The novel I'm writing is third-person limited POV in style. This means that the narration's coverage is limited to what the POV character can observe, think, feel, while others' thoughts, feelings, and out-of-sight actions are naturally not covered.

The dilemma is thus: Show don't tell as an adage is often trotted out as universally true, but of course, the occasional tell is necessary.

The reader in theory should be privy to the thoughts and motives of the POV character, and therefore there's always going to be enough information 'available' for the narration to theoretically say 'X felt sad'.

Of course, 'X felt sad' is an extreme example and I'd never consider using it, however, there are times and places where laying out certain feelings and motives could be useful, or the story would make no sense if they weren't laid out in a direct manner (for example, if I arbitrarily left out a POV character's logic for a certain plan just to artificially produce tension despite the fact the narration has the information, making it read like it's withholding information for the lulz).

My question is this: What general rules are there for a 'good' tell and 'bad' tell in limited third-person POVs? Are there any hard and fast rules? This is less a 'question that needs solving' as much as an opening of a discussion.

My ideas on the topic:

  • If the feelings are ones the POV character is running away from, it's more likely it'll be downplayed in the narration.
  • If you have to tell the audience a feeling, it could be you've insufficiently demonstrated it through a character's actions.
  • Telling emotions directly is more acceptable if the character's experiences at that moment are largely internal, that is, their actions or ability to express emotion are limited yet there's a maelstrom within their head.

What ideas do you guys have on this topic?

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    This style is called "Third Person Limited". See nownovel.com/blog/third-person-limited-examples – Amadeus Aug 8 at 11:57
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    No, I read a new question, spotted the error, and was going to post a correction regardless of who asked it. You're not special, I am looking for faults in everybody's thinking! That's one way I can help them become professionals, correcting their misconceptions. You are just over-sensitive to being corrected or told you are wrong, you are taking this too personally. A book is a machine that does a job, there are right ways to build it, and wrong ways. You can't expect to naturally know this without training and correction. That is what I am here to do, help people get better. – Amadeus Aug 8 at 12:18
  • Correcting a single piece of terminology is petty. A machine is built from certain parts, true, but does it matter if a part is called an 'axel' or a 'metal bar'? Not if you're building with it, what matters is where it goes and how it's used. But hey, you're right, maybe it isn't anything personal. Maybe you just really get a kick out of saying 'fewer, not less' (which yes, is an important rule, but it takes a special kind of person to care so deeply about minutia) – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 12:24
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    @MatthewDave, we can only help you if we have a common language and if you are willing to change something about what you are doing. You wouldn't ask if there wasn't some deficit in your understanding. On this site, edits & suggestions for change are encouraged. Amadeus, has embraced this spirit, but his brevity appears to have left an opening for your interpretation that he was being negative. He wasn't. And if you take a deep breath and step back I think you may find you may find your own attitude is on the aggressive, combative side. We're all friends. We all want to help. Chill, please. – Kirk Aug 8 at 14:22

This is written for a general audience. Some knowledge the askee demonstrated a fundamental understanding of will be re-explained for sake of novice writers.

You ask what level of telling is acceptable to reveal character motive, and what specific rules might exist for making such a decision. The high level answer is that a certain amount of telling is acceptable, so long as you're not breaking the fourth wall and your pacing benefits from it.

Why is this true? Let's look at how the fundamentals work and how that contributes to my answer.

What are the mechanics of Show vs Tell?

Telling

Telling usually uses some form of the is/are verb. It's explicit and direct. Most importantly, it is short. Telling is a form of information exchange compression. When you tell, you need less words to impart an idea and there is less wiggle room about what you mean, if you do it well.

Telling has weaknesses.

  • It does not immerse the reader in the POV because you do not get to see and experience the world as the POV would.
  • The words you use may not mean much to the reader on a visceral, feeling level. An emotionally charged word hacks the brain the of the reader, leading to greater empathy. Is/are statements rarely tickle this trigger.
  • It may break the reader out of the story, ie break the forth wall, by changing the tone of the story or depriving the reader of their own mental invention.
  • It misses a lot of detail, it is specific without giving worldly detail.
  • It tastes bland. All of the above is true, but further, emotion is the spice of writing. Telling ultimately lacks the emotional resonance, which can lead to a bland, disconnected "taste". All of the elements of a good story may be there, but they just don't merge.

