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Should you show or should you tell? YES! -- by Allen Tiffany


Don’t you love it when you get feedback on your fiction that you are doing too much “telling” and not enough “showing”?

To be a successful writer of fiction we must understand the balance of showing versus telling in our work. This is a critical skill, and one that we can learn. There is no formula, and we need to do both, but we must keep them in proper proportion.

There is great commentary on the topic from a number of accomplished writers, though on the surface, some of the guidance might seem contradictory.

Sol Stein has written a wonderfully helpful book for writers titled Stein on Writing. It has been positvely reviewed here and elsewhere.  He includes a chapter on “Showing versus Telling,” as does almost every book on the craft of writing. Here is the example he uses to illustrate an instance of “telling”: “She boiled water.”

Stein starts with this three-word sentence and progresses through several revisions until he gets to: “She filled the kettle from the faucet and hummed till the kettle’s whistle cut her humming short.” He says of this revision, “ …the addition of detail makes the visual come alive with more action.”

We would probably agree with his conclusion. However, there is some sleight of hand here.  Note what else happened. First, he presented additional facts:

·         She filled the container

·         The container is a kettle

·         The kettle has a whistle

·         She filled it from the faucet

·         She was humming

We now have much more information than we would get from just a statement that “She boiled water.”

You might argue that is the point. But to be explicit -- to present all these additional facts -- the sentence went from three words to seventeen words. That is an almost a six fold increase! There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it is important to understand everything that happened as we went from a three-word statement of fact to a mini-scene.

Hold this thought. We’ll come back to it.

Another great book for writers is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers  by Renni Browne and Dave King. In spite of its title and cover art (that make it look like it is about the hugely important and excruciatingly dry topic of copyediting), it is an insightful collection of essays on writing that complements Stein’s work.

Browne and King include a chapter on “Proportion”. In it, you will find this passage about a man who is rescuing his wounded Indian friend (named “Sunshine”). It goes like this:

Eammon flung the peavey to shore, reached down, and lifted Sunshine by grabbing his jacket collar with his left hand and his belt with his right hand. He then spun around, clutching the Indian’s left shoulder, leaned down to put his right shoulder into Sunshine’s belly, his right arm between the Indian’s legs, and straightened up. He slowly turned on the log that was supporting them, moved down its length toward the bank, jumped to another log, walked the length of that one, then stepped on top of several logs running lengthwise of the river until he finally stepped down into the shallow water near the shore.

In short, Browne and King argue that this is too many words for this one incident. There are several reasons. It takes up valuable page space and your reader’s limited time. Additionally, there is not much left to the reader’s imagination.

They suggest an alternative:

Eammon flung the peavey away, grabbed Sunshine by his jacket collar and belt, threw him over his shoulder, and made his way across the logs to shore.

In this revision, they clearly “show” much less. Of note, Browne and King have shortened this passage by about the same percentage that Stein increased his example.

So what is going on here? Which is correct?

It is this, and Elmore Leonard probably said it most concisely: “…leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Conversely, do write the parts that your audience wants to read. Sometimes that means showing more. Some times that means telling rather than showing.

Showing and telling has been a topic of interest to me for some time. On occasion, critiquers have told me that I’m showing too much. Other times I’ll get feedback on a submission that I'm "telling" too much. I have thought about how to reconcile what initially sounds like potentially conflicting bits of feedback.

When I see comments about “showing” more I sometimes think: But I don’t want to show that. I simply want to establish something and move on. Going back to Stein’s example, if all I want to establish is that my character boiled water, I will simply write: “She boiled water.”

Of course, I sometimes get it wrong. I had a novel going through the review process here recently. One chapter ended with my main character discovering an abandoned village in a forest in the middle of the night while she was being hunted by aliens. The readers gave it positive reviews as an engaging scene with a suspenseful “cliff hanger” ending. Determined to keep my novel “concise”, I made a conscious decision to have the next chapter start several days later with the main character summarizing to her father what she had found in the abandoned village. She did so while standing in the sunshine of her home village surrounded by friends and loyal soldiers. So it was now a “telling” summary presented in a perfectly safe location. I was roasted by my reviewers for not showing her exploration of the abandoned village.

What happened? I got the proportion of showing and telling wrong. I kept the story concise in as much as I kept the word count down for the novel as a whole, but I had given away all the suspense created in that scene that my readers wanted to “see”. So I have a new chapter to write and another that is going to be dramatically shortened.

Another example: In my novel, my characters had to attend a meeting. I chose not to show that. Instead, I summarized the outcome in a few sentences. One critter thanked me for not dragging them through the meeting. In that instance, I seem to have gotten the proportion of telling and showing correct.

So the critiquing process here is hugely beneficial in helping me get my proportions right, and helping me understand what readers want to see, and what they’d rather be told as narrative summary. I'm rarely responsive to individual comments to this end, but if a significant percentage of the reviewers are saying the same thing, I will pay attention.

My takeaway is that more often than not, when a majority of your critters advises you to “show” more of a certain scene, it is because they find the scene particularly engaging and want more of it, or they find it confusing and are looking for more insight into what is happening and what the characters are feeling.

Conversely, they prefer “telling” when they want a quick summary to get the relevant facts that are driving the plot forward or showing a character’s development without having to be dragged through all the details of how a given fact came to be.

Additionally, going back to the example from Browne and King, if you are doing too much showing, even if you are doing it well, it may not be interesting and you will get feedback that you are being “wordy” or your writing (or at least a given passage) is boring.

After all, we can’t and don’t want to show everything. Imagine if writers tried: Books would explode to thousands and thousands of pages. Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace would be analogous to flash fiction! No reader would ever get more than two pages into a novel because the endless "showing" of minutia would be too exhausting, boring and without purpose.

