Sunday, January 30, 2011

Telling or Showing

The other day, in the library, during recess, one of my friends shoved a book into my hands and said, "I recommend this book." Yes, that's exactly what she said.

I looked at the book in my hands. I was already scared. It was one of those young adult books that are black with blue or red or purple letters and have something to do with vampires or werewolves or something like that.

But, I believe in judging a book by what's inside it, not its cover. So, I opened it up to the first page. I can't remember it exactly, but I think it went something like this.

"I walked down the street. Then I walked up a hill. I stood there and waited a while. The boy and his dog were not there. This made me mad."

I shoved it back on the shelf. I was already falling asleep. Not only was the prose slightly clumsy, but it didn't show me a thing. I couldn't see the world. I couldn't connect with the character. Every word was telling. Even when something was happening. And it was BORING! I didn't care a bit.

However, there's another side to this.

I keep sneaking my mom's first draft of the book she's writing right now. It's really awesome. But if I didn't hear her talking about it all the time, I would be really confused. There's a whole lot of action happening, but nobody stops to explain to the main character what in the world is going on. I'm not lost. But that's because I already understand how the world works. Anyone who hasn't spent the last 15 years listening to my mom talk about the Society of Peregrines would probably be completely lost.

In Japanese, we had to do a project where we learned a Japanese dance and taught the class how to do it. Before the first group started, the teacher got up and said something important.

He told us that almost everyone in his first class failed the project because the first thing they did was talk for five minutes about the origin of the dance. Then he explained what he wanted. He said we needed to start by getting the class engaged. Asking them to stand up and do the first motion. Then we could stick facts in here and there while we taught the dance.

This can totally be used in writing. It's important to start off a story with action, not a lengthy explanation. Then, you have to keep showing, but at the same time, tell the reader enough that they understand what's going on. So the audience is neither bored nor confused.

So, how do you keep your showing and telling balanced?


  1. Telling? Who's got time for telling? Throw the reader in and make 'em swim for their lives!

    No, I'm kidding. In my defense, I plan to fix it all in draft two. Or maybe by draft three.

  2. That's a tough one to answer. You're right, it's a balancing act that must be carefully maintained. I try to write the way that feels right. I know that's not much of an answer!

  3. It is a struggle. I tend to write a couple of chapters of back story for me. I don't include it in the draft - I don't count it - but it grounds me in the story so I'm not trying to pour it all out at once!

  4. It's a struggle I think for everyone. Sometimes it hurts my brain to TELL everything. Like really? Can't I cheat and just tell?
    My first book, at the beginning of each chapter, I felt this need to tell what was going on before jumping into the action. Bad, Bad Bad. Now, I almost have the opposite problem and I have to tell my readers to point out where I left them behind ;)

  5. I had a short story workshopped last year with my peer group. It was science fiction about life on a space colony. They said that they liked that they were thrown into the world with little explanation about it. Explanation came with the description and the way the characters interacted with everything. So I guess you can get away with not telling much and still get your point across.

    I also recently read a short story by a peer whose only explanation came with the character's interactions with each other. I really liked it, and the lack of telling kept me engaged and alert as a reader. I suppose the challenge is to explain enough for your reader to understand what's going on, but trust them enough to figure out things for themselves as well.

  6. Mom-
    Fix it in the second draft. I have friends who want to read it. *displeased frown*

    No, just kidding, take your time.

    That's plenty of an answer. If it feels right, it probably is right.

    I do that too! Some ideas have to go down on the page, but really don't need to be in the story.

    ;) I started out not explaining enough in my first book. Now, I think I tell too much.

    Sometimes it's so hard to trust the reader to figure things out. But if you can do that, it makes the story so much better.

  7. I think that's literally the million dollar question. As in, the people who master this have one of the necessary tools to make millions from their writing. I've never encountered a simple answer here. Most require a lifetime of hard work, experimentation, and personal insight into how exactly one best evokes a story (which varies from writer to writer).

  8. Amber, that's an excellent question. As a reader, I love getting immersed in the world right away, but if still I'm floudering around after a few pages, I really dislike that. As a writer, it's hard to tell how the story is coming across, since I see it so clearly in my head. All you can do is your best, then let a critique group or beta readers tell you which parts need work. You and your mom are so lucky to have it all in-house! Thanks for a great post!

  9. One thing that's worked for me, is I ask myself what emotions I want to elicit from the reader before writing each chapter. For example, in chapter's one and two of my novel, I want the reader to symphathize with my M.C. I also, want them to feel a bit of fear. Based on the feedback I've received so far, my approach seems to be working. The picture I draw with my words depends on the emotion I want them to evoke, if that makes sense.

  10. Great post. That's the balance I'm trying to make right now in my story. I think I need some more showing.

  11. I love this post! I think it's instinctual to start with telling. Kids (meaning K-5) do this, when they sit down to write a story, or even start to verbally tell you a story. They set it up first. It takes a lot of work to SHOW what you instinctively want to tell...but that's why they call it craft. :)

  12. I love this post. Finding the balance between showing and telling is an art form. I guess I'll just keep practicing.


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