Telling has strengths.

  • Storytelling is an oral tradition handed down from before writing. For eons it was the way we communicated knowledge, lessons, and any information that was going to live on past the life of the individual. We are built to receive a certain amount of it.
  • Sometimes, you want to say something quickly without dwelling on it.
  • Sometimes, you do not have the space to show and still achieve your affect. That is, if you take to long to say something the ideas will be spread out and lose their potency.
  • Sometimes, you have a word count you have to stay under. This is not the same as the last problem. In this case telling may be a necessary sacrifice. You may lose the emotional resonance in one place for the advantage of getting to your point sooner.

Use telling when you need compression, when immersion isn't necessary, or when you purposely want to distance the reader from the POV. If you look at a lot of transitional or scenery exposition, you'll find a bit more tell. Sometimes, if you're narrator is very strong they can get away with a stronger tell. And of course, any time your characters impart information to one another they will tell each other some things.

Showing

Showing involves avoiding the is/are verb explanation and instead describing characters via action. Instead of saying:

The dwarf was angry with the elf.

You say,

The dwarf ran his thumb along the notched blade of his ax. Blood dribbled from the tiny cut, but he did not break eye contact with the elf across the table from him.

And at the end of the last section we know where the dwarf's hands are, the positioning of several elements in the scene, and the level of anger the dwarf is feeling (enough that he is harming himself instead of leaping to action, perhaps there is a good reason he has not yet leaped forward?). A good tell let's the reader empathize with the POV character, but it takes up a lot more space.

Showing has Weaknesses

  • As has been said, showing is expansion. It can slow a story down if used improperly.
  • Showing works if it is consistent throughout the piece. It's very easy for prose to acquire shades of purple if you push to show too much.
  • A reader can get lost in the details, missing the forest for the trees.
  • Many shows are open to interpretation or don't quite say what was meant to be said, if you ramble too much or miss focus, your audience may think you mean something you did not.

Showing also has strengths:

  • Showing can allow a reader to feel emotions more readily than telling.
  • Showing lets a reader get closer to character POV and develop a bond.
  • Showing is immersive, masking the fourth wall.
  • Showing can impart more detail in the expression of an idea, allowing that idea time to saturate and color the world.
  • Showing tends to be less didactic. The expression of an idea in terms of is/are solves the problem and answers directly the question: What is going on? Depending on the space you write in you may say something is going on that the reader vehemently disagrees with. Showing takes the decision out of the writing and allows the reader to make it for themselves without being directly challenged. There's a lot of psychology going on in this, but a show is more effective than a tell at getting a reader to believe something they didn't believe previously. People value experience and personal knowledge over the expression of that knowledge/lesson from someone else. Therefor, providing an "experience" instead of a "lesson" in narrative form is a more effective form of persuasion, and avoids the fourth wall break of author intention bleeding in to the story and potentially breaking it.

So when can you tell?

  • When the thing you're saying is not particularly revelatory
  • When the thing you're saying should not take up space for pacing concerns
  • When the thing you're saying is not controversial
  • When action fails you
  • When you do not have the space for something longer

Ok, so when can I reveal character motivation with a tell?

  • When the motivation is apparent already, it's occasionally not worth showing it again.
  • When you're trying to distance the reader from the character's mental space, maybe you're trying to cause an emotional schism or you're trying to make the reader feel uneasy. A little emotional distance hacking may do the trick if used lightly on the right detail.
  • When the character is trying to explain how they feel, you can tell within their dialogue. Note that characters should rarely be trustworthy narrator, so you will have to earn the moment if they're able to describe how they feel perfectly and with understanding. Watch some movies and you'll find these scenes do exist and are often climaxes of character development.
  • Slightly different from above: When you're trying to highlight a lack of information on the part of the character. Telling the reader what the character knows when that doesn't match with the readers worldview may be more informative than having them do things that look stupid to the reader. This would reduce the controversy of the characters actions.
  • When the thing that is happening with the character isn't super important or delving into the thing would be repetitive for the audience.

The reality is that you will sprinkle a good amount of tells into any story. It's only natural. Character A sees Character B across the way; we already are well informed on their relationship, so saying they see each othen is enough at times when you've already explored the depths and have some important plot point to get to.

