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?