Tell Don’t Show

Tell Don’t Show
Terry Odell

Something we’ve all heard since we took writing seriously was “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s been called the “Golden Rule” of writing. Showing gets readers involved with the characters. Showing connects readers to the characters. Readers will experience things along with the characters instead of just watching. All that is true enough, but as with any rule, there are exceptions.

Showing everything can be exhausting for the reader.

I was reading Michael Connelly’s Desert Star. I think the man’s earned enough kudos over the years to be considered someone we can learn from. Although I prefer reading a deeper point of view, Connelly’s an exceptional storyteller, and I don’t mind stepping back. He still draws me into the story. And you know what? He’s not afraid to TELL his readers stuff.

Michael Connelly

Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Mark Coggins

While showing might create a connection, there are times when you don’t need to show things. Times when your shouldn’t show things. As Lee Child (and probably others) said, “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.” Telling is a way to get through the slow parts. The parts where there are things the reader ought to know, but not in the same way as the action parts of the story.


Harry Bosch is looking at a cold case file. This is how Connelly writes it:

The crime scene photographer had been thorough and had taken dozens of “environmental” shots depicting the victim’s entire home—inside and out—at the time of the murder. These included shots of the contents of closets and cabinets and drawers and of photos framed and hung on the walls. All of this allowed the case investigators ready access to the entire environment of the killing location. It also allowed them to better understand the victim by seeing how she had set up her home. It gave them an idea of the things that were important to her in life.

Did we need to see every picture? See Bosch’s visceral reaction to each of them? Experience what it feels like to turn pages in a binder? How much would it add to the story? Probably very little. But now, when we see the term environmental shots later in the book, we’ll know exactly what the term means.

It’s tough to “tell” well in a close POV, because you’re deep in the head of the character, experiencing everything as though there’s a movie camera embedded in his brain. Getting information across to readers when you’ve got characters on the page who already know the terminology, or how something works, ends up being “As You Know, Bob” speech. I’ve worked my way around it by bringing in a naïve character if possible, so she can ask questions and my in-the-know characters can answer them. There’s also no rule that you can’t step back from deep POV a little when it’s necessary for pacing.

Here’s a way Connelly dealt with the issue. Ballard is bringing Bosch up to speed.

“… Back then, the ODs were leaning on the theater director, a guy named Harmon Harris, because they heard he and Wilson had an affair a year before her death. They thought maybe there was bad blood between them. Harris denied the affair and they dropped it when he offered up Beecher as an alibi.”

She knew that Bosch would know that OD was cold case lingo for original detective.

OK, so we get a quick peek into her thoughts, and we readers now know what OD means and Connelly can use the term whenever he needs to.

And another, this from Echo Park:

“I have no idea, Olivas. What?”

“Your fifty-ones from Gesto.”

He was referring to the Investigative Chronology, a master listing kept by date and time of all aspects of a case, ranging from an accounting of detectives’ time and movement to notations on routine phone calls and messages to media inquiries and tips from citizens. Usually, these were handwritten with all manner of shorthand and abbreviations employed as they were updated each day, sometimes hourly. Then, when a page became full, it was typed up on a form called a 52, which would be complete and legible when and if the case ever moved into the courts, and lawyers, judges and juries needed to review the investigative files. The original handwritten pages were then discarded.

Harry would think of this in far less time than it took me to type it, but readers can accept that the simple reference to the “fifty-ones” would send his mind to what they were. Readers have the information, and it’s presented a lot more efficiently than using “show.”

Throughout his books, Connelly gives readers a lot of information about how the police department works, and he manages to keep readers—at least this reader—willing to accept that Harry Bosch is thinking these things, be it the history of the Parker Center in LA, where the chief’s office is, or how the desks are arranged in the homicide department. And that, to me, is the skill. Get the exposition in there without the reader feeling like you’re stopping the story to tell.

What about you, TKZers? Showing? Telling? How do you balance them? Do you even notice, or can you keep things seamless?

