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I know we need to show and not tell, but is it still okay to sometimes tell instead of having to show it? For example, I wanna let the reader know that humans in my story are actually the same species as another race, but they just evolved under different conditions and that's why they look so different and people think they are two different races when they are in fact both kinda the same species.

This is an important fact I want the reader to find out, but I don't want to give the reader this information as part of a dialog between two characters because this is something that very few people know. Obviously, this information is not something I can just "show" the reader (unless I have the characters find an evolution chart of humans in their world or something), so is it okay if I simply mention it in a paragraph as part of the non-dialog text?

  • It's easy to show. The definition of a species is that members of the species can have offspring together that can reproduce. If you have an individual who's parents are from both races and that individual can a child themselves. – Christian Feb 15 '18 at 7:17
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The problem with telling is not that telling things straight is bad, sometimes it is awesome. The problem is that if you feel that the reader needs to know something to understand the story but there is not a good way to "show" it, one of those beliefs is usually wrong and you need to stop and think about it.

Option A

You might be wrong about the readers needing to know about it. This is generally fairly harmless. People reading world building heavy genres generally enjoy getting some extra info. Only worry is what to embed as short asides in the story and what to put in an appendix or a web page.

Anything you embed within the story should be short and somehow on topic to where you put it. If it takes the reader out of the story and breaks immersion, well, that is, I believe, why "show not tell" is such a common advice.

Anything people need to actually stop to think about or that takes lots of text to explain properly should probably be an appendix at the end. It pads the word count and readers do not usually mind. If they finished the book and made it to the appendix they presumably are interested in what you created.

Option B

You might be wrong about the showing being hard and this is actually a bigger problem. If it is important to the story, it should also be important to the characters within the story in roughly the same time and proportion. If it seems otherwise, it is possible you are missing something fairly important about the story you are writing.

This is the other part of why "show not tell" is good advice. Trying to figure out how to show things you consider important is a valid method to "debug" your storytelling and find out what you might be missing.

Just remember that option A is real and fairly common if any world building is involved. Good world building requires that you love the setting and its details to some extent. This means that you are inherently biased when deciding if it needs to be in the story.

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You have to understand what show vs tell means in the context of prose. In a movie, you can show something by pointing the camera at it. In prose, all you have is words and all you can do with words is tell things.

Showing in a prose context therefore means telling us one thing which leads us to see another. So rather than telling us directly that:

John was nervous.

You tell us things that John is doing that lead us to conclude that John is nervous:

John chewed his fingernails and looked at the floor.

You are still telling us these things about John. But you are doing it to make us conclude for ourselves that John is nervous. This is an effective technique in many cases because that is how we normally figure our when someone is nervous, so when we see if for ourselves, we believe it.

On the other hand this kind of showing takes more words and sometimes the thing you want to get across is more complex or less obvious from behavior. Thus if the idea you want to get across is:

John was nervous about his mother's friend's cousin's appendectomy.

It is going to be quite difficult to get that idea across merely by telling us how John is behaving.

So, while you can definitely get some ideas across by telling us about other things, like a character's behavior, in prose you are always telling something and there are times where it is either cumbersome or impractical to get the idea across indirectly.

World building facts are very likely to fall into this category. You may be thinking about weaving the worldbuilding into the narrative, which is often a good idea, but that is not the same thing as show vs tell.

  • Thanks :) I may have phrased my question wrong. I thought people wouldn't understand and would just start explaining to me that I need to show it, not explain it. I basically just wanted to know if delivering worldbuilding facts as part of a narrative was okay when there was really no better alternative. – Klara Raškaj Feb 14 '18 at 21:20
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    @KlaraRaškaj The common rule on this is pretty simple: deliver as much of that as the story needs when the story needs it. The reader is not going to care until it makes a difference to the story. But note that the first stage of a story is "the normal world". Thus Tolkien opened by telling us about the Shire, but all the other world building stuff came later when it mattered. – user16226 Feb 14 '18 at 21:29
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If your narrator knows about it and regularly tells the reader things that no character can possibly know it's fine

If you are using a narrator that doesn't know more about the characters it would be very weird if he suddenly knew something that "very few people know", assuming that your main character or main characters do not belong to this group of rare individuals.

If he on the other hand tells the reader regularly about stuff that the characteres couldn't possibly know then adding a little worldbuilding into the narration is perfectly fine. Maybe your narrator can use this to accentuate something that is currently happening in the story. For example if the characters are talking about something racist or differences between the species your narrator could tell the reader that these differences are not as big as people nowadays believe, as both species have been the same just a few thousand years ago or something similar.

If he could theoretically know more, but never uses this knowledge, except for this one instance, it would be weird again. You probably shouldn't make it the single exception. If you decide that using the narrator is the only option to tell this important fact, and you are sure that this fact is so important that you need to tell it somehow, you should make sure that telling fits the style of your narrator.

