Friday, February 5, 2010

It’s Okay to Tell—Sometimes (Part 4 of 5)

You use telling statements to give readers a brief explanation. If your story moves along, and you introduce an unfamiliar element to readers, you can interject a one- or two-sentence explanation and move on.

I once wrote a children’s novel called Happy Face that took place in colonial Kenya, East Africa. Part of my purpose was to show the importance for westerners to learn about the culture. In this scene, Cora, the wife of a rookie missionary, entertains Oko, an African boy.

"Would you like tea, Oko?"

He shakes his head. The white woman has violated tribal custom. If she asks, it means she does not wish to give.

"I make it with nutmeg," Cora says as she stirs her milk-and-spice tea. "You’re sure you don’t want some?"

Again, Oko shakes his head and watches. The aroma of the tea fills the kitchen. He looks away. He cannot tell her he likes the smell of nutmeg better than anything except cinnamon.

In the middle of that scene, I injected a few sentences of pure telling (italicized above). I could have used dialogue. My purpose was not to have Oko correct Cora, but to explain to readers—using telling statements—that the missionary had acted like an ignorant foreigner in an African culture.

You can insert telling information to help readers grasp information quickly.


  1. Thanks for your wisdom. I've never received such in-depth teaching about "Show Don't Tell." Also, I did not realize that asking a Kenyan if he/she wants something implies that the giver doesn't want to give. I lived there eight years and I must have made that mistake often. I feel bad! My memoir comes out later this month.

  2. thanks for the advice. I loved the example you gave.


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