General · Writing

Show vs Tell: Proper Balance

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?

8 thoughts on “Show vs Tell: Proper Balance

    1. Thanks!

      And I have no idea, but I am pretty sure I can’t move the comments. Delete them, yes, move them, no.

      But don’t feel so bad, you are not the first person to do that. You probably aren’t the last, either.

  1. Lots of really interesting questions!

    I think for the most part styles have changed. If you look at early novels, like Moll Flanders, much of the text is telling and more telling and some retelling and some more retelling… A modern editor would despair for the life of her trusted red pen. If the book ever made it to publication, it would be a lot shorter.

    I think this is partly to do with all the visual media around us and about different cultural expectations. Now that many, many people write, I think the writer stands in a different position to the reader. Instead of having the authority to ‘tell’, we need to coax by showing…

    There’s also a different expectation in terms of effort and investment versus reward. I think readers used to be much more patient about investing time to get into a book before there was tons of action and drama. Now, with so much instant gratification to be had, there’s a different urgency about packing your first page with action. It’s both good and bad. While I do think it’s positive that writers think more about readers, I think rushing in to provide a big ‘reward’ can sometimes impoverish books. Some things are better matured. Apart from anything, action that builds over time is often far more explosive with much more subtle implications than anything that can be delivered with a page one car-chase or explosion. It may be action-packed and it may entertain in the most basic sense, but does the reader really care?

    1. You think there are more writers today than 50 years ago? Well, there are more books being published today than 50 years ago, but back than, I think there were more short story markets.

      And I never really considered writers might lose authority (if they ever had any! lol) because there are simply so many now.

      Yeah, the long, slow build up can work very well. Twilight does that and the ending was really good. The first book anyway, which is the only one I’ve read. Thing is, a long slow build usually bores me. 😦

  2. Sherri Wood Emmon’s debut work, “Prayers and Lies” by necessity has lots of telling, and then toward the last leg of the novel, a great deal of showing. It works beautifully, and frankly, the story wouldn’t be the same without it.

    I agree with the commenter who mentioned how impoverished it makes a novel when it’s all action. And for the record, this is the very reason I don’t like crit groups. Most typically use lines like, “show don’t tell” and can at times ruin perfectly good narrative with what are the very best of intentions.

    1. Hey, if you don’t agree, you can always ignore the crit group (sometimes I do!). And I haven’t read that book, but I’ll check it out.

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