Telling vs. Showing: A Balance

If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck…it must be a duck (spoiler alert: the picture is of a goose), and yet, the day I took this picture, a little boy ran around trying to catch the duck. The goose hissed at him, and said in a huff, “I don’t look anything like a duck.” But the kid kept calling it a duck.

What does this have to do with writing middle grade? It makes me think about Telling in writing… If it looks like telling, acts like telling, it must be telling (so delete?).

Telling in writing is NOT a very bad, no good, horrible action. Sometimes it feels like it is a writing crime to tell in writing. It is not. In fact, Telling is as much of a requirement as Showing in a great read, and too much Showing would be just as much of a problem (and would become a tedious read). There needs to be balance.

This knowledge (of balance, and Telling being good) was an epiphany and a relief. Very sensible approach to storytelling, I thought.

Yet, critiques and even conference presentations do not seem to get this message across. Perhaps this is the art of discovery as we journey to become better writers?  Honing our craft, writing, laboring, suffering…

Maybe I can relieve the bit about the suffering.

I’m here to tell you I’m going to show you the best books I have found on the topic of Show vs. Tell. It also means I am not going to reinvent the wheel by coming up with luminous (clever, astute, brilliant) writing examples in this post. I devote my time to writing stories, and to learning the craft from people who have already devoted large amounts of their time teaching us the finer point of novel writing. I am passing on what worked for me, because with so many books out there, I have found some are better at some bits, and not others, and it can all get very overwhelming when you start hunting for examples (that are both good examples, and specific).

I enjoyed (*both authors have very different writing styles, flip through the books and see what you will be comfortable with):

  • Troubleshooting Your Novel, by Steven James. Mr. James writes, “Show struggles. Tell goals.” He breaks down examples in a table, with the story element described, and then a concrete explanation on if it should be show or tell. (Notice I said concrete examples, not nebulous statements on what writers should or should not do.)


  • Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole. Her book is dense! I am on my third read of it, it is that dense. It is like a hearty, dark rye bread. Very filling and best eaten slow. Ms. Kole’s section on Be a Curator, Not a Camera, is an example of what not to write when you are narrating (and why). “Don’t let a character or narrator impartially record the events and relay them to the reader….” The whole book is peppered with specific examples from kidlit, and explanations of what works and why. One particularly fitting example in Kole’s book comes from a section on the middle grade novel Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look (pg.59). Ms. Kole shows us the Showing, why it builds tension, how the reader is able to see that Alvin’s father is upset, and how we as the reader actually feel the fact that Alvin is threatened. She also discusses several types of Telling, and explains two should be avoided, and one can be used skillfully as part of our writing toolkit.




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