September 14, 2015 | Posted in: Writing & Grammar Tips

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Finding the Balance
Showing vs. Telling in Writing

How to balance show vs. tell in writing. Know when to use showing and telling in fiction.

"Show, don’t tell" is one of the most common "rules" writers hear. This is often given as a classic writing rule because many beginning writers do too much telling when they should be showing.

"Show, don’t tell" isn’t that simple. It is excellent advice—most of the time—unless used too much, used in situations where it hurts more than helps, and if it is applied too broadly. The key to "show, don’t tell" is finding the balance between showing and telling and knowing when, why, and how to use each effectively.

  • How to Find the Balance Between Showing and Telling in Writing
  • Understand the differences between the two.
  • Know how each should be used.
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  • Know if there is an advantage to using one or the other.
  • How is Showing Defined?
  • Intimacy level: close and personal.
  • Dramatizing. Using detailed imagery to allow readers to easily visualize a character or situation.
  • Making a reader feel the character’s experiences.
  • Working with the immediate emotional and physical actions and experiences of the characters.
  • Direct and indirect thoughts and dialogue.
  • How is Telling Defined?
  • Intimacy level: distant and impersonal.
  • Supplying information.
  • Summarizing events that aren’t important and don’t need detailed imagery.
  • Setting a scene or explaining a situation to further the plot or characterization.
  • How to Decide Between Showing and Telling
  • Is it necessary to show every sensory element, every action, and every detail in this scene?
  • Does this part of the story require strong imagery and active details?
  • How important is this element to the plot, setting, or characterization?
  • Is creating a mental picture for readers (showing) effective in this instance?
  • Is so much being shown that nothing is revealed?
  • Instances When Telling is Better than Showing
  • To show the passage of time. A story can span days or years. It’s not necessary to know everything that happens every moment.
  • To reveal how much time has passed (e.g., seasons changing, characters aging).
  • To move readers to the next important piece of the story.
  • To gloss over insignificant characters or unnecessary events that don’t have anything to do with the main story and don’t move the plot forward.
  • To add backstory.
  • To report events that aren’t really important.
  • To connect scenes.
  • To focus on an emotion when showing is unnecessary or impossible.
  • To provide details about travel or transitions.

3 Comments

  1. Robert
    May 24, 2016

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    Excellent post. I wish more writers would pay special attention to the last part ‘when telling is better than showing’.

    Too much showing of unnecessary events and insignificant details has ruined many a good book for this reader.

  2. Amor Libris (Kelly Hartigan)
    January 12, 2017

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    Testing WP comment feature after upgrade.

  3. Renee
    February 22, 2017

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    This is something I struggle with. The last section ‘when telling is better than showing’ is going to be something I will come back to over and over to try to help with this. Thank you.

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