“Show, don’t tell! Everyone knows that.” Does that advice sound familiar? It can be useful, but not always. Sometimes, it’s acceptable to just tell your reader things. In fact, it can even be better in the right situation.
Imagine your character needs to go from point A (the charred village) to point B (the dragon’s lair). They need to travel seventeen miles to get there. Your reader doesn’t need to experience every breath, every footfall, everything else that happens along the way.
Does your protagonist get interrupted by bandits? Show that for sure. Otherwise, a bit of narrative summary will go a long way. (About seventeen miles in this case.) The journey was uneventful. P. R. Otagonist had plenty of time to dwell on the coming battle, but it was still too soon when they arrived. Job done!
There’s a big difference between this sort of thing and info-dumping. This is where a writer gives large sections of backstory in an attempt to fill the reader in, and is usually best avoided. Here’s a rundown of every ruler of this country during the last 1,000 years would be a good example. It’s a problem because it slows the pace to a crawl, and takes the reader away from what’s happening to the character(s).
How much telling can you get away with? If there’s an exact amount, no one knows what it is, and it probably changes regularly anyway. A good rule of thumb is to tell sparingly, and intersperse plenty of actions. More than a paragraph in one go, especially on a regular basis, can slow things down too much. Making the writing serve the plot is essential as well. I’ve tried to demonstrate this with the following passage. I cover a number of days in the space of a paragraph, and then move on.
It took three days to plan his death. I would move to the window at four when his carriage pulled up, assess the mansion and scribble notes. Ivy, climbable. Few servants visible and only two guards at a time, mostly bored and undisciplined. My target never showed his face, but at seven each evening I saw a silhouette in an upper room, a seated figure with arms rising and falling. When I risked opening the window, I heard the faint sounds of a piano.
As dusk fell on the fourth day, I retrieved Sarah’s knife from the drawer.
“I love you,” I murmured, kissing the blade in place of her dead lips. Doubt swirled like the dust motes around me, but I tucked the weapon in my jacket pocket and slipped from the hotel.
How did I do? Did the writing hold your attention, or did being told things still bore you senseless? Email me or comment below!