Tell Don’t Show

This will be a quick post because I am a bit behind on this week’s writing goals.

There are some instances that certainly require the old axiom of show don’t tell. Instead of introducing a character as mean and angry, start off having him kicking a dog or her dropping a baby, that kind of thing.

But, and I think I’ve harped on this before, the art of telling is a fascinating one. Take, for instance, this passage from Aldous Huxley’s travel memoirs Jesting Pilate.

It took the Tartar traders six weeks of walking to get from Kashgar to Srinagar. They start in the early autumn when the passes are still free from the snow and rivers, swollen in summer by its melting, have subsided to fordableness. They walk into Kashmir, and from Kashmir into India. They spend the winter in India, sell what they have brought, and in the following spring, when the passes are once more open, go back into Turkestan with a load of Indian fabrics, velvet and plush and ordinary cotton, which they sell for fabulous profit.

Now he was writing non-fiction, but it would hard for any fiction writer to capture that wonderful sense of place. And it would be damn near impossible to do so in only a paragraph.

To take another example, this one from The Red Knight by Miles Cameron, here is a typical passage.

The trees were dense, and branches reached for him, but a man in armour can run through a thicket of thorns and not take a scratch.

It would have been easy enough to write something like: The trees were dense, and branches reached for him, but his armour protected him from a thicket of thorns and he did not take a scratch.

By utilizing the narrative voice of “telling,” you can sound more authoritative, more believable often with fewer words.  I don’t think you should do it too much, or it sounds like a children’s book.  But adding just a little bit and it can really strengthen your story.


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