When to TELL the Story

By Monthly Contributor, Shannon Donnelly

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” and there is value in that advice. If all you do is tell a story, how does the reader participate with his or her imagination? However, a book is not a movie. While a movie requires everything to be shown (or an often awkward voice over to be added if it’s not showing enough), a book has the luxury of being able to use narrative. And that’s where I usually get folks who are utterly confused.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It’s not often taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

There is no exact formula for what is enough telling.  However, readers always need to know:

* Where are we? (Place and world – the reader needs to be placed into the scene, otherwise it’s confusing to the reader. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help.)

* When are we? (What’s the era, the time of the year, the month, the day, the hour? We need everything that helps the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.)

*Who is here? (An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene, and for the story.)

* Why are we here? (This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough details to make a reader care. Think of it this way—too little and you starve the reader’s imagination; too much and the reader quickly fills up and drops the book down.)

All this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads, not dumped on the reader in big clumps. Or, to put it another way, feed the reader your telling—your narrative—with a teaspoon, not a soup bowl.

Good narrative does a lot of things for you:

*  It condenses information, which helps keep the pace of the story moving forward.

*  It weaves in backstory and plot exposition, so you don’t have to have huge info dumps.

*  It allows touches of your author voice to add atmosphere and mood to a story.

*  It allows you, the author, to set the scene for the reader, thereby setting expectations about the story—you’re basically setting up the reader to enjoy the story (and not have to work too hard).

Bad narrative also does a lot of things for you, but worst of all, poor narrative is awkward, verbose and  tends to make a reader put down the book.

So how do you know if your narrative—your story telling—is working?

Have someone else read the story—and just have them make an X on the page every time their attention starts to wander. That’s a place where the telling is probably getting to overload.

Look at the balance of action (showing) to telling—go through with a colored marker and make sure you’re not telling too much.

Use the story telling to move into and out of scenes (for transitions.) Within a scene, cut the telling and only show your characters in action. Only tell if you must to clarify action, intent, or motivations (and even then look for better ways to show this instead of tell).

Most of all, if it works, don’t fix it. But if it doesn’t work, time to get back to edits to make the story work for the reader.

Shannon Donnelly regularly teaches an online workshop on Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop. She’ll be giving this workshop again in June 2012 for Celtic Hearts Romance Writers. Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

Her latest Regency Historical Romance, Paths of Desire, can be found as an ebooks on Kindle, Nook and at Smashwords, along with her Regency romances. Shannon is a regular speaker at writing conferences, and will be speaking at the 2012 RWA  National conference in Anaheim. She gives online workshops and is the author of Story Telling; Story Showing, an ebook that compliments her popular online class Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop.

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25 Responses to When to TELL the Story

  1. Stacy Green says:

    Great review on showing and telling, and I love the checklist for telling. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Perhaps we can see it as X marks the spot we need to clean? The balance of good, strong narrative and weaving the story is part of what we must learn… lest we put our readers in a coma🙂

    • SD Writer says:

      I always tell folks to treat backstory like a strong spice — you want hints of it, and not just that one taste in your mouth. So sprinkle lightly (as in no more than three sentences at a time instead of three paragraphs).

  3. Ruby says:

    I love the tip of having a reader put an X on the part where their attention starts to wander. Great post!

  4. Pingback: When to TELL the Story | Story and Narrative | Scoop.it

  5. r.a.thrift says:

    Just finished reading Laurie Alberts’s “Showing & Telling: Learn How to Show & When to Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing,” a book emerging writers and professionals can learn from. She doesn’t dismiss “telling.” Instead, she invites the writer to bring a balance between the two according to genre. She also gives helpful insight as to the opening and closing scenes/chapters of one’s manuscript. One of my top “how-to” books.

  6. Sharla Rae says:

    A great reminder Shannon. You’re right we always hear NOT to tell but telling doesn have it’s place. I like your idea of marking the telling to determine if there’s too much.🙂

  7. I was so happy to get to take your class through OCC-RWA last year. Learning from you had been a dream of mine. I’m absolutely delighted that you’re blogging here at WITS once a month. Feels like a mini class. Thank-you.
    Fae Rowen

  8. Thank you for this post. It made a lot of sense to me, which sometimes doesn’t happen when I’m reading about craft.
    Patti

  9. Barbara DeLong says:

    Too much narrative ie backstory right up front is my downfall every time. I’ll do the marker thing and see where I am unbalanced. Great photo, Shannon!

    • SD Writer says:

      I think it’s always easier to add more backstory if you need it, rather than take it out. It’s also more fun if you make the reader wait, and wait, and wait for it. (And thanks — the photo was fun to take — the horses thought so, too, since they were getting pellets, their favorite food.)

  10. Yvette Carol says:

    Great post Shannon. I write for middle grade level chlldren, which I personally feel does require some telling here & there, and yet you are the first teacher I’ve heard advocate telling. So thank you for that! I will definitely be using your check list!
    Yvette Carol

  11. Jenny Hansen says:

    Shannon, I’ve learned so much about writing from you over the years, and I know it’s time to get myself back into your synopsis class. I wasn’t ready for it the last time. When are you teaching it again?

    • SD Writer says:

      Just finished up the Synopsis workshop, so I won’t be teaching it again until March 2013.
      LRWA 2013:
      Mar 1 thu 29 Shannon Donnelly Sexy Synopsis
      Oct 1 thru 29 Shannon Donnelly Storytelling

  12. marsharwest says:

    Shannon, I had to stop by and say hi. I took your Show Vs Tell 2-3 years ago. It was my first on-line class. I don’t remember who it was through. You were so helpful. I’m way better at this, I truly am, but just today my CP said, “You’re telling a lot in this scene. Does it really need to be here?” I was disappointed, because I’d decided the reader needed the info, but I didn’t think I needed to lay the whole thing out with dialouge. SO. Back to the drawing board. I’ll have to decide if the scene needs to be there and if so in what form. Loved your comments here, Shannon. I often recommend your class when I’m judging contests or the questions comes up in blogs. I also love the pic and that you’ll be here regularly. Good job, Char!

    • SD Writer says:

      I have a checklist for scenes to see if they’re doing enough. My guideline is that I want a scene doing at least three things, or it needs to be cut or beefed up — ideally, I want a scene doing at least five of the eight things. The things a scene can do include:
      – Advance the plot
      – Reveal character
      – Increase tension
      – Develop background (world build)
      – Add complications
      – Introduce a subplot
      – Reveal backstory
      – Increase Conflict
      See if your scene is doing enough. And thanks for recommending the class.🙂

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  16. Lady Ardour says:

    I really liked this article. Personally I find it hard to weave the narrative into the scenes as I tend to change my style between showing and telling. Any tips on how to improve on this?
    Thank you,
    Lady Ardour

    • Most editors will tell you that showing will draw the reader into your story and characters. Save narrative for short information that can easily (read seamlessly) be placed at strategic points. When in doubt, I show. It’s harder, but worth it.
      -Fae

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