Sometimes, you have to tell

We’ve all heard the expression, Show, Don’t Tell.  If you’re new to writing or have been living under a rock, this means that you should show a character’s actions and emotions, rather than tell them. For example, this is telling:

Bob looked embarrassed.

And this is showing:

Bob’s cheeks went red as he cast his glance on his dusty shoes.

The problem with this rule is that, sometimes, you have to break it. For example, if you’re writing in first person, you can’t say:

My face went red.

Why? Because unless you have a mirror, you have no idea that your face is red. You can know it feels hot, but you can’t know it’s red.

Having said that, sometimes, you can’t just show a character’s emotions in first person. Why? Because when you’re in someone’s head, you have to think like them and they would not think, “Wow, my face feels hot,” unless they are daft and don’t know what embarrassment feels like. They would think, “Holy crap. This is more embarrassing than the time I walked into the glass window pane of a nice restaurant in Hawaii.” Not that I’ve ever done that. Well, not since the 80’s…

So how do you know when to show and when to tell? Put yourself in the character’s shoes. Pretend whatever is happening just happened to you. For example, you’re out for a nice dinner with a friend. You walk up to the front of a restaurant, which looks like it’s completely open. But as you cross the threshold of the entrance, your face smashes into the glass. Every single person stares at you, except for your best friend who has fallen on the sidewalk in a fit of laughter.

What is the first thing that goes through you mind?

a) Man, my face looks red.
b) Man, my face feels hot.
c) How quickly can I get to the airport?

For me, it was C. Or, it would have been if I had ever walked into the window pane of a restaurant in Hawaii. Which I haven’t. Recently.

Category: On Writing