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How to Balance Showing Versus Telling


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

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 we grow as writers, we begin to learn more about ourselves, and we eventually come upon our 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.

How about YOU? Have you gone through either the over-telling or under-telling phase? What are some ways you've found a balance?

4 comments:

  1. very timely comments. You're right, I'm continually getting conflicting information around this issue. It may have to do some with genre -- many of the craft books are written by folks whose books are in the thriller/suspense/mystery areas and therefore a fast-paced, scene-driven style is more of a fit, almost a trope, than it might be in women's fiction (my genre) - my roundtables say "keep it moving", my coach says "What's your protagonist feeling here?" and the poor author is left standing in the middle with her hands in the air, going ??? Thanks for helping me realize it's not just me that's feeling like the bare bones approach is sometimes short-changing the narrative and keeping readers at a safe distance, rather than letting them get inside the protagonist's head. And sometimes it's nice to have a few sentences of description-- it can provide a welcome breather.

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  2. Very interesting post, particularly about the connection between what we see on our TV and movie screens and the way modern novelists write. I agree that it's vital to get the balance between showing and telling right. In my writing, the location of the story is important, so I aim to create 'a sense of place,' with a few descriptive sentences, from the POV of my heroine. Describing what my character is seeing, rather than what I know is there as the author, helps me keep a balance.

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  3. Really useful post. We hear so much about showing not telling, so it's good to hear that there is a balance to be found

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  4. There needs to be a balance of showing vs telling. A story gets dreadful if everything is shown and nothing is told. This is the problem with all the advise to show and not tell. The writer becomes exhausted and so does the reader. Some times we just need to know it rained without all the buttery description to clutter up the page. And this is also one of the reasons fiction is becoming so boring to read. Great authors can show and tell throughout an entire novel without catching the readers notice of which writing device is used. Stop with the show don’t tell BS advice and start teaching when the proper time and way to tell is to keep the pace of a story from bogging down and the action from getting dull.


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