No one ever told me I needed to tell, not show.

In case you're wondering, that IS the cardinal rule of writing that I just mangled. Show, Don't Tell has been pounded into us from the very first time we picked up a book on how to write.

Everyone knows "Telling" is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's the open door through which the demons of terrible storytelling will escape, to mangle your manuscript and ruin your revisions.


Well, not always.

I had an epiphany the other day while re-reading The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede. To be specific, I was reading the first book, Dealing with Dragons.

Dealing with Dragons is a delightful book about an improper princess who runs away and volunteers to be the captive of a dragon. (primarily because she's bored, but also to keep from having to marry a rather stupid prince) After she volunteers, she's with the dragons for several weeks before anything happens, and with them even longer before the main crisis hits.

Obviously the talented Ms. Wrede can't show us everything that happens to the princess, or every conversation that she has. So she uses short paragraphs to condense the time frame. For example:

Therandil left, but he came back again the next day, and the day after that. It got so that Cimorene could not even step outside the cave without running into him. She might have been flattered if it hadn't been so obvious that Theradil was only worried about how foolish he'd look if he went home without fighting the dragon. On his fifth visit, Cimorene was very sharp with him, and when he had not returned by midafternoon of the next day, she began to hope that he had finally left for good.

This is a very functional and useful paragraph. It gives us a sense of Theradil's persistence and character and sets up the next scene, where Cimorene discusses her knight problem with a new friend. It's not the best part of the book, by any means. But it's necessary.

Here was my epiphany: I don't have one time-condensed paragraph in the book I'm currently revising. Not one. (except for the prologue, which doesn't really count)

My heroine does almost nothing with her time except run around and try to solve a mystery. In fact, when I needed to speed the book along, I simply knocked her unconscious.

Now there is good conflict in the book. But there aren't many breathing spaces, someone is always talking or fighting or flirting or discovering bodies. And what I realized, is that this doesn't give you much of a sense of who my main character is, what she does on a daily basis, how her life goes beyond the current problems.

I find myself wondering if that hinders our ability to identify with her. And maybe it's something that keeps readers from being as invested in the book as a whole.

What I'm talking about is basically exposition. We usually don't notice it, and we're taught to avoid it whenever possible. But there are times when exposition is both useful and necessary.

Here is a rough example of the sort of paragraph that (maybe) should be in my book, and isn't.

The afternoon was spent at the House of Music, having dance lessons with Yasmeen. Nisha loved to dance, loved the rhythm and the flow of it. But she couldn't lose herself in the music this time. Instead she watched Yasmeen's thin form sway in the elegant Willow steps and wondered. Who hated these girls enough to kill them?

See? Still reasonably engaging, (I think) with a much better sense of what Nisha does with her day.

Perhaps I'm wrong. I could just be spouting heresy of the rankest kind. But I'm beginning to appreciate the beauty of well-placed exposition.

What do you think?


  1. I like breathing spaces like this, they do have a function for the reader as well, letting us process at a different level. I think done in a certain way, like yours, with an almost pause, a subliminal message comes through (she loves to dance, but isn't able to here) quietly moving things along. Maybe too we see less of the author's hand in passages like these, no?

  2. I do have these, but sometimes I've wondered if I should. Of course, now, with your post, I'll be keeping my eyes open for them :)

  3. When I was at Chautauqua last summer, there was a mini-rebellion against the "show-don't-tell" rule. The authors teaching workshops all agreed that both are necessary. Telling isn't the strongest way to write, but you really can't show everything.

    To paraphrase Patti Gauch:
    Show or tell, but for God's sake, don't do both at the same time.

  4. I appreciate exposition in small quantities. In fact I would have never known it was a bad thing if some teacher or book hadn't told me. Some of my favorite movies have exposition and some of my most beloved books. - rachel

  5. Joanne- I agree. And what really struck me wasn't so much that I hadn't written paragraphs like that, but that I didn't really know HOW. Something new for me to practice...

    PJ- I've started noticing them a lot in books, where they work and where they don't. At the very least it's interesting and educational! :-)

    Amy- LOL- that's a great quote. And I think it's funny you all had a mini-rebellion. I'm imagining you with a picket sign right now...

    Rachel- Good exposition is a wonderful thing. I think "telling" gets preached against so much because bad telling is a classic new-writer mistake. I of course, take everything to extremes. :-)

  6. I agree. I think that sometimes we writers can get too focused on the "rules." It's all about following the spirit of the rule, imo. Try to show the important moments, the anger, sorrow, love, but sometimes telling is a perfect way to have a breather, like you said.

  7. So true. I'm especially bad about that. i love rules, they tell me I'm doing things right. Except sometimes I'm not... :-)

  8. Remember- Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial ;)

  9. I agree. And your paragraph IS engaging and useful. It does give us a better sense of her. I don't think of such things as telling, per se. I think of them as skimming through things that don't need to be spelled out in scene.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Click on "Older Posts" for more random amusements!

Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.