In a narrative I'm writing, the characters have to plan an escape from a facility. The thing is, they'll be doing the actual escape in the chapter following them planning. I know usually the right way to go is to show, not tell. But, if I show the characters' planning processes during the hours they spend planning, won't it be redundant when the characters act out the plan in the following chapter?

I should mention that there are 7 main characters and they'd be planning throughout a dialogue that's supposed to be hours long. In a previous plan the characters made, I'd just said:

"So, I had an idea for escaping," I begin, factoring Zuke and Kinnie not coming into the plan before I explain it. As I present my idea, the group seems to listen intently. After, they offer a few suggestions and add a few things. We spend the whole day, taking a break while the guards come in for meals, planning. Even though Kinnie and Zuke aren't escaping, they still had a big part. By the time the guards herd us back to our rooms, we were ready to put our plan into action the next group confinement day.

And, I used the following chapter to show the readers what the plan was, not tell them.

In the section I'm writing now, I already showed the protagonists thought process while she was figuring out what needed to be done, but all of the main characters will be planning how they're going to do it together. Example:

Even if we did disable the cameras, there are definitely LE's patrolling on foot. I haven't seen any yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't in other corridors, or guarding the doors to other rooms in the building waiting to pounce at the first sign of trouble. I'm not sure my friends and I can handle another one on one confrontation with an LE.

And then, there's the whole ordeal of locating an exit. Who knows how many corridors will have to go through to find one. And, how do we tell the difference between an exit and a regular door if the exits are pass-code protected, too?

Additionally, if we do somehow get out of here, where could we go that the LEs won't be able to bring us back here?

So, I had a plan, well the beginnings of it, and now it just seems overly optimistic and impractical. The others helped a lot with the last plan we made, that I had come up with the idea for, but all that did was lead us here. Maybe Kinnie's right, maybe this is impossible.

So, I showed the protagonist planning without revealing what exactly they're going to do.


4 Answers 4


That's why the tropes Unspoken Plan Guarantee and Impossible Mission Collapse exist.

When you first describe a plan in detail and then describe its flawless execution in detail, the latter is just a retelling of the first, which is boring and redundant.

It is often more interesting to have the elaborate plan fail early in some way, which challenges the characters to turn the failure into a success through clever improvisation. This means you get to tell two exciting stories in one: the escape story as it was planned and the actual escape story how it happened.

But when your story requires that everything goes according to plan (for example, because you want to show off the planning skills of your characters), decide what's more interesting to describe, the planning or the execution. Then describe one and skip over the other.

Most stories focus on the execution, revealing the elaborate planning as it goes (often using non-linear storytelling which jumps back and forth between planning and execution). But when you want to focus on the planning instead, you can simply have one chapter where the escape is planned and then start the next chapter after the execution with the characters talking about how everything worked exactly as planned (but this should better not be the end of your story because it is rather anti-climatic).

  • 2
    Exactly. In a movie when we hear the characters explain how something is going to happen you know that's not what's going to really happen. Jul 18, 2016 at 10:40

Philipp provides a good answer, but I think there is more to say.

First, "show don't tell" has kind of become the touchstone of all advice about storytelling but it is good to remember that it originated as a piece of advice for novelists moving to writing screenplays. What is told in a novel must be shown in a movie.

In fact, novels do have to do a fair amount of telling. It is, after all, storytelling. Dramatizing everything -- which tends to mean casting everything into dialogue and action -- can be extremely tedious and false. In particular it leads to a great deal of false dialogue as characters explain things to each other that they already know.

This sort of things can work on shows like CSI because while the characters, who are all trained CSIs would know that the others were doing and how the tests work, the audience does not, and the forensics are part of the business of the show. But most of the time this falls flat and feels false.

So we do, in fact, have to tell from time to time. It is the privilege of the novelist to address the audience in a way that other media cannot, provided only that we actually do it reasonably well. And of course, there are definitely times in which a scene should be dramatized. Show don't tell can be very sound advice in particular passages without it having to the the universal rule of all writing.

