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Learning to Find a Balance in Showing Versus Telling

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One thing I’ve noticed through critiquing and judging contests (and from personal experience), is that writers have a difficult time finding balance when it comes to showing versus telling. In fact, I’ve noticed two phases: over-telling and under-telling.


1. The over-telling phase:

In our first books, we usually over-explain just about everything in the story. We take an entire paragraph to describe our main character’s physical description in precise detail. We spend a page telling about her past and the events leading up to the current problem. We toss in lots of flowers and birds and rainbows and sunsets.

We think we’re eloquent and that our prose is other-worldly. We believe we’re creating complex characters and well-plotted novels with all the explaining we’re doing.

But then (either through feedback or personal growth) we realize how wordy we are.

Eventually, as we brush up on our writing skills, we begin to learn how to write by scenes. Thanks to television and movies, readers prefer to see a story as a series of immediate scenes. They no longer have a tolerance for the exhausting pages of description and explanation that characterizes so many books of the past.

So we as writers try to imitate what’s done on the big screen. In fact, many of us may even read screen-writing books (like Save the Cat) to help us tighten and hone our writing skills, until we trim and eliminate every unnecessary word possible. Eventually, we learn to show not tell.

And that’s when some writers enter the next phase:

2. The under-telling phase:

In our passion to avoid excess, we end up going to the opposite extreme with our stories, putting them under the microscope and eliminating every extra jot and tiddle.

Everyone seems to be instructing us to cut out or go lean on things like:

NARRATIVE SUMMARY: The narrator (usually the POV character) tells or summarizes events, the passing of time, or the getting from one setting to another.

EXPOSITION: Information that helps explain something about the plot, a character, or the story. This includes:

*Backstory: All of the story that happened prior to the opening of the book

*Background: The technical details that are important to the story

*Physical descriptions: Of characters, setting, emotions, and sensory details

INTERNAL MONOLOGUE: Going inside a character’s head and getting a glimpse of their thoughts and feelings.

EXTRA WORDAGE: Passive tense verbs, adverbs, “as” and “-ing” constructions, exclamation points, italics, etc.

Yes, we’re encouraged practically everywhere to ruthlessly delete the excess.

But in the process of eliminating we’re left with a dry, often emotionless story that is unable to engage the senses and emotions of the reader.

Renni Browne and Dave King in Self-Editing For Fiction Writers said this: "We have noticed since the first edition of this book came out that a lot of writers have taken our advice about showing and telling too much to heart. The result has sometimes been sterile writing, consisting mostly of bare-bones descriptions and dialogue.” (p. 133 Emphasis mine)

Essentially we under-tell (and mostly show) our stories. We’ve cut too much. We’ve made them too much like a television show.

And somewhere along the line we have to find a middle ground.

Learn to balance showing versus telling:

One of the beauties of fiction is that it can give us more depth than a movie. We can get inside the characters’ heads to experience what they're feeling and thinking in a way that’s just not possible on the screen.

So while the modern reader doesn’t want to be bogged down with too much detail, they do want a book, not a movie. We need to find ways to seamlessly weave in all of the summaries, exposition, and internal monologue, rather than leaving them out. We need to learn the right amount of each that works for us and our stories—not over-doing it, but getting enough into our stories in all the right spots.

As writers learn more about themselves, they eventually come upon their unique VOICE (the story-telling cadence, sounds, and tone) and STYLE (a writer’s particular way of putting the story together).

When we get dressed, we all put on the basics—pants, shirt, shoes, socks, etc. But it’s amazing all of the unique combinations we can make when we add our own flare—colors, cuts, jewelry, belts, purses, etc.

Our stories are the same way. We need the basic structures of story-telling (the bare-bones), but we can’t stop there. We need to learn to dress up our stories with our own unique voice and style. Maybe we’ll add a bit more description than someone else, or more transitions, or whatever it is we like most about story-telling. When we add our own personal flare to our stories, they can begin to come to life.

Summary:  Find a balance. Don't fall into the mistake of over-telling. But also, don't go to the opposite extreme of under-telling. Look for ways to make your book a book (not a movie), but a book that modern readers will enjoy.

What do you think? Have you fallen into either phase at one time or another, either over-telling or under-telling? How did you learn to find balance in your writing?

47 comments:

  1. I have for sure fallen into both of these traps. My first novel has chunks and chunks of telling. No scenes. Just me describing what the scenes are. My 4th novel turned sterile, because I became so obsessed with cutting out all that excess. You are so right - we need to find a balance. It's only taken me five novels to find it (and I still lose it about every 10K words or so)

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  2. I keep juggling these two extremes. My first drafts are always a mash of bare bones scenes and scenes that are packed to bursting with description.

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  3. I'm with you Paul, on that weird wordy or wordless pendulum. The idea of balance is difficult because knowing how much telling/showing is too much (or too little) is a fluid measure, often dependent on your writing style and the atmosphere of your WIP. I think a good way to gauge it is through critique or even giving yourself some distance from the work before revision time, so you can see how the scales are tipped.