If you can't simply use the narrator you should evaluate if you really have thought of all possibilities to show

For example you could have characters from both species talk about old rituals and religions. Both parties could mention creation-myths that sound quite similar, like the dwarves in the mountains talking about 'em old big masons from ye sea and the humans talking about the great seafarer that first settled the lands. This is of course overly simplified.

You could have them slowly build up instances where such legends, myths, religions, documents and fairytales sum up to show the reader that both sides originally were one and the same.

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    The moral of this story is don't choose a narrator, or a narrative style, that does not let you naturally tell the things you need to tell in your story. Choose a narrative style that best suits the story you want to tell. – user16226 Feb 14 '18 at 21:37
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I think that depends on the nature of your narrator. If it is third person limited (the narrator only described the thoughts and feelings of one character, and the story is told by following that character), then I think you break the reader's expectations by knowing something that character does not.

In third-person omniscient, it should be fine, the narrator knows everything, including things the characters do not.

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Well first I would question giving readers information that no character knows. This creates dramatic irony, and while it has its uses is very frustrating to the reader who instead of feeling like he figured something out just sits there and waits for characters to discover what they already know. This seems like a setup for a Greek tragedy.

What this really feels like is a worldbuilding question. You want to convey a part of your worldbuilding, but not through regular dialog. There are a few ways this is traditionally done.

A showing prologue. This would be an introductory of a few pages to a story. These would be in a different tone than the rest of the work. In these pages the reader would quickly be caught up on the history. This approach is frowned on a lot in modern literature.

A cut to other characters. Does anyone know? Maybe you could cut to some scholars sitting in a library discussing the intelligent species of the world. Game of Thrones does this in the beginning and end of every book.

Scripture or prophesy. At some point have some ancient documents read into the narrative. It may not say the facts that you need clearly, but it does it in some way. The Wheel of Time series mentions the Prophesy of the Dragon every now and then.

A narrator that's a character. If the narrator has a real personality they can then explain things. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does this. The narrator is a whimsical fella and he tells jokes and sometimes explains this. This to me works poorly in anything meant to be serious.

Otherwise... just include it in dialog.

  • I like these ideas. On solution I've tried (not sure if it is effective) is to have a character in pain, and tries to distract himself with old school lessons. Like running through times tables, or the order of the presidents, that sort of thing, to keep his mind off his injury. It still needs to be a light touch, readers can smell this stuff a mile away. OP said some characters do know, so it would have to be those characters. – DPT Feb 14 '18 at 21:51
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    @DPT if the protagonists knows it's easy. Any little detail in the world can remind them of the fact that you mean to share. As simple in this case as "Bob and Jen looked so different ti was sometimes hard to remember they are the same species" – Andrey Feb 14 '18 at 22:20
  • Spot on! I've used that for some details. Other details, such as, for example, the astrophysics of the built 'solar' system, don't lend themselves to casual conversation! Ha, LOL, but recalling a school lesson may be a solution, and I've used that as described above. – DPT Feb 14 '18 at 22:52
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There are definitely places to tell instead of show when world-building

In a book I wrote recently, I have long sections describing the political climate of the galaxy. These parts are important for the story to work, and using them in dialogue or some other way would be cumbersome. If it works better as telling instead of showing, then telling is the better way to go. Say, for example, you want to talk about politics within a certain nation. Getting your character to talk about it might not work since they may not be prone to political discussion or they may not know much of the nation themselves.

This is quite common in science fiction and fantasy. Almost any epic work of either genre has these long section of world-building.

You do want to keep your reader in mind. If your book is a thriller, you don't want to slow it down with lengthy world-building. Also, make sure, as the cliché goes, "that every word earns their pace on the page."

This does not excuse you from showing during more intense and personal scenes.

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In worldbuilding, telling almost always directly translates to: Info Dump.

Example. "Welcome to Vannaa, where humans are no longer the dominant species. In their place are vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, and a host of species and races that live so long that they call humans "blinkers"--if you blink, they've probably already died."

However. If you take a sassy character who's picking on a human in this world, and they say just that, you aren't info dumping, you are using worldbuilding data to show this character as a bit of a jerk, schoolyard bully, and probably not human. You are making dialogue work harder, in this way.

You can also get away with a lot of otherwise info-dump-y stuff if you frame it in a inner monologue--as in, making a character who would think about this stuff think about it. Think historians, think propaganda piece writers, think pro-slavery advocates (come on, enslaving them is bad? by the time I blink they're dead! it's not my fault decent law-abiding citizens are willing to pay good money for these things!)

One thing I did, and got away with as far as I can tell, is have a medical professional categorize the traits of an unconscious patient, showing just how she thinks (two mammary glands on the chest, hinting at 1-2 offspring per pregnancy), showing how the character looks without 'telling' it's an anthropomorphic rabbit, and stating that there's a reason she can't just look at her patient and tell it's a member of this race (because there are 400+ other races that look just like this one, meaning she can only say species).

If you are careful, and make your scenes work to not head to the cutting board (or chopping board), you can get away with a lot.

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