Show Don’t Tell Part 2: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)

This is perhaps the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of showing instead of telling.  Many times as writers we are tempted to explain things from the wonderful recesses of our minds about our worlds and our characters by way of explanations.  These explanations, whether hidden in interior monologue or narrative summary, are meant to give the reader understanding, but many times they have the opposite effect.  Explaining a comment one character makes to another, while appearing to be helpful, may actually insult the intelligence of the reader or prevent them from discovering the idea on their own.  Let’s consider the example below.

“Who are you, my dear?” Jefferson asked.  He took a hesitant step backwards.
“I’m a ValeraFaerie!” She said with a smile that revealed her pointy-toothed maw.
Jefferson blanched white with fear.  ValeraFaerie were creatures from the Undead World of Creatarium, many light-years away.  They were always women, hidden among the ranks of men whenever they were discovered or, more likely, revealed themselves.  They wore thin, tattered cloaks that flapped in the shadows and made them disappear into the darkness like silent creatures of the night.

Now, you may have already noticed one of the flaws.  This passage is telling, not showing.  Many of these issues overlap, but Resisting the Urge to Explain helps us to recognize when and where narrative summary is not appropriate.  In the passage above, Jefferson’s sudden fixation on the history and origins of the creature facing him is out of character and possibly, suicidal.  When confronted by a scary beast, the last thing the protagonist should do is start explaining back-story that can be revealed through other means.  If he does, he’ll likely be dead before he can decide if she’s from the northern continent of Creatarium or the southern.  The entire section discussing the origins of the ValeraFaerie and their constructs is only there to explain the new word, ValeraFaerie.  These ideas are much more meaningful when scattered through the course of a scene, instead of suddenly thrown into a summary (see part 1) where the protagonist should be worrying about getting away with his life, not whether or not ValeraFaerie are caught or reveal themselves.  Resist the Urge to Explain, especially when using narrative summary to explain dialogue.  R.U.E.!

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