However, as you note, showing is far more effective at doing a lot of the things you want a story to do. And so, it's almost always right to ask "Is there a way I can show this?", and it's almost always the right question to start with if you're getting feedback that your audience isn't connecting.

TL;DR

Showing is more immersive, do it the most; tell when you've shown enough and you need to move on.


P.S. - Addressing All Writing is Telling

Others have noted you can't write without telling; and while this is an axiomatic truism; it's also tautological and perhaps not wholly useful for one trying to develop as a writer. What writers mean by "show don't tell" is to to tell with action instead of statement; but the realization that all of this is ultimately still telling is less useful than the intent of the lesson: Writing "action & perception" instead of statement leads to more enjoyable, effective prose.

  • Very in-depth, very clear. I liked your examples, and your demonstration of why things do and don't work was honestly a little inspiring. A shame I can't upvote twice, honestly. As for the Amadeus business, it's to do with a previous comment chain; I anticipated pettiness from my previous experiences with him and believed I got it. Your criticism of my posts don't read as a PhD trying to show how much smarter he is than the novices surrounding him, so I respect you by default (and being honest, you seem like a cool enough guy that my respect/disrespect of you means nothing to you) – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 14:49

Please understand that "third person limited" and its ilk are categories of analysis applied to works after the fact by those who find it entertaining to categorize everything. They are not rules that you are obliged to follow. You are not obliged to pick one box and stick to it.

Also note that the only means of showing in a novel is telling. In a movie, you can literally show things by filming them without commentary. But on the page, everything is told because everything is words. If show don't tell means anything on the page is means to show the reader A by telling them B. Thus you show them that the character is sad by telling them that tears are running down their cheeks. But telling -- telling that tears are running down their cheeks -- is the instrument by which showing is achieved.

But you can't do this for everything. It would get to be unbearably tedious. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a viewer can take in a picture, and all it tells, at a glance, but it takes quite a long time to read a thousand words. If you want someone to get something at a glance (because your pacing depends on it, or because it is a supporting detail for something else that your are trying to show) you can't spend a thousand words on it, you have to tell it directly. And this includes saying "X felt sad" when that is an incidental detail that leads to something else.

Telling has the virtue of economy. Showing has the virtue of engaging the reader in forming a conclusion for themselves. The economy of telling is essential to setting up the reader to see certain key things for themselves. Showing, on the other hand, creates an incident to which subsequent telling can refer to retrigger an emotional response economically. All teling is a reference to what has been seen or show in the past.

Showing and telling are not opposites; their relationship is iterative and supportive. You need both to write effectively. As there is a time to reap and a time to sow, so there is a time to tell and a time to show, and the only means of showing is to tell.

  • While I slightly disagree with your definition of telling (which I reserve for direct statements, meaning the 'tears running down their cheeks' line to me counts as 'showing'), I like this discussion on the concept of 'show, don't tell'. You didn't apply it much to POV modes, but it's refreshing to see a person deconstructing such a popular adage. – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 12:19
  • @MatthewDave My point is that "tears running down their cheeks" achieves the effect of showing by the device of telling. This strikes me as the key thing you have to understand about show vs tell as applied to prose. They are not opposites. They are complementary. Words cannot show as pictures can. Words can only tell, and therefore we show by telling. – Mark Baker Aug 8 at 12:40
  • Yeah; it's closer to a spectrum of explicitness rather than a clear-cut 'one or the other'. Ultimately prose is by definition always telling us something. – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 12:42

The difference between showing and telling, as it applies to story writing, is whether you create a scene that conveys information, or whether you state the information explicitly. So instead of arguing that everything is telling, let us talk about the decision of whether to show a visual or scene, or whether to state the information explicitly.

The problem with stating the information explicitly is this: It gives the reader something to memorize. For example, "John is brave." If you never show a scene in which John is brave, then presumably you told us this so we would remember it later. You have asked us to memorize something. Which is fine, but if you ask us to memorize more than about seven things, the average reader will lose track and forget, we just can't remember that many disconnected facts. "John is brave. He is tall. He loves dogs." and on and on; after another ten things about John, we don't remember most of it. It is too much to memorize.

That said, if it isn't important for the reader to remember a piece of information for more than a few paragraphs, then telling can be appropriate.

