In my style of writing, I often find that I lapse into relating what happens or has happened, usually via short, choppy, dead sentences. As far as I can tell, this is because the scene I am writing cannot be shown - or at least would need to be greatly revised before it could be. My method for fixing this is to simply skip the scene in question, and fast forward to the point where I can begin showing, rather than telling.

Note: This does not mean I believe telling is an inherent no-no. See the first comment to what's answer.

Here is an example, from what I am currently writing:

The main protagonist is currently a prisoner. After relating the terrible conditions of the dungeon (which was done through showing, not telling), there is a chapter break. In the next chapter, a guard enters the dungeon and starts ordering everyone up. The protagonist gets in the way, and the guard knocks her out.

Here's the break. While the protagonist is out, the guard gets everyone out of the cell and lines them up for inspection by an individual. None of that is related. The protagonist wakes up during the inspection, at the first point things can be shown again. How she got there is eventually revealed a paragraph or two later, by the guard simply stating that they are being inspected. That's all the reader really needs to know.

This method generally works just fine. I find that the reader doesn't really need to know everything that would have happened in the 'telling' scene, and I can relate the bare minimums in the 'showing' scene, usually through dialogue or action.

Here's my question: Is this a good method, or a bad method? Out of necessity, I can't relate what has transpired right away, and often wait several paragraphs before doing so. Will not knowing what has happened confuse/frustrate a reader? Or will it simply build suspense, and so add to the scene?

  • It's Your Mileage May Vary to some extent, but I like the technique. As long as your readers understand what happened, I think it's a good idea to "tell" as little as you can get away with. Mar 13, 2015 at 18:08
  • I think this is a great technique. only tell the reader backstory things (and I mean tat term broadly, including events that happened a few moments ago) as they become relevant. don't let anything get in the way of the story itself.
    – levininja
    Jul 1, 2022 at 20:44

3 Answers 3


I think that some people have an unhealthy obsession with this show-don't-tell thing. Show don't tell is one possible specific style, it is not a God given commandment or one of the basic laws of physics.

Most current bestsellers are full of telling, and they read (and sell) well nonetheless.

I for one am completely happy with a writer telling me that her character "feels sad", and although I've been quoting Chuck Palahniuk's advice to avoid thought verbs to everyone who wanted advice on how to show don't tell, I've never read any of his books because his writing style simply does not appeal to me.

  • I definitely don't adhere to it religiously or anything, but I do see why it is useful. To take your example, saying 'she is sad,' will definitely get the point across. Saying how she is said (aka, showing) makes the reader draw the conclusion, instead of you telling him what to think. It's just a matter of power in words. Showing has more, at least IMO. Mar 13, 2015 at 22:13
  • That being said, you may wish to deliver your power on a different line, in which case you don't necessarily need to show her being sad. Mar 13, 2015 at 22:17

Unless something possibly interesting happened while she was KO'd, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Maybe instead of being told there's an inspection, she could wake up during it, and she can learn of it at the same time as the reader.

Alternatively, maybe just avoid the whole issue by only having the blow stun her? She could be dragged, dazed to the inspection.


What does the Character Think?

In the example of prisoners being searched, you probably don't need any real explanation. The character wonders "What's going on?" and then figures it out when the guards start rifling through pockets. ("Guess they got a tip that Jonny had cigarettes.")

The guard doesn't need to break character to tell the reader - the character figures it out because they see a search going on and they know something about being a prisoner. The character's thought process is interesting, because it can reveal things about the character, whereas having the guard conveniently explain everything feels false.

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