Style,  Writing

How to Tell Effectively in Fiction

Showing and Telling Made Easy: episode three

Effective telling? But I’ve been told “show, don’t tell”—now you’re telling me I have to tell effectively? I’m so confused!

how to tell effectively

Don’t be, dear reader. The first two episodes in this six-part blog series, Showing and Telling Made Easy, will give you the grounding you need to wrap your head around ‘telling effectively’.

So far, we’ve covered 3 Reasons to Show Before You Tell and 5 Tools that Show and Tell in Fiction. Check them out if you haven’t already.

So what do I mean by effective telling?

Well, there are times when it’s acceptable, even necessary, to tell rather than show in fiction. But there’s telling that will put your readers to sleep—and then there’s effective telling.

In 5 Tools that Show and Tell in Fiction, we discussed how thought, description and exposition are the tools writers use that mostly tell. We can’t—and shouldn’t—avoid using these tools, but unless we get creative with how we employ them, we can be in danger of losing the interest of our readers.

So, let’s take a look at the three telling tools in more detail and learn how to tell effectively …

How to tell effectively using thought

A character’s thoughts—direct thoughts or inner monologue—take the reader out of the story and put them in the head of the character.

For this reason, it’s important to be concise and to the point when using this writing tool or you risk permanently disengaging the reader from your story.

Below is a passage from the opening scene of my work in progress—a finalist in the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2019 Ripping Start competition (read the full excerpt here). The character’s thoughts are in bold and I’ve indicated the tools used so you can see how it’s balanced. 

Beth flipped open Mary’s will and scanned the document [action], indifferent to her inheritance [description]. She’d give it all up in a heartbeat if it meant she’d have the chance to know Mary [thought].

A string of words on the third page caught her eye [action].

Staring back at her, in bold capitalised letters, was her name [description]. She froze, shock holding her captive [description].

Mary had known about her when she was alive? [thought]

Frantic, Beth flicked back to the front page of the document [action]. It was dated eleven years ago [description].

The room spun [description]. She grabbed the edge of the counter and dropped to her haunches, anchoring herself to the earth [action]. At the very least, her aunt had known about her for as long as she’d been in the nursing home [thought]. The realisation was like a knife to the gut [description].

What does this show us?

In the excerpt above, Beth’s first thought is that she’d give up her inheritance if it meant she could have known her aunt. This tells us Beth values family above money. Her second and third thoughts each give us an insight into her backstory. Although Beth never knew about her aunt, her aunt had known about her for some time. This has the added benefit of piquing the reader’s interest, and hopefully, they’ll keep reading to get answers to their questions.

Most importantly, note how each thought in the excerpt above is presented concisely and has been interspersed with action and description. In this way, Beth’s thoughts work effectively to show the reader what is important to her. They give an insight into her backstory without it being overpowering or yawn-inducing.

Try this strategy …

If you find yourself writing long passages of thought into your manuscript, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Identify where the passage of thought begins and ends.
  2. Highlight the most crucial points in the passage of thought—those that are most relevant and crucial for your reader to know at that point in the story.
  3. Now take those highlighted points—the summary of your character’s thoughts—and intersperse them with other narrative modes to bring balance to the passage as in the example above.
  4. You should find you’ve edited the passage to make your character’s thoughts more concise and to the point, and you’ll have a better chance at maintaining your reader’s interest.

How to tell effectively using description

Description allows us to immerse our readers in the story—it’s where we share details about our characters, the setting, and the objects that exist in the world we’ve created. However, as writers, our imaginations often run away with us, leading to over-description or descriptive passages that run on too long. As well as this, in an effort to always show and not tell, we can unwittingly present our reader with a carefully crafted cliché.

This is where we can get creative with our telling, making it a more effective narrative tool than showing.

Let’s take a look at the following example:

She felt scared.

Plain telling = BORING!

(Word count: 3)

She froze. Heart pounding, she pulled in a ragged breath and turned to flee.

Showing = BETTER THAN PLAIN TELLING, BUT, POUNDING HEART + RAGGED BREATH = CLICHÉ?

(Word count: 18)

how to tell effectively

“Fear ran it’s teeth along her back like a zipper.”

Creative telling = WE HAVE A WINNER!

(Word count: 10)

Our third example is from Natasha Lester’s The Paris Seamstress and is creative telling at it’s best. It’s concise, engaging and completely unique; it also manages to avoid clichés and relates back to the theme of the story. When you need to move your story forward quickly or you’re trying to avoid an action that’s considered cliché, try some creative telling.

How to tell effectively using exposition

Exposition is made up of transition—moving forward in time or to another location, essentially from one scene to the next; and backstory—everything that occurred in your character’s life before your story begins.

Transitions are essential. A novel that takes place with events presented one after another with no breaks in time or change of location would mean the reader would witness every minute detail of the character’s life.

Keep each transition to a minimum and get on with telling your story. It’s as simple as that.

Backstory, on the other hand, is a little more complex and deserves its very own post. Join me for episode four of Showing and Telling Made EasyHow to Handle Backstory in Fiction.

Further reading: Helping Writers Become Authors | 5 Ways to Write Character Thoughts Worth More Than a Penny

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Thanks for reading,

Libby M Iriks is the commissioning editor of romance at Vulpine Press and offers freelance fiction editing services at Perfect Pear Editing and Proofreading. Libby is also an author of contemporary small-town romance where the chemistry sizzles and love is forever. Learn more about her writing at libbymiriks.com.

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