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November 18, 2012

I had a writing group meeting last week, and this question (more or less) came up: How do I explain plot and setting information in my story so that it comes off naturally?

Here’s my take on it.

Show, Don’t Tell

Let’s start where everyone starts.

If you’ve never heard the term “show, don’t tell,” you’re not really a writer. It’s some of the most basic writing advice you can find. Okay, I suppose somehow, magically, you could be a writer and somehow have never heard that, though what sorcery allowed that, I have no idea.

If you want a really, really good example as why telling is not effective, read The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman. That is, if you’re willing to spend time reading something just to see how bad it is and what was done wrong. Would you like some boring sauce to go with those bland fries you ordered?

But enough of that. You’ve heard the arguments, you’ve read the examples, you’ve taken the classes. If you haven’t, Google “show, don’t tell.”

Example (Telling): Jehia wanted to visit the ceremony very badly. However, her clan, the Staggered Horse Clan, had been recently dishonored. They weren’t invited to the ceremony. That meant she’d have to sneak in.

Example (Showing): Jehia slipped into the crowd, praying that she blended in. A guard pushed passed her, and she instinctively pulled her cloak a little tighter. The symbolic mark of the horse on her neck was well hidden, but she was nervous, anyway. The dishonor inflicted on the Staggered Horse clan had not been her fault, and she was going to attend the ceremony, invited or not.

How to Tell

I assume you read a lot. If you do, you’ll notice that authors sometimes just tell you what’s going on. And sometimes, they pull it off pretty well.

So what does that mean? Does it mean that “show, don’t tell” is bad advice?

Of course not. It’s still good advice. But sometimes, showing can actually bog the reader down. Sometimes. In my opinion, you can usually find a way to show. But if you really, really want to tell instead, how do you do it?

  • Tell in character. Use your main character’s viewpoints and opinions to color your telling. Take, for example, the following quote from A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

Dany said nothing. Magister Illyrio was a dealer in spices, gemstones, dragonbone, and other, less savory things. He had friends in all of the Nine Free Cities, it was said, and even beyond, in Vaes Dothrak and the fabled lands beside the Jade Sea. It was also said that he’d never had a friend he wouldn’t cheerfully sell for the right prince. Dany listened to the talk in the streets, and she heard these things, but she knew better than to question her brother when he wove his webs of dream. His anger was a terrible thing when roused. Viserys called it “waking the dragon.”

  • Tell briefly. Don’t fill paragraph after paragraph with a lore dump. Keep the reader engaged.

When to Tell

So, I just said “Sometimes, telling is okay.” But when is it okay? Take this as a guideline.

If any of these things are true:

  • The piece of information you wish to convey could be discussed naturally in dialogue
  • The piece of information you wish to convey involves the emotional state or mental decision of one or more characters
  • The piece of information you wish to convey affects how a character behaves or is perceived
  • The piece of information you wish to convey has already been implied

then show, don’t tell.

Explaining in Dialogue

This is one of the easiest ways to portray plot or setting information. It’s also really easy to do badly. Fortunately, the error is a common one, and the fix is easy.

Error: Explain stuff in a big chunk of dialogue (one or more paragraphs of text.)

Fix: Explain stuff in a conversation with multiple characters engaged in speaking.

Example (Error): “I lied to you. I’m actually a member of the Red Guard. We’re warriors, and we fight for His Majesty, the Disgraced. I was sent here to spy on you. His Majesty, the Disgraced, knows who you really are. It was my job to trick you, to make you trust me, and then to lead you right into his trap. They plan on killing you. I lied about everything. I’m sorry.”

Example (Fix): “Because I’m not who you think I am,” he said quietly. “I’m a member of the Red Guard.”
She closed the book with a snap and stared at him. “The Red Guard? The murderers?”
“We’re just soldiers,” he said. His eyes were pleading. “Warriors for a cause, just like everyone else.”
“If you’re here, that means the Disgraced King knows who I am,” she said slowly. “You—you were sent to kill me. Everything you said was a lie.”
“Not to kill you, exactly,” he said. “But to lead you into a trap. Look, I’m sorry—”
She picked up the book and slammed it into his face as hard as she could, then bolted out the door, throwing the book to the floor behind her.

That’s kind of a cheesy example, but I’m tired, and I think you see what I mean.

It’s really tough to convey everything you need to and still keep things flowing smoothly. It seems like it shouldn’t be, but it is. But there are ways around it, if you just approach things from a slightly different angle. And when in doubt, you can always just pick up one of your favorite books and see how the author goes about it. Eventually, it’ll all start to make sense.


From → General Advice

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