When to Tell

Sometimes, I write these posts because I’ve just read another brilliant post on Kidlit.com and don’t want to enter a comment that’s 400 words long. This is one of those times.

In today’s post, Mary talks about Telling versus Interiority. Specifically, she addresses when it’s okay to tell in a story. As she mentions, this is a very difficult thing to master and I think it’s especially difficult in third-person limited where you (the author) have the oppotunity to tell at any moment. For first-person however, I think the rules are a bit easier. Why? Because the concept of “telling” shouldn’t really exist in first-person. If we’re in the main character’s head, they should never tell us (the reader) anything because we don’t exist. Ever.

Does this mean the main character is are allowed to tell themselves something instead? No. Generally speaking, people don’t need to tell themselves how they’re feeling because, um, well they already know.  Unfortunately, writers need to find ways to let the reader into these feelings which means finding ways to communicate the already known without pulling the reader out and yelling YOU ARE NOT ME, YOU ARE THE READER!

So how do you do this? Depending on the situation, you choose one of four ways:

1) You show (sorry!) how the main character is feeling by giving them obvious thoughts or physiological reactions. For example, if the main character runs into her ex-boyfriend, she can say she feels like punching him in the face and we’ll interpret that as anger. You could also say she immediately clenches her fists when she sees him but I’d caution against doing this because it’s walking away from what the main character is actually thinking which is I want to punch him in the face and not I want to clench my fists. Having said that, there are times when a character does not acknowledge their own feelings and those are the times where you can and should use this kind of removed showing.

2) You get the main character to question their feelings. For example, it doesn’t make sense for the main character to tell themselves that they’re feeling angry (since they already know!) but they can think something like, “I haven’t seen him in six months. Why do I still feel so angry?” Or even better, “Why do I still feel like punching him in the face?”

3) You convey the main character’s feelings as a reaction to another character’s actions. For example, “The way Jane chewed her gum made me want to punch her in the face.” Again, this is showing the anger more than telling it. 

4) You get another character to acknowledge or question the main character’s feelings. For example, the main character might be staring off at the ex-boyfriend and her best friend might walk up and say, “Jane, why do you look like you want to rip his head off?”

Clear as mud?

Category: On Writing