Guilty as charged, I tell a lot in a novel. How do I get away with it? How did I break 5 big rules (one of them being Show Don’t Tell) and receive the blessings I did?
Because in every business there is a degree of B.S. that you have to wade through.
Of course you’re going to tell in your story. It’s a book for crying out loud. The rule was grossly misworded. Our society is careless with coining phrases. Don’t believe me? The brilliant George Carlin observed, “Why do they call them apartments when they’re all together?” Erase from your memory the three word rule and embrace this realistic one: Show When You Can, Tell When You Have To. It’s been said before—by one of the writers on this blog as a matter of fact—but it should have completely eradicated the old rule by now.
To back up the necessity to tell, I ask you to consider this. Showing consists of three things: descriptions, dialogue, and action. Think about it. Really? An author is going to chisel 70 to 100 thousand words into rock that is just pictures, talk, and movement? No way.
An author isn’t supposed to over describe the setting or characters, so showing for these purposes doesn’t really advance the plot much. As far as actions go, subtle or brazen maneuvers can illustrate a lot of what’s going on in the story, but they can’t guarantee a major payoff that is expected of a novel which I’ll get to in a minute. Dialogue, a great tool, can fall short of the payoff as well.
And that is…
Point of View.
Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, the fact that we have POV proves that you have to tell. You’ll hear agents, editors, and critique groups complain that a piece doesn’t have enough emotion. Whereas you can show emotion with crying, grinning, fist pounding, and what have you, not all feelings can be displayed, so you have to tell them.
Do you utter the 100% truth in every situation? None of us do. We fib to be nice a lot. We have to tell our boss what he or she wants to hear, right? How do you really feel? Or more importantly, how does the character that you’re writing really feel? It’s the author’s duty to tell the reader.
The key thing I want friends to walk away with is:
- Real ‘showing’ in a novel is limited to descriptions, dialogue, and action.
- You’re going to have to tell a lot because you have to share inside information (mostly feelings) about the character with the reader.