ways you can tell well. The examples might not fit the exact tone of your story, but you can soften or strengthen any of the techniques to work for you. Good luck telling!


  1. Thanks, these tips are so helpful!

  2. Thanks, so many writers underestimate not just the importance of telling, but also the necessity of it...

  3. A post well worth reading - so many valuable tips! - Paula

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