How often have you begun a story thinking you were being told too much at the beginning? Front-loaded with information, as if you were sitting in lecture, you closed the book before the end of the first chapter? I doubt that many of you were thinking the author was subjecting you to too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” You just knew it was time to get out of class.
Telling is dispensing information. It shouldn’t happen very often in a story, but not never, as purists might say. Showing is about making the reader see something – a place, an action, a conversation, even what a character is seeing during reflection. Story is about taking the reader there. But all showing and no telling can be a problem.
Surely most of you don’t want to know everything going on in a story all the time. You like that you don’t. You hear characters talking and know there is a problem, but it’s not fully disclosed, and that’s fine with you. There is tension, even mystery. You can hardly wait for the gradual revelations. That’s what keeps you in it. But if there is too much unknown for too long, you might feel you have to work too hard. You might want some help from time to time for the sake of moving on, especially in a longer story. Not everything a reader needs to know can be shown. That’s when careful telling can work for the reader. There is a fine balance difficult for a writer to maintain. The proportions should truly favor showing, a complete absence of telling can bog a story down.
Think about what you’ve been shown and what you’ve been told in a story you have enjoyed and in one you put down. Ask yourself whether in each a good balance has been achieved. Ask whether making this distinction might help you explain to yourself or another reader why you are recommending the book or not.
In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides shows us the life of a hermaphrodite. He parses out the information about Callie’s unusual genetic inheritance over the length of the book. First we see how she behaves, how she feels about herself. Only late in the story do we gain enough information to fully understand her physical makeup and gradual transformation. It doesn’t matter because it is intriguing to see – to feel – what life is like for her as she becomes a he. And yet there is some telling along the way. Just enough to avoid us being kept in the dark too long.
Eugenides succeeds because his telling avoids authorial intrusion. It never feels like he is telling you. The telling comes from Callie talking about herself (and himself) in scenes. It comes from doctors in the story. Never in long passages of discourse. We hardly notice it. But it is telling.
If you have read Middlesex, tell us what you think. Or mention a book that seems like it would fit this conversation. It might be something others have read. Give us your examples and opinions.
There can also be too much showing: adjectives and adverbs piling on top of each other, long descriptive passages that bog down the flow. Showing can be abused. But that’s another story.
Below is the first paragraph of “Highway 47′ from my first collection, Filling Up In Cumby And Other Stories. Evaluate it for showing versus telling. Attack it sentence by sentence. Evaluate me! I’m sure I’ll learn something.
“GREY PULLED OFF THE ROAD in a meadowed valley to stretch and watch the fading evening light. Beyond the narrow stretch of tall grass, hills dusted with early snow rose like rounded steps to higher and higher summits. He loved the land’s brown curves, the lacing arms of bare trees reaching up, the creeks coming down through rocky draws, but it was too late for even the shortest hike up the beckoning gravel roads. He had been pushing himself all day, never getting out for more than a stretch. Getting home to Lesley before ten o’clock wasn’t the only reason or even the main one. The rhythm of Highway 47’s rolling turns had hooked him into a race against the clock, saving him from the familiar road dreams he had been trying to escape, leaving him content to soak up the dying light and dimming woods and hills in mesmerizing motion.”