Friday, December 23, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: When You Might Need to “Tell”

I’ve been talking about the difference between showing and telling, and made a strong case (I hope) for showing. However, every rule has its exception. For younger readers, you may need to define emotions more, as they may not have enough world experience to always recognize what it means when someone crosses her arms or raises her eyebrows. You can still use specific language and the five senses, but consider your readers age before you get too creative with the showing details. In some cases, you may want to reinforce the showing with a clearly defined emotion.

You may also need to use “telling” adjectives or adverbs when you’re dealing with unexpected reactions. Here’s an example from my novel, The Well of Sacrifice, where the main character is describing her sister:

 “Feather was beautiful even as a child. She had reddish brown skin, smooth and glossy like wet clay. Her dark, slanting eyes were crossed, and her high forehead was flattened back in a straight line from her long nose.”

American children today probably don’t know that the Maya thought crossed eyes and a high, flattened forehead was beautiful. If I had just described Feather, young readers might have thought she was ugly, and the main character’s jealousy wouldn’t make sense. Using that “telling” word beautiful shows the different standards of the ninth-century Maya.

I heard author Richard Peck speak at a conference. In his novel Representing Super Doll, a character is described simply as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Pretty vague. You don’t know her hair color, eye color, height or weight, or even what race she is. And that was his intent. He wanted the reader to imagine his or her own version of the most beautiful girl in the world. The description isn’t specific, but it does exactly what the author wants.

You can also sometimes use “telling” adjectives to show your character’s feelings. Here’s an example in the third person, from the point of view of a girl named Alice, describing her father’s new girlfriend. “She wasn’t as pretty as Alice’s mother. She wore old jeans and a sweatshirt, and her dull brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was thin and talked too loud. Alice’s mother was soft and gentle and elegant.”

There is a lot of telling in there, but it shows us Alice’s opinion. A savvy reader will understand that the girlfriend may or may not be as pretty as Alice’s mother—but Alice doesn’t like her.

Remember, these are exceptions to the rule, not an excuse to ignore the rule. In general, putting effort into showing rather than telling will improve your voice.


  1. I agree sometimes telling is a good idea - or maybe a mix of showing and telling, but that usually showing will be best.

  2. Thanks, Patsy.

    The Blog has a post from MG and YA fantasy Danyelle Leafty on Show and Tell:

    A quote:

    "The key point to remember when showing is that the amount of time you spend showing something or someone is going to determine the importance of the object, event, or character the reader. A rule of thumb for me is that if I'm going to show something, it's got to matter to the story."