Ever been to a party and found yourself trapped in a corner—the captive audience to some uninspiring storyteller?
I went for a drive on Monday—no wait, it was Sunday…no Saturday. I parked at the shopping centre and ran into my boss. And my boss said she thought I was sick on Friday—what was I doing at the mall? I wasn’t sick in the first place, I just pretended to be. You’ll never guess why…
You tried to give your full attention, patiently waiting for an entry point into the story, any good reason to stay—but it was a challenge.
That sense of the missing entry point is key. It’s the reason “showing” is so vitally important in the art of creative writing.
Without sensory-rich scenes, vivid imagery, precise details, and evocative description we remain outside the story—unengaged.
If you tell, tell, tell—and keep telling—before you know it, your reader will be yawning, excusing herself, and finding someone more interesting to spend time with.
Effective storytellers know there’s more to a day’s work than writing a through-line from Point A—inciting incident—to Point B—resolution.
But striking that balance of showing and telling can be tricky, especially if you—like many writers—aren’t exactly sure what is meant by “show” versus “tell”.
Isn’t all storytelling telling?
No, not exactly.
Telling is the art of narration—filling in details, compressing time, providing info that advances the plot. But readers need more than the facts; storytelling also requires the hard work and deft skill of showing.
Some creative writing teachers tell their students to “imagine a camera panning the scene”. By including visual details—everything the camera sees—you can transform generic passages of “telling” into descriptive, engaging scenes.
I liken the process to turning up the dials on an old TV to fine tune the picture’s colour, clarity, and brightness. But let’s press that idea a little further.
When we strike the right balance of “show and tell” we are doing more than just adjusting the picture. We’re inviting our readers to be witnesses, engaging all of their senses.
Think about how as a writer you can use all the tools at your disposal to wholly immerse a reader in your story.
How can you give them what they need to be able to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste?
Writing instructors have come up with different analogies to help their students visualize the role showing and telling play in good writing.
In “Writing Fiction” Jane Burroway calls telling the mortar of a story, and the scenes its building blocks.
I’ve heard story likened to a necklace, with the chain its summary and the pearls, scenes.
Isaac Yuen shared this analogy he’d come across in writing circles on the role of “telling”. “Exposition,” he said, “is like a fine powder that should be lightly sprinkled throughout a piece”.
No matter how you think of it, the key takeaway is this: both showing and telling are important elements of well-written stories.
Strike the wrong balance—by telling too much or with too little attention to detail—and as Janice Hardy puts it, “the problems appear”.
Sarah Selecky’s, “Grandpa’s Fries”, is an excellent example of a story that achieves the fine balance of showing and telling.
In her piece the narrator recalls a day spent at her grandparent’s home in Evansville, Indiana, during a tornado warning.
The third paragraph is almost entirely exposition—background information that orients the reader to the time, place, and situation. The last sentence shows how it felt for the narrator to be there:
It was as though a pane of glass had been removed from a diorama, and now, on my own, I was free to see and touch and live in the real house.
Following this mostly expository paragraph is a vivid scene that transports us right there alongside the narrator on that particular day in her grandparents’ home.
Selecky brings us in close so we can witness her morbidly obese Polish grandfather’s “performance” as he calmly prepares a “steaming hot, crispy, and golden” batch of fresh fried potatoes in the kitchen as her grandmother waits out the storm in the basement.
As an exercise to improve your writing skills, print out “Grandpa’s Fries”, then highlight all the narration in one colour, and scene in another.
With a greater awareness of how showing and telling work hand in hand to tell a story, practice weaving both narration and scene in your own work.
A final word of advice: in the drafting stage, it’s too soon to worry about striking the perfect balance of showing and telling.
Expect that a first draft will be out of balance; you need to “tell” the story to yourself first, getting it on the page any way you can.
In revision you’ll cut unnecessary summary and find opportunities to transform those moments of abstract telling to vivid, concrete showing—turning the dial up on the colour, brightness, and clarity.
- The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante
- To Show and To Tell by Philip Lopate