I Brought My Balance Beam to Show & Tell

by John Caruso

Sooner or later, writing columns trot out the old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I figured we’d get it out of the way right now.

As aphorisms go, it has it’s merits. It’s short, pithy, and conveys a good message. As a cast-iron rule, however, it fails. Indeed, “showing” makes compelling fiction, and I am not advocating the elimination of showing from your repertoire of writing skills. However, “telling” is not always a dirty word. For effective fiction, we need to strike a balance between the two.

Consider the sentence, “He was sad.” To say, “he was sad” is a perfect example of missing an opportunity to show. Just telling your readers the character was sad caries little emotional punch. Let us feel what he’s feeling. Did the smell of simmering beef stew trigger an emotional memory of the final time his mother told him she loved him? Perhaps he’s so sad he looks terrible-runny nose, puffy eyes, slouched shoulders-but doesn’t even care what other people think. Or is he melancholy? Sunflowers appear dull and flat, and everyone he passes seems to be smiling as if aware of good news he missed by sleeping well past noon. A character comes alive through his or her choices, actions and reactions. Don’t cheat your characters (or your readers) by skimping on the showing.

However, there are times when showing is not always practical. Let’s say your character, Susan, has had a tiring day and doesn’t want to go out to dinner with her friend, Mary. It is enough to say work was tedious, traffic worse than usual, and the mail was full of bills. You do not need to spend three pages describing Susan’s day at the office, the near accident and several fingers she encountered on the way home, or the nature of each and every bill that waited in her mailbox just to convince the reader she had a bad day. This kind of detail would slow down your story, break its flow. Of course I am assuming that particular day is not the focus of your story. If you were writing “Susan’s Bad Day,” you’d want to show all those things. In the end, it is impractical to illuminate every detail by showing. If that was the case, it would take two chapters just to get a character out of bed and down to breakfast.

Writing fiction requires a balance between showing and telling. Luckily, there is no set formula or ratio. It is up to our creativity to decide how to distribute our words. Such is the fulfilling nature of writing. Read your favorite authors. Read unfamiliar authors. Read with an eye toward how these authors handle the show and tell. Take a look at your fiction. Do you have a lot of sentences that do a lot of telling? Paul was giddy. Lori ended the relationship. Roscoe was lonely. Or do you find that you spend paragraph after paragraph over-explaining when a sentence or two would suffice? Show us what we need to understand, but tell us what we need to know.

© 2002 by John Caruso

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