Secondly, both the plan and its execution are merely the mechanics of plot. They exist to build the elements of story: to establish character, setting, conflict, tone, theme, etc. From a purely mechanical point of view, showing the planning and then the successful execution of a plan would be redundant. But both can be vehicles for character development and conflict. The story arc can thus progress through both the planning and the execution. It would be appropriate to treat them both in detail if the story arc progressed through them both.

  • Great Point! You can use the backdrop of the execution of a flawless plan (which you provided in detail in the chapter before) to focus on character development/dialogue. The characters could be thinking/discussing something else while executing the plan, something about relations/backstabbing/what they will do when they get out. It can also be a good backdrop for romance.
    – Falco
    Jul 18, 2016 at 12:47

The pertinent question here is: what is it you're trying to show?

In other words, you need to first understand what the focus and purpose of the planning scene is. Only then do you know what to show, and therefore how to do it.

A few simple examples:

  • If the purpose of the scene is to set up a brilliant plan which later fails dramatically, then you obviously want to show the details of the plan - build it up so that later you can knock it down.
  • If the purpose is to demonstrate how dangerous the plan is, and how high the stakes are, then what you want to show is the threats and challenges.

    Nobody had ever gotten past the electric octopi. They had the most incredible reach - a single one could stop a fully-armed team of eight, catch each and every one of them in a tentacle and fry them all into underwater fritters.

    With nine people, probably one person could get past one octopus.

    But there were only four of us. And there were a full four of them.

    Fortunately, Emma had a plan.

    Focus on what they're trying to overcome, gloss over how they intend to do it.

  • If the purpose is to demonstrate how clever and ingenious the characters are, then you don't need to show what they're planning; you need to show how they plan it.

    I'm gonna need a few things. The guards wear security bands to control their ins and outs. I need one. That dude there. I need his prosthetic leg. And see that black panel? There's a quarnex battery behind it. Purplish box. Green wires. To get into that watch tower, I definitely need it.`

    Show them being brilliant, or roguish, or zany, or ruthless. By picking one small corner of the planning, you can demonstrate that trait in action, (showin, not telling!), without giving away the specifics of the plan.

  • Likewise, if the purpose of the scene is to establish character dynamics, you show those dynamics playing out while doing the planning, rather than going over the plan in detail.

    One character crushing on another and trying to keep them out of the dangerous part? A shady character that nobody's sure if they can really trust? An obsessive leader who's invested far more than healthy?

    They all work the same way: you give a hint as to what's being planned; enough to give you material to work with but not enough to spoil the fun. And over that hint, you can have the characters act over-protectively or suspiciously or obsessively or whatever else you like.

...and so on. A scene can have pretty much any focus you come up with; I hope these examples make clear how to work with your particular choice.

A single scene can have multiple points of focus (maybe you're showing that the team's really smart and that the leader's obsessive). That's fine; you just show all of them.

If you feel like you don't have any focus, then good focuses that work in most situations are:

  • Building tension.
  • Showing off character.
  • Establishing group dynamics.
  • Setting the current mood of the story.

Hope this helps, and all the best!


I would start by "showing" what the guards are up to in the eyes of one of the plotters...then connect this vision to the eyes of another plotter who sees the same thing...thus "showing" without telling (they simply see the same thing as a pattern which implies a weakness and possible escape.)

To build the suspense then have the plotters discover a "code" where they can speak without being heard...simple diagrams using a stick with some rocks...trips to the Library to get material, etc. So the guards keep the same routine...but your plotters have discovered a "gap" of some sort.

I also would employ a "ruse"...something that surprises the reader as the plotters initiation of said plan goes undiscussed to the reader until it happens (some type of diversion like a fight in a cell or some planned event that becomes a distraction like a music show or something)

Once the plan is executed upon there is no going back so that would be the ultimate focus of "show not tell"...the story can go however you want it to from there...you're the author.

  • I'm not sure this exactly answers my question, but thanks. Jul 18, 2016 at 13:20

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