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  4. I think this holds true for any writing rule. Writers go through a phase where they will follow the rule to a T; and then they realize they need to break the rules sometimes for balanced writing! I think it's just part of the learning curve.

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  5. I've recently been working on figuring this one out.

    Reading about writing (something I never did until recently) I kept coming across all these rules and started thinking, wow, I really need to make some changes.

    But then, after "thinning" out the writing, I'd read it and think, "Who wants to read this? It's so...boring."

    It's good to hear other writers talking about balance. Adverbs, to-be verbs, etc, are not evil. We just have to use them in a way that does something for the story. Not just to be flowery or add words to a page.

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  6. Great advice as always, Jody. I would add, first, know thyself. What's burning inside you? If it's not hot, find a way to light it on fire. Then, know thy genre. Since I write more in the hard boiled tradition, my prose is leaner. I'm usually adding on revision.

    Finally, know thy voice. It comes gradually, but I think it's found when you're bold on those first drafts, and not stressing about "rules." Leave those for the revision process, or the studying process which should be ongoing.

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  7. This is an excellent post, Jody. I've fallen into both traps indeed. I am, by nature, and over-teller. But I'm getting better, due in part to a wonderful editor at The High Calling, who has helped me trim excess in my stories. It's amazing how often I still fall into telling rather than showing. That said, I've also stripped my prose so much that it's morphed into a skeleton. So you are right -- balance is key...and finding that balance is the challenge for me.

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  8. What a great post, Jody. I've had the conversation about under-telling with a couple published authors, and I'm still trying to figure out the balance. It's hard to know whether I should point out telling when I crit. I often do, but then say something like, "It's telling, but I'm not sure it's wrong to tell here."

    Indeed, I sometimes reach the climax of a book I'm reading, read the scene, and think, "That's it? The author fell way short on emotional impact." And that emotional impact would probably be enhanced if the author TOLD more of what the characters were feeling.

    I'd love to see some specific examples of where telling is okay or enhances the story. Maybe in another post. :^)

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  9. I found plenty of over-telling in my WIP on the first pass. To combat it, I've been tightening up scenes and making sure I note the purpose of each one before moving on. I'm making comments in the margin like "Hints at MC's past; characterizes villain; foreshadows later discovery." If I can't figure out why it's in the scene, I move it, change it or cut it. Thanks for the advice against going too far in the other direction -- I've already sensed that it's easy to do.

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  10. Timely post. I passed through the over-telling stage and just noticed in my prose that I'm needing reassurance for getting throught the under-telling stage. I was agonizing over each word, and my first draft wasn't moving along. I decided about a week ago to stop worrying and lighten up. Now I understand what was happening, and that I'm going to reap benefits from this "lighten up" stage. Thank you for your post.

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  11. Can I kiss you? Or at least buy you a cup of cyber coffee?

    My novel was overtold. I learned and grew and redrafted and still was instructed to do more showing.

    I did.

    Now I have passages that I honestly think are well-balanced but I still get called out for telling.

    Granted, I also have passages that I know DO still need to be shown more. But this post has really encouraged me that there is a limit line to how far is too far.

    Thanks, Jody!

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  12. I have four manuscripts hidden on a remote corner of my hard drive, all of which are filled with telling. When I dusted off a fifth manuscript and rewrote it, I was further along in my journey and had absorbed the "show, don't tell" advice deep in my writerly soul. The result was a manuscript that was too lean in places. It took a savvy critique partner (*wink*) to point out my weakness and tell me that showing alone doesn't always work. I like to think I've reached a balance.

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  13. This is a great point. I really love the movie medium as well as novels, so I was really struck by a point Annie Dillard makes in her book on The Writing Life. She said she read lots of books that were really movies masquerading as a novel. It really clicked for me then how different the mediums should be. I really look forward to the day when I feel I've learned to strike the balance you're describing here. This is definitely what's working in my favorite books to read.

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  14. Thank you for this post. After reading other blogs that often suggest all telling is bad, or at least suspect, I'm glad to hear a writer embracing the balance between showing vs telling.

    Thank you again!

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  15. Hi Everyone! Great discussion here today! Thanks for chiming in!

    Michelle, you can definitely buy me a cuppa cyber coffee! :-)

    And Naomi, I think some of the most impactful telling is when we using internal monologue. When we get inside our characters' heads and let our readers experience the depth of emotion going through our characters, we can pull our readers into the story more effectively. But again, we can't go into their heads with every beat. That would interrupt the flow of the story. Like everything else, we should sprinkle it in so that the reader hardly knows it's there. I personally like to use internal monologue at the end of scenes as transition.

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  16. I crossed over to the Dark Side to write fiction clutching a journalism degree. One thing I knew how to do: Write tight. I sure could under-tell a story well. I've been forced, er, encouraged to relax and build storyworld into my novel. Before my attitude was "The reader will figure it out."
    Bad, bad attitude.
    Bad, bad writing.

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  17. I couldn't agree more. Although it's helpful to compare books to movies in the show vs tell argument, we really have to remember that they're different disciplines for a reason. A book can go into depths a movie can't (which is why people often feel a book is better than the movie version).

