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October 19, 2017

Showing vs. Telling: Finding the Right Balance

Pile of impossibly balanced rocks with text: Perfectly Balancing Showing vs. Telling? It's Not Possible...

Last time we talked about how we can figure out when to use showing or telling techniques in our writing. But even with that help, it’s not always easy to know how much showing or telling works best for our story.

Carradee, a regular commenter here, brought up some great examples of why the answer might not be as straightforward as we’d hope. So I want to dig a little deeper into some of the problems we might run into when trying to find the right balance of showing and telling in our stories.

The Usual Assumption: Too Much Telling & Not Enough Showing

Most articles that advise us to show, show, show come from the assumption that we’re not showing enough in our story, and that we’re instead telling too much. That is often the case, especially for new writers.

  • New writers often find it easier to tell than to show. Showing what emotions look and feel like takes a lot more effort. Flat descriptions of setting are easier to come up with than deep point-of-view (POV) insights from our characters about their surroundings. Actions are easier to describe in straightforward narrative than it is to include all the senses. Etc., etc.
  • In the past, much of fiction was written with more tell than show, and the deep POV style of modern fiction—which tends to go hand-in-hand with showing—is a fairly recent trend in the literary world. In addition, synopses, most essays, and some genres (such as children’s literature) are often written in a telling style. That means for many of us, we have more experience with—both in reading and writing—stories that tell than with those that have found a way to use words to show.
  • Because of those two issues above, telling tends to come somewhat naturally and often doesn’t need to be taught beyond school-age lessons. In contrast, showing is a specific skill that writers generally won’t know how to do until they learn from concrete instruction.

However, once we learn how to show, that assumption of too-much-tell-not-enough-show doesn’t ring true nearly as much. Instead, after we learn that skill, we might even go overboard and fail to tell as much as our story needs.

For writers who have progressed past that hump of the learning curve, the struggle isn’t to show, show, show, but to find the right balance of showing and telling.

Why Do We Need a Balance?

As I mentioned last time, several situations in our story usually work better with telling, including:

  • transitions of time and place
  • skipping over unimportant or repetitive information
  • hiding clues in de-emphasized passages
  • style or mood, such as ironic foreshadowing
  • providing necessary context

I’ll get back to that last bullet item in a minute, but I first want to touch on the fact that different genres have different expectations of the right balance. As I mentioned above, due to the limitations of kids in picking up subtext, much of children’s literature is written more heavily skewed toward telling than other genres.

What's the right balance of showing vs. telling? It depends on our story. Click To TweetAlso, as Carradee brought up in the comments last time, due to the influence of classic fairy tales, the fantasy genre can have a higher tolerance for telling. Or, as she pointed out, certain narrators (such as artificial intelligence beings in science fiction) might need to tell their stories because anything else wouldn’t be true to their point of view.

Last month, I even enjoyed an epistolary novel, where the story was completely told through a collection of emails, text messages, and the like. No showing whatsoever.

In other words, we need to pay attention to our story and what makes sense, first and foremost. We don’t want the constant focus in writing advice on showing instead of telling to keep us from writing the story we want to share.

Shh… Telling Lurks Everywhere

If we’re attuned to the difference between telling and showing, we’re going to see telling pop up everywhere. That’s not a bad thing—it just is.

Understanding how common telling really is might help us see that it’s a tool and not necessarily something to avoid at all costs.

As I mentioned last time, writing encompasses many different elements: dialogue, dialogue cues, thoughts, action, body language, visceral (internal) reactions, setting and description narrative, etc. And we can find telling in most of those.

One way of identifying telling is that it hands readers a conclusion rather than letting them figure it out on their own. For example:

  • If we’re showing, we might describe a character as having a big smile while bouncing on their toes.
  • If we’re telling, we might state that the character was excited or gleeful.

One makes readers come to their own conclusion, and the other gives the conclusion directly to the reader. While modern thought is that showing is more engaging, we still tend to mix the two constantly—whether we’re aware of it or not.

