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A Guide to Balancing Show and Tell in Creative Writing

“Showing and Telling” is an ongoing struggle for writers, probably because our middle school English teachers did such a great job of instilling that in us. And rightfully so—knowing how to give information to readers is vital to using your craft to tell a story.


The problem is that many authors take it to extremes. On one hand, they give the reader too much information. This takes many forms, including extensive backstory, digressions into the character’s past, and explanations of character behavior. While much of this information may help readers understand the characters, it also stops the action and can even take the reader out of the story altogether.


On the other, writers might try to describe everything from the setting to the characters’ actions to how they speak. This can result in some comically bad writing, from flowery to unrealistic.


And this isn’t even just an issue for beginning writers. Even seasoned authors (me included) often wonder what information should be dispensed through simple statements or by portraying and describing what’s happening.


The point is that every creative writer, regardless of experience level, can attest to the often-puzzling quest of balancing show and tell in writing. It's an intricate dance that can either make your story come alive in the reader's mind or leave them detached and disinterested.


Let’s delve into this question, shall we?


The Art and Craft of Showing and Telling


Let's begin by unpacking the nature of showing and telling in creative writing. Picture “showing” as an artful painter, meticulously crafting images with words to transport the reader directly into the story. It's all about invoking emotions and stimulating the senses through the lens of your characters.


Conversely, imagine “telling” as a knowledgeable guide. This aspect is more straightforward and often used to convey critical facts, events, or emotions without immersing the reader in detailed descriptions. It can also manage time and location, guiding readers through a quick summary of action or shifts in locale by skipping over details that aren’t necessary to the main action.


The cool thing about this is that showing and telling are equally crucial in weaving a compelling narrative. The challenge, though, lies in understanding how to wield each one effectively. Finding the right balance between the two can elevate your storytelling, fostering a riveting narrative that captivates and resonates with your readers. Like any other aspect of writing, this skill develops and improves with practice, a keen eye for detail, and enough knowledge of your story to see what information needs to be conveyed in which ways.


Mastering the Craft of Showing


Diving into the world of showing is like stepping into the shoes of an artist, carefully using your words to paint vivid, sensory-rich scenes that pull your readers into your narrative. You're not just telling your readers that your character is afraid—you’re portraying their emotional response. You reveal their world through the senses: what they see, hear, taste, touch, smell. The more you can put them in the scene, the more they’ll be able to empathize with the character and perceive the significance of what’s happening.


The key to showing lies in understanding your characters and their emotional landscape. Let's say your character is anxious. Instead of simply writing, “She was anxious,” think about how her anxiety manifests physically. Maybe she’s a nail-biter, chews on the inside of her cheek, or has a Squishmallow keychain that she plays with.  


When you master the craft of showing, you give your readers a deeper, more intimate understanding of your characters. This technique helps establish a profound emotional connection, allowing readers to feel what your characters feel—excitement, sorrow, joy, and dread.


It's a powerful way to tell your story, one that fosters empathy and hooks your readers, encouraging them to invest in your narrative fully. Remember that while showing is an integral part of storytelling, it's not the only tool in your writer's toolbox. After all, there's a particular art to telling too.


The Power and Precision of Telling


On the flip side of showing lies the clear-cut world of telling. While showing paints the scene, telling illuminates it with valuable facts and insight, guiding your readers through the narrative. Its primary function is straightforwardly delivering vital information, thoughts, or emotions.


Think of telling as the voice of clarity amidst the sensory tapestry of showing. It shines the spotlight on information that may not require elaborate description and is also helpful in summarizing events that serve as stepping stones to the main storyline.


For example, if your characters are going to a dance club after work, you don’t have to describe every aspect of their Uber ride. You can just say, “They took an Uber to Disco Central and talked about the awesome dance moves they would unleash.”


However, if the Uber driver is really hot and they persuade him to come party at the club with them, the balance has now shifted. That conversation becomes really critical to the story, and it is now necessary that we see it play out.


Telling also adds a gentle rhythm to your narrative, allowing readers some breathing space amidst the vivid imagery. Sometimes, writers will incorporate a passage that includes a summary of key information after a particularly emotionally intense scene to let both the reader and character process what’s happened. The natural charm of 'telling' is its candid simplicity, directness, and precision.


Some writers mistakenly think that telling is the lesser half of showing. However, it’s a crucial storytelling tool that propels the narrative with facts, introspection, and clear-cut information. The trick lies in knowing when and how to employ telling for maximum narrative impact. With practice, you'll appreciate the true power and precision of telling as you weave your creative narratives with increasing confidence and skill.


Balancing Act: Merging Show and Tell


Finding that sweet spot between showing and telling can feel daunting. But rest assured, it's a dance that every writer learns to master over time. Start by embracing the fact that both showing and telling have unique roles in storytelling. Showing allows you to pull your readers into the heart of your narrative, to feel and experience the world you've created. On the other hand, telling offers a refreshing pause, providing essential details in a clear and straightforward way.


Try interweaving show and tell together within your story. You could kick off a scene with information, then plunge deeper into a scene, and then pull back to show the effect of the events on the character.


This is a good way to practice but isn't a one-size-fits-all formula. Ultimately, your story and your writerly instincts should steer the balance between showing and telling. The process for every project you take on will be different, and you may have to learn new ways of using your craft to fit the idea. It’s dangerous to think that just because a technique worked for one project, it will automatically fit the next thing you take on.


Remember, perfecting this balance isn't about strictly following rules but exploring and mastering these techniques to best serve your story. It's about nurturing your craft, taking risks, and, above all, believing in and committing to your story.


Need Some Help with Showing and Telling in Writing?


Showing and telling in writing is a complicated topic, and it’s understandable if you still have questions. And even if you don’t, there are probably other ideas related to craft that you’re curious or even confused about.


Sometimes, asking a professional is the best way to get answers. But what professional writer has the availability for that? And with many authors charging upwards of hundreds of dollars for consultations, how can your everyday author afford that?


That’s why I make myself available for 30-minute consultations with any author with a topic or writing problem they need to talk out. And it’s free.


Schedule a free Zoom with me to talk through your writing quandaries, tell me about a project you’re working on, or get direction about what you need to do next.


Click below to learn more.

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