6 Cheats to “Tell” Well (When It’s Warranted)

From Writers Helping Writers:

Most of us are familiar with the “Show, don’t Tell” rule. In short, it’s more effective to dramatize the story than to simply tell what happened. Nonetheless, almost every story needs at least some telling. It can help keep the pacing tight, relay background information, and enhance tone, among other things. Here’s more on when breaking the rule can work. So how do we tell well? Here are six cheats to help you.

1. Appeal to the Senses

Good showing appeals to the senses. Basically, we have to appeal to the senses to really show a story. There is no reason moments of telling can’t appeal to the senses in a similar way. Appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can strengthen your telling just as it does with showing. It’s just that with telling, it’s usually brief, or relayed “in passing.” This example appeals to senses despite it being a telling summary:

We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick strangled tongues . . . At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. – This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

2. Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes

Some telling doesn’t lend itself to the senses very easily, because of the subject matter that needs to be told. In cases like that, you can try tying in a concrete comparison to suggest a sense. This example tells about a telepathic and emotional connection using comparisons:

At night awake in bed, he’d remember her presence. How their minds had been connected, ethereal like spider webs. How just her being there brought a sense of comfort, like a childhood blanket he hadn’t realized he’d still had.

3. Sprinkle in Details

Just as you use detail to make your showing great, you can and often should include detail in passages of telling. Mention a red leather jacket here or a specific cologne there. Of course, you won’t be including as much detail as you would with showing, but detail makes telling more realistic. One key to making this work is to pick the right details, as opposed to generic ones.


Their mom had always stressed the importance of eating dinner as a family, of stir fry nights and cloth napkins on laps, of hands held in prayer and laughter pealing off travertine, and even of the occasional green bean food fight.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers