Show vs. Tell–A View from the Urban Fantasy Ranks

We had quite a discussion on this topic over at the Castles & Guns blog yesterday, so I thought I’d move it over here today. It’s all about “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Writing books, workshops, tips from pubbed authors will always include that one bit of advice: Show, Don’t Tell.

It’s great advice–for the most part. But in writing fantasy (urban or epic), it creates some challenges for both the author and the reader in the opening chapters of a book.

Have you ever picked up a new fantasy, begun reading it with great anticipation, gotten to about page ten, and realized your eyes have glazed over? But you soldier on, and by page fifteen, your glazed eyes have crossed and are at half-mast. Because–now you’re willing to admit it–you don’t know what the hell is going on in the story and, what’s worse, you don’t care.

That’s the byproduct of too much “show” and not enough “tell” in the beginning of a novel.

I’ve spent the last couple of days judging contest entries for an RWA chapter in the paranormal category. All but one suffered from this problem. They did a great job of starting the story in the middle of a scene. They grabbed my interest. The characters had potential. And then the scene went on…and on….and on…ad nauseum, and after fifteen pages, I had no idea what the characters were gnashing their teeth over, or whether we were going to be dealing with vampires or goblins, or why I should care.

They didn’t need tons of backstory–heaven forbid. But, c’mon guys, give me one freaking SENTENCE of context. Ten words of narrative to make all that showing mean something.

I think this is particularly problematic in fantasy and science fiction because unlike regular fiction, there are not necessarily rules of physics and social structures that apply. As readers, we begin each fantasy world with a blank slate. The author has to simultaneously hook us in with a scene that shows, but also must give us enough tell to help us understand and care about the scene. The only way around it is to give us a character so compelling in the first two pages that we can suspend our cluelessness and keep going.

As I went through these entries, I began thinking about some of my favorite urban fantasies and how the authors pulled me in. In Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, for example, he begins the first book with the mailman delivering Harry’s mail. Not earth-shattering action, but it is showing. It also has told me a lot by the end of the scene–Harry’s a wizard. He’s broke. He’s an investigator. He helps the Chicago PD out with some of their weird cases. He’s really broke. If Jim Butcher had only shown the snarky exchange between Harry and the mailman, I wouldn’t have known all of that. All the showing was broken up by just a tad of telling.

One series that I really love but that I almost didn’t read because of too much initial “show” was Kim Harrison’s Hallows series. In the first book, we encounter Rachel Morgan in a bar exchanging barbs with a tinkerbell-sized fairy who’s sitting on her earring and trying to catch a leprechaun. I started that book at least twice and put it down because it did a lot of showing but after a chapter I still had no idea what was going on in any big-picture kind of way. Finally, I started it a third time on a friend’s insistence and eventually plowed through to the point where it grabbed me. It took a while, though.

So, weigh in–how much “tell” do you want in your opening pages of “show”?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

5 thoughts on “Show vs. Tell–A View from the Urban Fantasy Ranks

  1. So much here that I agree with!

    The point about sci-fi/fantasy and the regular rules of physics and society are especially true.

    And I agree with the bit about Kim Harrison’s The Hallows series. It took me forever to figure out what was going on. Once I did it was great, but I almost stopped reading.

    As a reader, I feel it’s okay to tell me sometimes. In moderation, and usually out of necessity. Don’t beat me over the head with it, but it’s okay to clarify. 😀

  2. LOL–I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the first Hallows book. Once I got far enough in, I really loved the series, but the opening chapters of that first one…Yikes.

  3. I absolutely agree with you on this one. People tend to chant it like a mantra, “Show don’t tell”, because they are trained to watch for it and they notice it right away. But sometimes you just need to tell. Sometimes showing takes so long that it slows the story down or bores the reader. There’s a balance there that you have to keep in mind.

  4. Spot on, and I think the Dresden books are the perfect example. You could give me the most explosive opening in the world, and if I don’t have a reason to care about it, I won’t.

    (I’m having this problem right now with NBC’s The Event.)

  5. I think it’s a sign of a talented author who can do both at the same time – or at least make us forget that he/she IS telling us anything. As with all things writing, it just takes some experimentation and years of practice. But with fantasy especially, it is important to know the rules before you play the game. I agree.