Techniques for Telling
Telling is the technique of summarizing or plainly stating something. Examples include summaries of events (they fought), the physical state of an object or environment (the room was a mess), or the mental, emotional, or moral state of a character (she was happy). Telling is often dismissed as bad writing, but the reality is it’s an essential writing technique. Telling helps to maintain the focus of a story by conveying essential information using a minimum of words. The technique itself denotes a hierarchy. “What I’m telling you is necessary, but it’s not important.” Telling is a way of establishing that the focus of the story lies elsewhere.
Big Picture-Using Telling to Summarize Scenes
Life, and stories, often include long stretches of time where very little actually happens; the long road from one place to another, the everyday chores of cleaning or purchasing supplies, or a slow but steady process, like studying or training to learn something new. These are all important tasks, but their repetitive nature can make them rather boring for the audience.
Telling through summarization is an easy way of glossing over large amounts of information, distilling it down to the essential facts. For example, Ender’s Game is a story that focuses on tactics, strategy, and the protagonist’s inner struggles. The actual battles are a necessary background to explore these issues, but the details of the battles don’t matter, only the tactics used and the resulting outcome. The battles themselves are summarized, focusing on Ender’s few key orders, or in some cases simply establishing another victory for the gifted protagonist.
Small Picture-Using Telling as a Shortcut
There’s an old saying, “One cannot look at one thing without looking away from another.” In any scene there is also a focus. For example, when Harry first meets Hagrid (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), the focus is on Harry’s identity as a wizard, and his place in the magical world. They do touch upon Voldemort’s identity as a dark wizard, but only briefly. For much of the story Voldemort is simply labeled as “evil”. The story isn’t interested in why or how he was evil, only the necessary fact that he was evil, and how that relates to the focus of the story, Harry’s struggles with his own identity and place in the magical world.
Villains are one of the most common examples of “telling as a shortcut,” particularly within classic fantasy or fairy tales, where villains and heroes are easily recognized by their appearance and behavior. In Lord of the Rings, both the immediate villains of goblins and trolls and the larger villain of Sauron are evil because it is their nature. The story needs villains as part of its plot, but has no interest in exploring its villains as characters.
Zombies are another good example. Stories like World War Z and The Walking Dead need zombies to tell their story, but the story isn’t interested in why there are zombies in the world. They are simply a means to create the conflict that serves as a backdrop for the focus of the story, how characters respond to and deal with a world where zombies now exist.
Telling Your Audience
Telling is a direct and straightforward narrative technique. Audiences simply absorb the meaning of the text with a minimum of effort. This makes the story very easy to read, but it also leaves the audience un-engaged, passive, and eventually bored.
Remember, telling is a great way to cover the essentials, but it’s also a bit like a long car ride. Once in a while audiences want to get up and stretch their legs, and that means finding a good place to “show”. Audiences know that the big climactic “show” is coming, but they also need little ones along the way, to break up the long journey.
When & How to Show