We Sneak Conclusions into Showing Passages? It’s True…

Here’s an easy example of how we sneak those telling-conclusion words or phrases into our showing passages…

There are hundreds of different types of smiles, and we might sometimes sneak in an adjective to state (tell) what kind of smile a character currently displays. For a basic smile, we don’t need to say anything more, but what if it’s a wry smile or a self-chastising smile? There’s no way to describe that difference in a way readers could follow and not misinterpret, so we have to tell them outright when a smile contains a certain message that’s important for the reader to understand.

Telling isn't “bad,” and if we know where to look, we'll find it everywhere. Click To TweetAlong the same lines, similar body language cues for emotions often show up in multiple entries of the Emotion Thesaurus. A character crossing their arms could indicate several different emotions, so body language alone could lead to misinterpretation unless we’re layering with other clues…or even some telling hints.

Or in deep POV, virtually all our character’s thoughts are technically telling. Going back to Marcy Kennedy’s description of showing, could a Star Trek holodeck program get into our heads and make us experience specific thoughts? No.

Thoughts can’t be shown quite the same way other writing elements can be. And I’d bet most of us have read stories where we reached one conclusion (from being shown something), and we’re told to accept a different conclusion by the character’s thoughts (from being told something).

Those uncertainties point out a major limitation of showing: Sometimes readers will come away with the wrong conclusion if we don’t state it outright.

When Is It Best to State a Conclusion?

In many cases, it’s not a big deal if readers reach an inaccurate conclusion. Does it matter if they picture a room in a bright red color rather than a burgundy color? Or if they imagine a 30-foot tree rather than a 40-foot tree? Usually not.

The risk of over-showing and under-telling our story is confusion in our readers. Click To TweetHowever, as I’ve said before, while story questions are good, confusion is bad. Often goals, motivations, stakes, or other important story aspects need to be brought out of the subtext of showing and at least hinted at to readers more directly, or else they won’t understand the fundamental elements of the story.

A common way to solve the uncertainty or inaccuracy problem is to make sure readers have enough context to reach the right conclusion—and context often requires telling.

Too much showing and not enough telling is the opposite side of the coin from the information-dump problem. Info dumps overdo telling, but not enough telling can be just as much of a problem, as it can leave readers confused.

As I mentioned about how to avoid information dumps by finding the right balance, there’s a constant struggle between oversharing (too much telling) and undersharing and lacking context (not enough telling). In that post, I shared an excerpt from my gargoyle story, Stone-Cold Heart, where I highlighted all the contextual phrases, such as:

For the first time in countless years, he awoke from stone-death.

Most of those bolded phrases are telling, and there’s nothing wrong with them because they help the reader understand the bigger picture of the story. Telling isn’t a problem—finding the right balance is. We struggle with finding a similar balance with description, backstory, and just about any writing element.

Info Dumps or Inaccurate Conclusions: Which Do We Want to Avoid More?

The right balance can be different depending on our genre, our story, our writing style, our POV character, the story element we’re trying to get across, where we’re at in the story, etc. But the right balance will also vary from reader to reader, such as with the younger readers of children’s literature, neurodivergent readers who might miss the subtext, or simply readers who have different life experiences from us and therefore interpret the showing-clues differently from what we expect.

In other words, there’s no right answer. *smile* There is no “right” balance.

Some readers prefer more subtext, and some need more hints. Neither of those are wrong, and that’s just one of many reasons that reading is subjective.

We can do what feels right for our story and get feedback from our beta readers and/or editors to find big mismatches. But ultimately, the balance we end up with is just one more aspect of our voice and writing style, and there’s no wrong answer for that. *grin*

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What do you see more of: not enough showing or not enough telling? Have you ever reached an inaccurate conclusion from clues that were shown? Did it harm your understanding of the story? What balance do you like to read? How have you found your balance in writing your stories (or do you still struggle with it)?

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What do you think?

