Show vs. Tell – When you should and how

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HOW TO INSERT BACKSTORY: by E.C. Jarvis

We’ve all heard the old rule “Show Don’t Tell”. Seems so simple doesn’t it? We nod sagely when someone reiterates this adage and say hmm, yes of course. Yet, arguably, there are times when you kinda need to tell. You might not want to write a flashback scene every time you want your readers find out one small but vital piece of info. So what do you do?

I’m going to break the rule and tell you that in some instances, it is, in fact, ok to tell. BUT (and that is a big BUT) you have to be crafty about how you do it. Nobody really wants to read pages of backstory exposition prose. It sucks to have an author shove info down our throats in such a rough manner, I’ve stopped reading some books for this reason in the past.

So here are a few ways to sneak the telling into your story:

DIALOGUE

The easiest, and arguably fastest method of slipping backstory in is through your characters direct interaction. There is still the pitfall that you don’t want to shove too much in at once, but you can drip-feed bits and pieces at the same time as showing character personality. Consider:

Kat had spent her whole life looking up at the stars and wondering if her alien parents were ever going to come back for her.

VS

“Why so glum Kat?”

Kat sighed and dropped her gaze from the sky, catching the quizzical look on her doctors face. “Just wondering when they’re coming back,” she said.

“Who?”

“My parents, they took their ship home for repairs, promised they’d pick me up after.”

“Ship?”

“Spaceship, you know, it’s a long way to our planet, so that probably explains why they’ve been gone so long.”

Same info, different presentation.

IT’S A MYSTERY

Another method is to approach it like a mystery novel. As your main character goes through their journey you reveal bits of their backstory to them through people they meet or things they discover, that way your readers learn at the same time as your character. You could spend a page writing about how your character John remembered his father telling him a story about their family history, or you could have John discover an old journal with the history in. You’re still telling the reader the backstory, but in a more showing manner.

APPENDIXES AND PROLOGUES

I’m not a big fan of this method, but it is technically valid. If you really must shove a ton of info in one great big lump then here is the way to do it. Its best done in fantasy books with a flashback style narrative of epic world-building, but it’s not limited to that form. Be warned, it will put some people off unless you can make it fantastically interesting and unique.

In summary, sometimes it is ok to tell, just be careful how, and how much.


12164966_10153292626815857_373650324_oE.C. Jarvis

E.C. Jarvis is a British author working mainly in speculative and fantasy fiction genres. For the last thirteen years, Jarvis has been working her way through the ranks of the accountancy profession in various industries. During ten of those years she has also been writing.

“It was always a hobby. I’d knock a poem out every now and then, or enter something into a short story competition, with very little success, but that never stopped me. There has always been an underlying need to write. It comes and goes with varying intensity, but it’s always there, like an itch that needs to be scratched.”

Her first success at publishing was a poem in a collection titled Fear Itself published by Forward Poetry in 2012. Following a three year hiatus where she “couldn’t even bring myself to write a shopping list”, 2015 saw a turnaround that has seen her complete two full novels, gain two publishing contracts, win a number of online writing competitions and is on track to complete her first trilogy.

She lives in Hampshire, England with her husband and daughter and cat.

Author website https://emma-jarvis-x6ba.squarespace.com

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