If it is important, then what we (humans) can remember for a longer term (even permanently) is experiences. That is the point of both short visuals and scenes, to simulate an experience.

If we witness John being brave in a scene, intentionally risking his life or injury or punishment for some purpose, then we will remember that scene and the author never has to tell us John is brave, we saw it. It was shown. We can say the same about John being tall, or loving dogs, or being in love. Visuals and scenes have impact. Explicit "telling" has very little impact, especially with vague words like "sad" or "happy".

So whether to tell or show depends on how important the information is, how the story is paced at the moment (if you can show a scene or visual), and just how difficult it would be to show instead of tell; it can be quite difficult to show some feelings accurately.

To me the rule is to never impart information explicitly if it matters for more than a page or two. If it is a part of the character that drives them or the plot, make a scene to demonstrate it. If John is good with dogs, or engines, or magic, or knows how to fly a helicopter, and that has an impact on the story later: Make a scene to convey it. Don't just say it and expect the reader to remember it five chapters later.

The same goes for an event; if events have significant consequences later in the story, put them in a scene. Not just "John fought and killed Alex," then a hundred pages later some character shows up and says "I am Alex's father!"

The reader will have forgotten Alex, and think Who's Alex, again?

We create scenes for the reader's experience; some just have entertainment value, others are there to aid the reader's memory so future scenes will have context necessary for entertainment value.

Within scenes, we state information explicitly (we "tell") that doesn't need to be recalled outside the scene. It is the reader's imagination of these character interactions, assisted by our prose, that makes the whole scene memorable.

  • I like this part: 'Within scenes, we state information explicitly (we "tell") that doesn't need to be recalled outside the scene. It is the reader's imagination of these character interactions, assisted by our prose, that makes the whole scene memorable.' - this is a very insightful note on when telling is truly justified. I too believe that major character traits, what truly sticks, shouldn't be told. I think children's books are the one case where I can see it being justified otherwise, but let's face it, children's books are an odd beast. – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 12:56

What general rules are there for a 'good' tell and 'bad' tell...?

Just write your story. In your first draft, tell when it feels natural to tell and show when it feels natural to show.

Then in a later draft you'll reread it, paying attention to the rhythm of the piece, and change tells to shows and vice versa. Then in your next draft you'll do the same, then in revision, then etc, etc. The rhythm will tell you what should be what.

There are no hard and fast rules in any aspect of fiction writing but if you want to stay in the "pure" third person limited narrative write about what the character sees, and what they interpret from it. For example "Sarah couldn't quite hide the way her [something observable changed] at the prospect, she looked both sad and scared about what we were going to have to do." It's still a tell, but a small one and purely from within the limited POV of the main character.

In real life, we observe other people outwardly, and infer motivations, emotions, mindstates and so forth, either correctly or incorrectly. I'm not any kind of a stickler for "show, don't tell," but if you want to stick to it, that's how you do it. Just figure out what external signs there will be from the internal state, and describe those.

  • Interesting. I'm not a hyper-stickler for show don't tell myself; I believe it's useful, but not universal. What makes you disagree/lukewarm on the idea, out of curiosity? – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 14:56
  • I tend to think it's largely a newer rule, that came out of screenplay writing and got absorbed into the world of novels. Movies are a visual medium, so you almost always want to show, not tell there. But many great older novels do use telling very effectively. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Really, to be technically accurate, you're always only ever "telling" in books, unless there are illustrations. – Chris Sunami Aug 8 at 15:03
  • 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' isn't a 'tell' in the novel-writing sense, however. By saying 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times', Dickens isn't making a blunt statement. He's saying 'this is the present, when everyone will say it's both the best of times and the worst of times' (as further confirmed by the full paragraph's content). There's a lot more commentary on how people perceive things in general, and tbh the meaning is a lot richer than any simple 'telling' would be. But yes, on a technical level, being a novel, it is a 'tell' of sorts. – Matthew Dave Aug 8 at 15:07
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    There are also internal physical signs of someone's emotional state - a shiver down the spine, a fast beating heart, a lump in the throat (and many more). You could also describe those - to give a more privileged insight into the characters emotions, still without explicitly telling what they feel. (commenting because I don't think this makes an answer in itself, but could be a way of expanding on yours) – Ben Aug 8 at 22:44

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