8 Comments on "Showing vs. Telling: Finding the Right Balance"

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Carradee / Misti

The only thing I disagree with is the idea that newbies necessarily start with telling, but that might be a matter of personal application than disagreement with what you meant. As an editor, I find that writer errors fall into category types, which are commonly (though not always) predictable due to author background and personality and even gender.

The pertinent part of that is, in my experience, female writers are more likely to include motivations to an extreme that omits the actual action, and male writers are more likely to include actions to an extreme that omits actual motivations. That usually mellows with practice or experience, and I think it derives from cultural norms in speech patterns—how men are rewarded for making direct declarations (ex. “He’s such a jerk”), whereas women get condemned as “bitchy” and can be physically endangered if they don’t cushion their opinion (ex. “He seems like a jerk”).

Sieran
Sieran

Carradee, your comment about how men are rewarded by direct declarations like “he was a jerk” is very interesting! I used to believe I was female, but now I realized I’m nonbinary transgender, and am transmasculine. I identify as a demiguy and am half male, half gender neutral. The longer I’ve been out to others as being on the masculine spectrum, the more I feel the pressure and desire to swear and be rude! To be “rough and tough,” so to speak. For the sake of polite society, and due to the needs of my field (I’m in the field of counselling and psychotherapy), I control my urges to swear. But in my head, and in contexts where I’m comfortable (e.g. with friends), I’m becoming increasingly rude and rough in my speech! I don’t try to be offensive towards my friends, but I do swear or use more impolite words when I’m only with friends, I.e. when teachers, professors, and family members are absent. Back when I believed I was a girl, I was A LOT more subdued and did not wish to swear as much.

That said, I know that many females curse a lot, and that many males prefer to keep their speech polite and clean. But I am only comparing my present self to my past self here.

Intriguing, isn’t it? 😀

Carradee / Misti

Studies I’ve seen on swearing connect it more with honesty and forthrightness, so my own suspicion is that a person’s inclination towards R-rated language can (though doesn’t necessarily) have more to do with their self-confidence—which then has correlations into gender, since confidence tends to. [shrug]

Sieran
Sieran

Oh I remember reading an article about swearing and honesty. Well, yes, the more male I feel (I’m slightly gender fluid, and am growing increasingly male), the more confident and strong I become. So that could be a reason. I suspect it’s the opposite case for transfeminine people and trans women, though, where femaleness makes them feel stronger and more confident. I think this “boost in energy and power” may come from discovering and validating our true identity.

Sieran
Sieran
Hey Jami, I especially like your point about how neurodivergent individuals may not get the cues, and that people with different experiences and backgrounds from us could misinterpret our showing. Not sure if this is relevant, but at least in the counseling field, it can be seen as “inconsistent” if a client is laughing and smiling while they are telling a sad story. I personally think this is an Eurocentric belief, though, because in the Chinese culture, there is an expression called Ku Xiao, which means a bitter laugh or a bitter smile. So you can smile or laugh when you’re very sad. However, I don’t want to stereotype Western culture either, since the “bitter laugh/ smile” is an expression I’ve seen in some English fiction before, and I think in some non-English European novels too. Similarly, there is a belief stated in some of my textbooks (and by some profs in the counselling field) that a client who speaks in a way that seems articulate, regular, and calm is probably out of touch with their emotions. I was confused when I was told that I spoke in this manner, and therefore must be “avoiding” and am “disconnected” from my emotions. This is ridiculous, since I live in an emotional storm all the time. It was only later that I realized I was influenced by my Chinese culture, where it’s considered socially inappropriate to express intense negative emotions when you’re talking to others, but we are free to express our… Read more »
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[…] formulaic story structure, Jordan Rosenfeld shows 4 key ways to launch a scene, Jami Gold explores finding the right balance between showing and telling, and Rayne Hall shares tips on creating […]

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

I’m currently embroiled in academic writing, which requires that all is told and reported and nobody shows anything or has an opinion. Therefore I’d take issue with the line that telling doesn’t need to be taught after school – it may not come entirely naturally.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Agreed that in showing a response to an outcome, the writer can convey much more than just describing a reaction.

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