    I try to find a balance by paying attention to what authors tell in the books I enjoy. For example, back stories that help you understand a character's motivations, traumas, and passions, usually make for a richer reading experience. But I notice I start to get bored when I feel like a back story is slowing down the plot, or contributing something that could've been shown in the present action.

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  18. More great advice! Thank you.

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  19. Thank you, thank you for this: "One of the beauties of fiction is that it can give us more depth than a movie. We can get inside the characters’ heads to experience what they're feeling and thinking in a way that’s just not possible on the screen."

    The art of screen storytelling is different than the art of book storytelling. I'm pleased when I discover modern non-scenic fiction that rambles delightfully. Give me some tell w/ my show, or I'm going to watch a movie instead! And, of course, give me some show, too, or I'm going to skip over to nonfiction, which I like very much, thank you.

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  20. LOL, I feel a whole lot better knowing it's not just me! I went through both stages. My last book, after I cut all the "bad" stuff out, was boring and dry. I spent forever putting good stuff back in. It's a lot easier to find a natural balance now, but boy, I know what you mean.

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  21. Finding that balance can be tricky. I'm afraid I sometimes fall in the under-telling category. Fortunately, my editor let's me know when I slip. :)

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  22. I've been writing for a long time but am only just learning how to expand on my bare-bones style.

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  23. This phase progression is the same for my drafts. First draft I overtell because I want to get everything down as fast as possible. In my editing phase I cut and chop and thin down and often end up undertelling. It's only when I'm settled in the story and have gone over it a few times that I get the pacing and details right and achieve that balance.

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  24. Oh, overtelling. You are I have been on a first name basis for a long time! I definitely had a tendency to be wordy, but I think I'm finally coming around on that one. Luckily, I don't think I've gone so far the other way that I've ventured into undertelling (that would have been a long way to go...). Once again, balance is key. And how do we find that balance? Practice, practice, practice. Having a writing partner with a low tolerance for verbosity doesn't hurt either! ;)

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  25. I've never really fallen into Under-telling. Over-telling however, boy did I do that with fervor. My first work read like HP Lovecraft with a dash of Hawthorne. 145K for the first draft.

    I think every writer begins in one of the two camps depending on the background. It's just how we think. Much like how we write our drafts, we think in those terms.

    Our writing matures when we learn to apply that filter between our thoughts and our keyboard. We know what is our voice and what that voice can keep to itself.

    Great post Jody!

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  26. What a great post to clarify the ping pong match between too much and too little. Loved your insights.

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  27. ooohhh it's nice to have blogger back!

    All this fuss.

    I agree that balance is a horror. Speaking from someone who is new to writing, i have funnily enough started at the too little detail stage because i didn't want to over do the telling.

    I have a background as a perpetual student so i write scientific essay after essay. I know how to trim those words.

    Very interesting trying the different fields.

    Great post jody just why you are one of my top 20 blogs that i read :-)
    http://precociousscribe.blogspot.com/2011/05/20-awesome-people-you-should-follow.html

    Sarah ketley

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  28. http://stacygreenauthor.blogspot.com/May 14, 2011 7:21 AM

    Naturally I'm late posting, but I wanted to say this post really hit home. The balance is so tough, and sometimes you don't even realize you're telling until you edit a piece, because as you're right, the scene is so vivid in your head it seems as though it will be on the page as well.

    Great tips for getting it right, Jody!

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  29. I'm so sorry to those who left comments that aren't here anymore! Due to Blogger's recent problems, many of the recent comments were taken away. I'm hoping they'll eventually restore them. But until then, I just wanted to say I'm sorry! I did read each of your thoughts initially as they came through!

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  30. I completely agree. I have long felt that I am often thrown into a story. It can be fun, but not all the time. I for one don't mind a little getting to know time before everything starts to happen. It connects me with the story and bonds me with the characters who keep me reading.

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  31. I haven't mastered balance yet. Sometimes I use 20 words to explain something that would normally take 2 words. I'm terrified of "telling" but on occasion, telling works!

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  32. The editor/writing coach that evaluated my first novel pointed out a few areas of descriptive writing and suggested I do more of it. Apparently I write a pretty bare bones first draft, which may come from my background in non-fiction. I'm learning to flesh things out during revisions but don't know if I've found a good balance yet or not.

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  33. Blessings ....

    Well articulated thank you.
    I will try to remember the lessons

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  34. I know it's different with picture books, but I did exactly that recently. I wanted to show everything rather than tell and had loads of illustrator notes and minimal words, but the result was dry and drab. Good job I have honest critique buddies, the next draft was much better. bookmarking this for sure!

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  35. Exactly what I've been trying to explain to my writers' group recently!

    We read stories to take a holiday in someone's life, and that includes their thoughts.

    Great post! Will be tweeting and facebooking it immediately!

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  36. Great stuff. Thanks for the post. I'll be fleshing somethings out now....

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  37. Very well said!I love your blog! Everything you say has so much substance and you know how to offer good advice.

    Thanks for sharing!

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