Any authors who do telling well?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now in digital, paperback, and audio
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

26 thoughts on “Tell Don’t Show

  1. Showing only; deep third person pov, alternating scenes among three main characters.

    No narrator. NO telling, unless I work very hard to make it plausible for it to occur at that precise moment.

    More suitable for my kind of fiction; I learned some of it from Travis McGee – even if he’s first person, there’s always a reason when he tells you (or another character) something that makes it necessary to bring the exposition up in the present.

    Telling CAN save time – but I think it’s at the loss of immediacy. And I want that closeness.

    Bosch doesn’t need the reader to have more than a sense of fair play – he’s a professional, and it is assumed he follows most of the rules or bears the consequences. The story is only partly about him – and there’s a bigger outer reason that it’s being told. In one sense, it could be almost any competent detective with an ex-wife and a teenager.

    Whereas the characters I’m writing are going through a period of MAJOR change in both their lives and their attitudes – and I want the reader to LIVE those three lives, and not just read about them. It matters. Lives depend on it.

    Different kinds of fiction require different paradigms.

    I’m looking forward to whatever Connelly is planning for Bosch now that he’s not an officer of the law any more; the TV show has been mostly very good.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, every story has its own needs. I’m curious as to how much more we’ll see of Harry in print after finishing Desert Star.

  2. The beauty of telling is that it’s much faster than showing. Unless there’s some important point in a narrative sequence that absolutely must be shown, it’s often better to just tell it. Sometimes you can tell an incident in a fraction of the space it would take to show it. I’ve heard many long passages like this recited:

    Mike hung up the phone, locked the office, and took the elevator downstairs. He waved at Morris, the concierge, crossed the lobby and walked out on the street to where his black Ford V-8 was parked. He unlocked the door, got in and, after a few tries, started it up. After waiting for the traffic to let up, he pulled away from the curb, made a tire-squealing U-turn, and headed downtown on Wilshire until he saw Spero’s antique store. He parked and went inside.

    I call showing this detailed activity “stage management.” It’s just moving stuff of little importance around, and can be told in a fraction of the space:

    Mike hung up the phone.
    # [timespace]
    The bell above the door of “Spero’s Antiques” tinkled as Mike walked in…

  3. Sol Stein used the terms “immediate scene” and “narrative summary.” The key to the latter, in my view, is to render it in the voice of the viewpoint character. That way it doesn’t seem as if the author is the one doing the telling.

    A couple of authors who do that well are John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard.

    • Exactly, and that’s why Connelly’s ‘telling’ never bothered me. I can see Harry’s mind flashing through the information on the page.

  4. When writing deep POV, I always refer back to how we function in real life, which might seem just showing but is much more complicated. Yes, we experience everything immediately, but there are certain times we tune out of, or never think back on. Those are telling times. And I drop in a line of explanation whenever we naturally spend more than a millisecond thinking about an object. Sure, we might not think of grandma when sitting on a couch, but we would be thinking, I love this couch, super comfy.

  5. Great post,Terry! Show “versus” Tell is a balance, to my mind, and one that depends in part upon genre. POV can also make a difference.

    Part of my learning curve with writing a cozy mystery was learning how telling is used in that genre. Some of it is to rapidly establish the emotion or observation the hero has for a setting, another character etc. Another is to speed the narrative along. The narrative distance, if a cozy is in third person, is often more pulled back, at least for much of the narrative, then the “deep third” in other mystery genres and thrillers.

    However, at certain key moments, such as the confrontation with the murderer, the narrative can full on into dramatic showing. Joanna Fluke is a master of this in her Hanna Swenson series. No surprise, since Fluke used to write thrillers and YA horror/suspense under other pen names. The same can go for other key moments in the narrative, like a romantic moment.

    Thanks for writing about a key point of writing craft.

  6. Good distinction, Terry. I’ve edited stories where a newer writer took showing too much to heart and described every bite of a meal in excruciating detail.

    Elmore Leonard says leave out the parts readers skip. When I start skimming, I look for ways to tighten those parts.

