I am reading Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle and this line jumped out at me:
Be concise. Explain less. Dramatize important scenes, but remember that despite the usual advice given to writers, on occasion, to keep the narrative flowing, information may be ‘told’ instead of ‘shown’.
This is a little amazing. This is probably the first time anyone has ever said that sometimes telling is better than showing.
When I first figured out the difference between showing and telling, I thought I had to show everything. I was slow to realize that I didn’t, that somethings are best told, that there needs to be a balance between showing and telling.
I felt guilty whenever I ‘told’ something and searched for ways I could “show” it instead. Sometimes I let the tell stand. Often I wrote a scene and lots of times it seemed to me that the scene made it more complicated. Sometimes that was good. But sometimes it was too complicated and I would look for ways I could insert the info into two-line segments here and there.
Reading that bit of advice in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is reassuring. I mean, I was doing it, but there was also a little tingling doubt in the back of my head. It’s because pretty much everything I’ve ever read says, “Show, don’t tell.”
Do other do that? Feel guilty because they tell a piece of info instead of showing? Two lines of telling verses a hundred lines of showing.
- Show vs Tell: Proper Balance (storytreasury.wordpress.com)
- When is it Too Much? (modicumoftalent.com)
I was reading Beam Me Home by James Tiptree, Jr (pen name for Alice B. Sheldon) yesterday. It was in a science fiction collection. Not sure when it was published first, but probably during the golden age of science fiction.
It was a good story. What struck is that Beam me Home had lots of telling as opposed to showing, especially in the beginning. The middle and ending were mostly showing. Okay, yeah, a certain amount of telling is necessary for exposition, and the bulk of exposition is always going to be in the beginning. But there is just so much of it! A lot more than most short stories today have, at least the short stories I have read.
Now I am wondering just what is the proper balance of show and tell. I thought I knew. But I am also pretty sure if this story goes through any of the online critique groups (i. e. critters) today, a good chunk of the beginning would come back with the words: “Show more!”, “Dramatize these scenes!”, “Show the exposition somehow!”
I don’t know. I mean, it did work. I zipped through the story (it was pretty short, zipping was easy!). Is it just that standards have changed so much since this was first published? It was a long time ago. But how could standards have change so much?
All I know is I can’t do exposition like that and have it work like she hers did. Her beginning is mostly exposition vie telling, the rest is mostly dramatic scenes. I hadn’t considered this particular balance of show vs tell before. Would it work today? That’s the question. Or have writing styles and expectations have changed too much?
- “Handling Exposition” (gointothestory.com)