As a writer, we have to make decisions. At the end of the day, how much showing and telling we do in our writing is our decision. My first novel is now live on Amazon. It is presented as a framed narrative and is a historical novel. At the start I very intentionally mimic the tone and structure of a historical summary – which is very “telling” – and then drift into very nuanced “showing” as the story moves to its climax. So I have made my decisions about telling and showing. We’ll see if I got it right.

I do encourage you to read these two books – Stein on Writing and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. They cover far more topics than just showing, telling and proportion. Even when they do cover the same topics, it is always constructive to get different views. I’m sure you’ll find them engaging and helpful.

Posted by Allen Tiffany 4 May 2015 at 01:06
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Responses to this blog

Peggyc 4 May 2015 at 14:54  
Enjoyed this post. While I'm still a newbie — been writing seriously for less than a year — ever since my first critiquer told me I needed to "SHOW" vs "TELL," I've been working for that balancing point in showing and telling. Thanks for the reminder and examples of proportion. Boils down to use whichever WORKS best for your story.
Lexicon 4 May 2015 at 23:06  
This has always been something I struggle with as well. Right now my rule of thumb is to ask, "By showing, will that set up the atmosphere of or progress the scene, provide more insight into the character that feeds into their overall arc, or feed into the novel's overarching themes?"

If the answer is "No", then I'll tell and move on to show something else that does meet the criteria above. Mind you, getting that balance is still a PITA.
Auntymin 5 May 2015 at 20:09  
I'm glad to hear the debate. I'm a newbie and have heard from "seasoned" authors that "show vs tell" is cut and dried. Maybe they are old salts, but their advice didn't resonate with me, so I'm glad to hear the debate, find the resources, and learn from this discussion.
Bethanne80 5 May 2015 at 23:43  
I like how you presented both sides here. Very well-done. And I would second the recommendation for "Self-Editing the Fiction Novel." Now I have to go check out "Stein on Writing."
Aromagicia 6 May 2015 at 01:36  
Great article, I enjoyed the examples you showed us, they were excellent examples , thank you.
Trevose 6 May 2015 at 04:12  
Hey All,

Thanks for the feedback! Glad I could help. I certainly don't know all the answer or have the formulas in my head, but I learn through reading, discussion, debate and practice, so happy to participate in discussions here.

As to feedback from reviewers here? I encourage you to pay close attention to the consensus and not so much to what any one person has to say (myself included). You are writing (if you want to publish and sell) to the masses. Inevitably someone is not going to like it, or they are going to love it. Either way, it is the majority you need to be attentive to. So if 50% of your critters are signalling that you are telling too much, or showing too much, you probably ought to be responsive to that. If it is just one person...ignore them if it does not resonate with you.

Read Stein's book? Yes, yes, yes!
Verdiamond 7 May 2015 at 04:09  
Oh my God, totally true. I haven't thought about it before, but this made me open my eyes. Although, when writing, I sometimes feel that I'm telling too much instead of showing, BRB. I have a bunch of things to fix!
Fritzie 8 May 2015 at 18:15  
What a great way to show about tell. Love it.

Sheridan 13 May 2015 at 00:50  
Thanks for the excellent blog post! Good advice on stepping back and asking whether it's a mini scene in which readers would want more detail or less.
Oznana 23 May 2015 at 13:21  
Best explanation I've read yet on a frequently commented on topic! Well said! Thanks.

Nico 24 May 2015 at 05:32  
Thank you for this interesting post, and for the two book recommendations.

The decision to show or tell at the scene or even the beat level can influence pacing. Yet the sense of pacing arises over multiple scenes or beats, each with its own show-tell character. This seems to set up a "forest for the trees" situation, where focusing on the show-tell of the scene can obscure or distract from the scene's role in the story, and its importance to the telling of the story. This is something to be aware of when evaluating feedback given in the absence of greater story context, though that very lack of context can itself produce useful feedback.

It seems showing and telling are a continuum, a gradient filter the story passes through, an "effect" selectively applied to the story's facts to produce a desired affect in the reader.

Embe 11 Jun 2015 at 12:57  
I enjoyed reading this. I think that the balance you are talking about is difficult achieve, but that's why feedback on a site like this is important. Readers' comments may be contradictory, but they are also a way to process where the balance lies in a story and hit the right chords when you tell.
Kerr7913 3 Jul 2015 at 08:07  
This blog has added a new take on show vs tell for me. The two examples work so well. Thankyou for presenting this so clearly and thoughtfully.
And as a newbie on CC, thanks also for the tips regarding crits in your comment.
Aldor 3 Jul 2015 at 10:00  
I'm glad I stuck to my guns, by showing as well as telling. While firstly I consider how to show a scene, then decide if it is of interest or not.

I cut to the chase and précis the action, then write the same piece in telling mode.

Finally I'll try a hybrid, version with some show, some tell.

This is a great blog, written simply to be read, and very inspirational, congrats.

Have fun!

Those who can, Do! Those who can't, complain.

Sombra 3 Jul 2015 at 11:52  
Just read this post. Thanks, Trevose, for "putting yourself out there" by showing your own examples of what worked for your readers and what did not. When reading published novels, it sometimes feels like those authors just "know" and they get it right the first time. While some probably do (especially seasoned writers), it's easy to forget that there was a lot of work before that book was ever published (the same work we're doing here). Great discussion!
Janiceg 28 Aug 2015 at 01:34  
Thank you SO much for this post! I've always thought of telling as evil and lazy and showing as virtuous and skillful. You've showed me with concise examples that telling has its place.

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