    As you say, a naive character works great to allow explanations w/o slowing the pace. In my latest thriller, there’s deep fake and AI jargon that the reader needs to understand but it can’t be boring textbook passages. The male lead’s son, who’s gotten into trouble with deep fakes, shows his brilliant father how the technology works. At the same time, he’s rubbing it in that for once the kid knows more than Dad.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I’ve been stuck with “everyone should know that” scenes. In one, I had the cop tell his partner to “impress a superior” with his knowledge of ViCAP. They all knew what it was, how it worked, but that bit let me share the information with the readers without having to break away to ‘tell’ it.

  7. Good morning, Terry, and thanks for pointing out that there are always exceptions to the “rules”. I like your method of having a naive character enter into dialogue so the author doesn’t have to explain.

    My WIP is in first person except for a couple of flashback chapters in third. I find first person is easier to deal with since everything goes through the main character’s head.

    • Thanks, Kay (and you can see one of my workarounds in my reply to Debbie above). POV can help or hinder depending on the situation–and the author’s skill.

  8. Great post, Terry. I agree with you that pacing and genre are significant factors in how the telling is handled. I like your description of how it can be worked into the voice (internal monologue) of the view point character. Good points!

  9. This is great, Terry. And I do struggle, being a relatively new author amongst y’all, with showing and telling.

    Hmm . . . kinda reminds me of grade school Show and Tell, where we had to stand up with a picture or an object, then tell about it. I remember the best ones being the kiddos who didn’t just talk about the object, but used it. There’s a lesson there, I think.

    Right now, I’m working my way through our own Mr. Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series. IMHO, he balances showing and telling well. As an author, I’m learning a lot; and as a reader, I’m enjoying the series immensely.


    • We’re here to serve, Deb. And I’ll bet you’re reading in a different way now that you’re an author. It takes a highly skilled author to turn off my internal editor!
      Glad you found the post helpful.

  10. Thank you for blowing the whistle on a key piece of conventional wisdom. Knowing how and when to capsulize info on the way to the next scene that needs to be presented in detail is crucial. Your examples from Connelly illustrate how it’s done. Although I write crime fiction, I don’t focus of police procedures. I prefer the civilian perspective, i.e., the amateur sleuth approach.

    • My Mapleton series has a chief of police as protagonist, but he’s had a girlfriend, now wife, to step in when I need a character to help get information to the reader. I wonder what would happen if she started explaining cooking (she runs a diner) to him.

  11. It’s an important topic, Terry, and one that needed to be explored here.

    A simple example of telling is: Two hours later. Or: Later that night… The writer doesn’t need to show every minute of every day. A lot depends on the genre, I think. I never intrude. Either my MCs think about what happened or they drop enough hints that the reader can pick up on the events they missed in earlier books in the series. I also have two POV characters (some books had three), so what one misses, the other fills in the blanks.

  12. One of the hardest things for me to do was to write “…by Friday, he had ….” I was with my characters 24/7. I loved them, shouldn’t my readers? But I’m getting better. My romantic suspense books have 2 POV characters (a genre ‘convention’) and my first Mapleton had 3, the second had 2, and now Gordon’s going it alone.

  13. Excellent post. One of my writing weaknesses, I recently learned, was over-showing. Many of my scenes were boring simply because I dramatized everything, whether it was a fight between characters or simply one character pouring a drink. I rolled out the showing red carpet, if you will. Recent heavy reading of short stories provided may great examples of effectively telling.

    • Ah, thanks for bringing up the short story format, Philip. Definitely no time to do nothing but show. Telling is very important there.

  14. Terry, what a great example you found in Michael Connelly — it’s hard to think of anyone who does a better “telling” job than he does!

    And I like your point about how we don’t necessarily NEED deep point of view to enjoy his stories; there’s always enough going to keep them entertaining regardless of how much time we’re spending in the character’s heart and soul. 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Laurie. I remember going to my first (and only) Thrillerfest and doing the craft workshops, one of which was with Mr. Connelly. He walked into the room (a double meeting room), which was packed, and looked surprised and said, “I thought there would be maybe 8 people here and we’d talk writing.”
      My thought? EIGHT people? You’re Michael effing Connelly. So there were a whole lot more than 8 but we did talk writing.

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