Show is better than tell, but that is not the whole of the story. What are some tried and tested ways of conveying a lot of knowledge, understanding or information - not necessarily technical - in a fairly short period of time in a novel? For example, one might have a character who likes to explain a lot, or there might be effective ways to convey knowledge or information while at the same time depicting action.

The knowledge need not have been learnt by a character or the narrator through being formally taught, even by himself. He may have learnt it through acute observation and detailed consideration and analysis, perhaps over a period of several years, perhaps without talking about it much or even at all. This would include life lessons learnt through meditation about experience. I am trying to keep this question general, but particular examples might include

  • the social geography of high streets and the factors that have determined the architecture and the range and positioning of different kinds of shops

  • skills that have been learnt largely in practice, with only a fairly small amount of formal teaching, such as the skills of salesmanship or advanced deception

  • highly honed skills of charming people

  • a solid and detailed framework for understanding certain types of social interaction or social environment that the character or narrator has conquered by himself.

Rather than just showing that a character or the narrator has this knowledge or set of skills, and how he uses them - that's if he actually does - how might we convey the knowledge to the reader fast?

  • 1
    Hi, and welcome to Writers. Search for the term "Cabbagehead" on this site and you'll find a lot of useful answers. Aug 27, 2016 at 12:30

5 Answers 5


One way that you can use that is by creating a scene where the teachings have been used - in action. You could have the main character (MC) reminisce to the teacher's teachings as he tries to resolve the problem.

For e.g. If your teacher is a bomb disposal expert, the MC could walk into a mall where a bomb has been planted. As he tries to defuse the bomb. he would think about (flashback to) what his teacher has taught him, what to do and what not do.

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    Thanks for this. (I would upvote but haven't got enough points.) I think I have misled you by using the words "teach" and "information", or at least by not glossing them. I will amend the question.
    – user21247
    Aug 27, 2016 at 12:24

No, I don’t think there is really one.

Lots of Information, “teaching” = Technical Writing.

In fiction the "teacher"character quickly becomes contrived and pedantic. The reader will become bored and drop the story.

Though you can illustrate some of the teachings through the character’s direct experience. I think this Q is linked to technical subjects - non-fiction vs fiction

  • Thanks for this, and for the link to the other question, to which the first answer in particular is indeed interesting and helpful. But unlike its asker I didn't necessarily mean technical knowledge, or knowledge that a character or the narrator has learnt through being formally taught, even by himself. He may have learnt the knowledge through detailed consideration and analysis, perhaps over a period of several years, perhaps without talking about it much or even at all. This would include life lessons learnt through meditation upon experience. (I would upvote but haven't got enough points.)
    – user21247
    Aug 27, 2016 at 12:22

One thing I tend to do in my writing is consider the options.

  • Flashbacks (/flashforwards) are a good way to show how someone learns it if the Main Character is already an expert when your story starts. In gaming one would call this in Medias Res (in the middle of things), where you flash forward to a scene where mechanics can be explained in context or just before the ever popular 'anmesia' sets in.
  • If your MC is a student, why not portray a class where the teacher is explaining it, but your MC is daydreaming, more focused on the class clown getting in trouble, staring at their crush (or pointedly not staring at them). This gives you the chance to both give the boring information to the reader, and offers a great chance for characterization in one fell swoop.
  • What if your MC is the teacher? Have them droning to a class, protégé, small group of students, or what have you. Why not intersperse the droning with mental rants? Same as the last point, but different point of view.

The trick isn't to see what options are available (though it's important to know). The trick is to see what fits your character, scene, and narrative best.

Hope this helps ^_^


Consider writing a literary novel, a meditative novel of ideas, not a novel that you assume the reader will stop reading if he doesn't get action scene after action scene, interspersed with occasional scenes in which the narrative tension builds towards action. Or consider writing a novel in an experimental form.

One work that comes to mind, that perhaps you may usefully study if you're not already familiar with it, is Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Critics disagree about whether it's a novel! If I were Pirsig, I probably wouldn't care: it sold five million copies!

  • I like this answer. Certainly if I were doing throughout a novel something similar to what I describe in the first and fourth examples, then it would become a novel of ideas, and they're unusual nowadays.
    – user21247
    Aug 28, 2016 at 13:08

Have other characters know he has those skills and rely on that knowledge and skill.

"Bob where's Al setting up his three card monte today?"

"Hm... It's Tuesday. If he didn't get hassled, he's out in front of DeMarco's. Old Man DeMarco visits his sister on Tuesdays and Eddie has a soft spot for Al."

Or just wish that they could.

"If Frank was here he'd just do his charm thing and talk his way past the guard."

"But he isn't, so you're going to have to hit him."

Compare themselves

"I can pick the lock, but I'm no Angela. It'll take me at least five minutes."

It has to be something that is scene and story relevant rather than just something contrived, but in most stories there are people around the character who knows his strengths and weaknesses and might have reason to mention them under the right conditions.

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