Tell, Don’t Show


The first rule of writing is show, don’t tell. But let’s face it, if we showed everything, our novels would run tens of thousands of pages, and readers would die of exhaustion. So what do we do? We must decide what information the reader needs. Just because we know everything about our characters and just because we spent weeks researching, it isn’t necessary to share everything we know with our reader. We must choose only the details we need to authenticate our story and omit everything else.

NARRATIVE is telling the reader what happens. This is useful when acting out the story (by dialogue and action) does nothing to further our understanding of the characters or plot.

For example, does the reader really need to see every action during a meal, or would the scene work just as well if used narrative. “We ate dinner in silence, the way we always did. The only sound was the scraping of utensils across the plate.”

EXPOSITION is explaining why something happened or giving the reader background information. There are a number of ways to use exposition in our writing. A writer can use direct exposition through the thoughts of the main character. Or the writer might choose to use indirect exposition. To do this, we use items like a purse or a handkerchief to indirectly tell the reader the gender of a person.

One of the most difficult and most crucial elements in story-telling is knowing when to give play-by-play action and when to back off and summarize. Beginning writers often try to cram the background information of a story into the opening pages of the work rather than allowing the story to come out naturally. Evaluate each scene to determine whether these tools can make it better. If a scene doesn’t hold your interest, maybe it’s better to summarize it in a sentence or two and go on to something more important.

In a pivotal scene that is critical to our understanding of how the character reacts in a given situation, be especially careful of which techniques you use. Give us action, give us dialogue, and let us experience and savor every single moment of it.

Play around with narrative and exposition. Find ways to speed up the pace of your writing by using them, but keep in mind that both techniques have the potential to bog down your writing, to slow the pace, and to bore the reader. You must continue to be creative and utilize your character’s voice through narrative and exposition. For help with this or any other technique, hire one of our editors.

For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.

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