Telling vs. Showing: The High Wire Act of Writing

Every writer has heard the adage to “show, don’t tell.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this advice (both in stories and in real life), and my conclusion is this: the best stories are a high-wire balancing act between the two.

First, here’s a quick example of each:

Telling: “She went sailing that afternoon.” 

Showing: “The waves lapped against the hull as she reached across the Bay, a steady dose of salt spray drying to a crisp on her skin.” 

Devil’s in the details

Showing lets sensory details do the work, which should help a reader really drop into the story. But a constant barrage of such detail can become a distraction, sending the reader skimming down the page in search of what happens next. 

Image by Myriams-Fotos

In fiction and in real life, the ideal use of showing vs. telling is a carefully considered balance between the two. Too much telling will be dull and dry; too much showing will make it difficult for readers to focus on what’s really important. Using both as needed carries the reader along for the ride, revealing what’s important through showing while moving the story forward through more efficient telling. “She went sailing” (a simple, direct, statement of fact that covers an entire afternoon with three words) might be all that’s needed for one story. If that sail will change the character’s next step, though, it probably deserves the added detail.

Balance, baby

Like other balancing acts, it’s not always obvious how much we need to “lean” in one direction or the other. Details that would distract from one story will be eagerly lapped up and rewarded with five-star reviews by the readers of another. Each writer has to find the right center for each book—once it’s clear exactly what the story really is. 

Game of Sails example

I often include too much detail in my early drafts as a way to really experience a scene. (Also, I don’t yet know exactly what story I’m trying to tell.) I try to edit my way to the right balance between telling and showing, but what started me thinking about this topic was a distracting over-show in my third novel, Game of Sails. (I’m currently recording the audiobook.)

In Chapter 24, Casey and Spencer have just finished a test regatta with a new fast sail Spencer designed; local hotshot Grant wants one. (I’ve edited this just slightly for clarity.) Read it through, and then I’ll share my hindsight thoughts:

“Nice sailing, Casey,” Grant said.
“You too,” I replied automatically.
“Not really.” He cocked his head at Spencer. “I couldn’t match his speed. Too bad my new Briand mast was held up in customs—I was hoping to use it for this regatta.”
Spencer unlatched the back door of the trailer to pull out his covers. “How were you going against Flavio and Everett in Miami?”
“I never got to line up with them. But Noddy trains with Mr. Lane. Y’all were both faster than him.”
Spencer dropped his mast cover.
“Noddy Nugent trains with Alex Lane?” I repeated.
Grant nodded. “They decided to work together after Miami. Mr. Lane was planning to sail this regatta, but I guess his new boat wasn’t ready in time. That’s why Noddy got out of school to come here.”
“Huh.” Spencer unrolled his top cover and snapped the shock cord around the rails. “I’m surprised Lane would train with someone so inexperienced.”
“Noddy’s got a whole slew of sails,” Grant said. “He was the only one here using a brand new Lane. But your sail’s much nicer—so smooth! Know where I could buy one at?”
“It’s still in development,” Spencer replied. “I’m hoping to have it on the market this summer, in time for people to train with before the Trials.”

Spencer eyed Grant, and I knew just what he would ask next.
“Could you help me load this?” Together they flipped over Spencer’s boat and lifted it on top of Gordo’s trailer.
“Casey’s ready too,” Spencer said. “D’you mind?”
“Not a bit. I live here, so I’ve got nothing to pack.”
The three of us flipped over my boat, bench pressed it up to the van’s roof racks, and slid it on from the side.
“Thanks Grant,” I said. “That’s a lot easier with three people.” Grabbing straps out of the van, I climbed up the back ladder onto the roof to tie my boat to the racks.

What’s wrong?

The goal of this scene is to reveal that Noddy Nugent (another competitor) is a front-man for rival sailmaker Alex Lane. I also wanted to show that other competitors have noticed Spencer’s fast new design. That means the entire section after the line break (loading both boats) is just clutter.

I was trying to show one of the many aspects I love about dinghy sailing: even at the Olympic level, competitors help each other. But because the level of detail is exactly the same as the text before it, it drowns out more important information. In hindsight, I should’ve told the same information in one simple declarative sentence, like: “Grant helped us load my boat on the roof of my van.”

I’m sticking to the original text for the audiobook, because matching texts allows for syncing between the two. But as I work to include tasty details in my WIP (or relate a few choice specifics about my day to my husband), I’m going to keep reminding myself: sometimes, telling (not showing) is the best way to capture and keep an audience’s attention. Like so many aspects of life and writing, the key word is balance.