When to “show” and when to “tell” in your fiction

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Showing vs. Telling in fiction. It is an age-old debate and an easy thing for people new to critiquing to throw out. The trick is not one or the other, but rather both in proper proportion.


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

When we think about how to write a novel and to be a successful writer of fiction, we must understand the balance of showing versus telling in our work. This is one of the critical skills and one that we can learn. There is no formula, and we need to do both. The trick is to 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. I wanted to take the opportunity to speak to this one with my own creative writing blog.

Sol Stein has written a wonderfully helpful book for writers titled Stein on Writing.

It has been positively reviewed by almost every reader.  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 resource for aspiring writers wanting to learn how to write a book 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. Sometimes that means telling rather than showing.

Showing and telling has been a topic of interest to me for a long 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 my next novel — Lonely Hunter —  going through a review cycle with beta readers 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 “cliffhanger” 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 there 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. Though we may know how to plan a story, 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. If you are a writing a book, I’m sure you’ll find them engaging and helpful.

And if you would like to see a very sophisticated and long discussion on this topic, check out this blog.

Writing craft, showing and telling, how to write, fiction, novel writing, Tiffany, Tiffany writing

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Want to know how to write a book that is compelling? We must understand the balance of showing versus telling in our work. There is no formula, and we need to both show and tell in fiction. The trick is to keep them in proper proportion. It's easier than you think.
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