It's Okay to Tell—Sometimes
"How do I fix it?" Mike Brewer once asked when he pointed to a narrative paragraph in his article. He had worked hard at writing a scene to "show not tell" and had learned to do it well.***
In writing, the most important principle we teach, preach, urge, implore, and beg is: "Show it." Because he had a short section of telling, Mike assumed he had committed a literary sin. (He hadn't). Mike had learned to show and progressed to lesson two: It's all right to tell. In fact, good writing flows between showing and telling.
When do we tell? I can think of five situations.
1. We use telling statements to make value judgments. Maybe an example will help. I've just read an article in Presbyterians Today that was clear, succinct, and helpful.
Read that last sentence again. That's an example of telling. I laid out for readers how Cec Murphey responded to a particular article. That is, I told readers how to think by citing three positive qualities. I made a simple declarative statement, but I wrote it as an indisputable (and unproven) fact. That defines telling—thinking for readers. At times, that's acceptable and occasionally necessary.
2. Telling sums up information so we can move a story or article forward. Telling speeds up the pace when we don't want to add another ten paragraphs. For instance I'm throwing us into the middle of a conversation between Reba and her husband Jerry. He insists she needs to buy a new winter coat.
"This one is good for another year," she said.
"Nobody wears those shapeless, beltless coats anymore. And the color—"
"But I like oracle purple."
"Oceanside blue is the in-color this year."
"But, we can't afford it. We owe—"
"You need a new coat, and I want you to look good when we go to all those holiday events."
They argue about the purchase of a coat. If done right, and without the writer ever saying so, readers become aware that the argument isn't about buying a coat, but about the way each perceives money: Jerry's a spendthrift; Reba's frugal. After three pages of dialogue as well as show-don't-tell writing, we realize Jerry is the overpowering personality.
Now what? Do we need another three paragraphs to show that Reba buys a coat? Probably not. Let's say that's not crucial to the story. So how do we end it? Here's a simple remedy through a telling statement:
Exhausted from the third argument that week, Reba went to Macy's and bought herself a belted oceanside blue coat.
That's called a summary statement.
3. We tell when we need to include a number of vital, yet minor events that aren't particularly dramatic. The purpose of those scenes is to bring readers up to the present without interfering with the pace.
Suppose Kathleen Bostrom flies to Europe to seek the proper setting for her new book. We need to let readers know she went to three different places and the fourth place is where the action picks up. A simple paragraph can bridge the time from her leaving the United States to the moment of action.
Within six hours of the Concorde's landing, Kathy had reached the Normandy Coast. After a fruitless day, she left for Zurich where she spent two days. Her Euro-rail pass took her to Paris and then to Brussels.
We need that paragraph of information to authenticate Kathy's travels, but since nothing dramatic happens until she reaches Brussels, we can leave out three minor scenes.
4. Telling statements give readers a brief explanation. If our story moves along, and we introduce an unfamiliar element to readers, we interject a one- or two-sentence explanation and move on.
I once wrote a children's novel called Happy Face, that took place in colonial Kenya, East Africa. Part of my purpose was to show the importance for missionaries to learn about the culture. In this scene, Cora, the wife of a rookie missionary, entertains Oko, an African boy.
"Would you like tea, Oko?"
He shakes his head. The white woman has violated tribal custom. If she asks, it means she does not wish to share.
"I make it with nutmeg," Cora says as she stirs her milk-and-spice tea. "You're sure you don't want some?"
Oko shakes his head again and watches. The aroma of the tea fills the kitchen. Oko looks away. He cannot tell her he likes the smell of nutmeg better than anything except cinnamon.
In the middle of that scene, I injected two sentences of pure telling (underlined above). I could have used dialogue. My purpose was not to have Oko correct Cora, but to explain to readers—using narrative statements—that the missionary had acted like an ignorant foreigner in an African culture. (As the book progresses, Cora does learn.)
5. We insert telling statements to break down long speeches. Why punish readers by making them read through paragraphs of dialogue that diminish the drama?
Besides, long speeches flatten the writing, because we have set aside the story or article's impact too long.
To illustrate how to break up a lengthy passage, let's say Jack Purdy, who has just won an upset victory for nomination for mayor, makes his speech before an outdoor audience.
"You have chosen me to represent you. You have empowered me to speak for those who have no power! I am ready to make our singular voice heard!"
For seventeen minutes, Jack held the crowd's attention. He outlined his plan to "roust the fat cats," get rid of porno bookstores, declare war on drugs, and bring integrity back to city hall.
"And if you elect me as mayor," he concluded as he raised his right hand, "you have my solemn word that I will give all my energy to this task."
In writing that scene, I could have cut the lengthy message in several ways. Supporters could have cried out, "That's right! or "Right on!" Perhaps even had a few hecklers boo. Jack's eyes could have surveyed the crowd. I could have pointed to the darkening clouds overhead.
Instead, I chose to insert the telling statement that says he spoke for seventeen minutes. Then I summarized his message and kept the momentum going.
No matter how long we write, we can't learn too much about showing. Yet we also need to grasp that all good writing contains both showing and telling. Once we know how to show and we're scared to make narrative statements, then we're probably ready to tell properly.
Yep, it's okay to tell—sometimes.
Cecil (“Cec”) Murphey has written, co-written, or ghostwritten more than 90 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His Gifted Hands
, the autobiography of Dr. Ben Carson, has now sold nearly two million copies since its publication in 1990. He ghosted Franklin Graham’s autobiography, Rebel With a Cause
, which won an ECPA Gold Medallion. Reader’s Digest magazine condensed I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City
(Kensington) and Disney has optioned it for film as “The Mighty Bishops.” Kinetic Pictures has optioned 90 Minutes in Heaven
, written for Don Piper(Revell). His recent books include When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer's
(Beacon Hill) and Committed but Flawed: Finding New Ways to Grow Spiritually
(AMG). You can learn more about Cec at his website located at: www.cecilmurphey.com.
© 2004 Cecil Murphey. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.