Show and Tell: The importance of Balance

Credits: Wood, Monica. Description (Elements of Fiction Writing)

Yes, you read the heading right. Showing and Telling are equally important. Sometimes, a writer needs to show, sometimes the writer need to tell.  Today we figure out what to do when. But before that, let us get some definitions out of the way.

Showing: Allow the reader to be right there with the character, smelling, seeing, feeling, and experiencing what the character does in full 7D. The richness of the landscape, the shock of disappointment of a new marriage, the fireworks that raged between A and B.

Telling:  This is what you use when you need to say something and get it out of the way.  It serves to just move the story forward. Who is related to whom, where the town is, how character C got her nickname, and so on. (Sample 2)


Let us try to describe Alice:

Version 1— Telling: Alice was a timid young woman, who looked like a mouse. She was short, skinny, with brown hair, small eyes, and a pointed face. She always peeked inside the doorway before entering a party, thus giving herself a chance to flee in case she saw no one she knew.  (Sample 1)

Version Two— Showing: Alice hovered at the door of Everett’s apartment, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered inside, shrinking at the loudness of Everett’s new stereo. She breathed quickly, her black eyes darting back and forth, as if keeping her face in motion might prevent her from toppling over. When she finally spotted the wide-grinning Everett approaching, she scurried to the punch bowl, her flat shoes making a scritching sound on the polished wood.  (Sample 2)

Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches?

Combination: Alice stood at the door of Everett’s apartment with all the self-possession of a field mouse.  Hands clasped at the waist, she stood on tiptoe and peered inside to see who she might know.  (Sample 3)

Some more definitions:

Scene:  The scene moves the story forward. It has dialogue. It has a beginning, middle and an end.

 Narrative:  A string of sentences and paragraphs that tell the story.

A Scene may contain narrative.  But a narrative does not contain a scene.

Narrative (” telling”): Ms. Kendall was Middleton School’s most popular teacher. She was always bringing in maps and atlases to brighten her classroom and motivate her fourth graders. The children adored her and ran to her aid every time they had a chance. Mrs. Brimley, the other fourth-grade teacher, watched this daily homage with a mixture of resentment and awe. (Sample 6)

Scene (” showing”): Ms. Kendall paused at her classroom door and shifted her full-color maps of the NATO nations from one arm to the other. Spotting her, a small group of fourth graders dropped the books they were hauling and rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob. “Children! Children!” Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. “One at a time, now. You can’t all help at once.” Mrs. Brimley, marooned at the far end of the hall amidst a splatter of upended math books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet.  (Sample 7)

Question: What are the down-sides of each approach.

Question: Do we need to start a story with a scene?

Can Narrative be as effective as a scene?

Narrative, second draft: Mrs. Brimley envied Ms. Kendall’s youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the thirty-five fourth graders they divided between them. The children preferred Ms. Kendall, every last one of them, and who could blame them? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. I love her, Mrs. Brimley whispered dozens of times a day. And I hate her. (Sample 8)

Here is a good example of when to use a narrative.

“Mrs. Brimley marched the children through their multiplication drills, willing the clock’s heavy hands to move”— (Sample 8)


Final Points:

  1. Don’t deny the reader the pleasure of filling in some details
  2. Figure out what is important in your story, and what is not, and balance showing and telling accordingly.
  3. Too much telling can flatten your story, Too much showing can overwhelm it.
  4. Most importantly, showing takes up space. What you show in 1 page of a narrative has to be shown in 5 pages of scene.
  5. Too many scenes can make your readers impatient to get to the story




Inexperienced writers often take “showing” to extremes. They believe that good description means showing everything right down to the polka-dots on the characters’ underwear. They have been trained to believe that simply informing readers about something— a character’s anger, say— is a failure on their part of their imagination.


Maxwell’s nostrils began to flare, and a wash of red began to rise from his neck upward, into his cheeks and forehead. He narrowed his eyes and his jowls quivered uncontrollably. Little gobs of spit formed at the corners of his mouth. Teeth bared, fists clenched, he spit the words into the public-address system. (Sample S1)


Maxwell felt the full measure of his rage begin to rain down on him. “You son of a bitch.” He spat the words into the public-address system. “First Lester’s will, and now this.” (Sample S2)




Nobody will complain of telling too much, if you tell well.


Tip 1: Changing the verb


Mrs. Brimley went into Ms. Kendall’s classroom.

Mrs. Brimley sneaked into Ms. Kendall’s classroom.

Mrs. Brimley lurched into Ms. Kendall’s classroom. (Sample 9)


Tip 2: Use strong images (Show-telling)


Mrs. Brimley sneaked into the darkened classroom, her breath stalled in her throat, her eyes caught on a slender thread of moonlight that defined the wire rungs of the hamster’s cage. (Sample 10)


Tip 3: Internal monologue


Straight narrative: Mrs. Brimley skulked the perimeter of Ms. Kendall’s classroom, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark. Slowly the shapes of the classroom came clear: desks moved into groupings of four; a full-sized skeleton propped on its stand; silhouettes of posters and bookcases. The aquarium cast an eerie light across the back of the room, where Ms. Kendall’s calico hamster ran round and round the wheel in its cage. Her heart seemed to beat in concert with that whirring wheel, for she felt guilty for leaving her mother alone and began to worry that something had happened in her absence. And yet she could not leave. Entering this classroom, this mysterious, underlit realm, made her feel so close to Ms. Kendall. (Sample 11)


Question: Find problems in the above sample.


Internal monologue added: Mrs. Brimley skulked the perimeter of Ms. Kendall’s classroom, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark. How beautifully the shapes appeared: desks in happy groupings, the classroom skeleton loitering on its stand; posters and bookcases poised in silhouette! The aquarium cast an eerie light across the back of the room, where Ms. Kendall’s calico hamster ran round and round the wheel in its cage. Like my heart, Mrs. Brimley thought, putting a hand on her chest. She felt it beating in concert with that whirring wheel. She had left her mother alone, but who could fault her? Who could blame her for lingering in this mysterious, underlit realm, this place that felt like the inside of her own soul? (Sample 12)


Question: Differentiate between sample 11 and 12


Takeaway: Internal monologue, more than any other technique, blurs the line between scene and narrative, because the dialogue of a scene is implied within the narrative.




So you know you needed to show an old/aged character.  But what exactly do you want to show?


Question: Differentiate between C1 and C2.


Eulalie tottered across the street, her spotted hands curled around the glossy knob of her cane. Through her thin cloth coat you could see the stippled curve of her spine. Before her loomed the oaken doors of the Social Security Administration, stolid and heavy. She sighed. First she’d have to navigate what looked like five thousand granite steps, each of which would require a painful bend of the knee. (Sample C1)


Eulalie was 92 years old and ailing, but that wasn’t going to stop her from marching right down to the Social Security Administration this very afternoon and giving those pink-cheeked little punks a piece of her mind. (Sample C2)


Eulalie, an old woman whose social-security checks had stopped coming since the death of her husband, was angry. She decided to go to the Social Security Administration building, all the way across town, to find out what happened. She was feisty and crotchety and thought of the buttoned-down clerks as nothing more than pink-cheeked little punks. (Sample C3)


Question: Yes, Sample C3 is bad.  But why?


Thumb Rules


  1. When a story calls for action, use a scene.
  2. But also remember, some action is more important than other action. Figure out where your story is.
  3. A scene is always good for showing something wildly disappointing, moving, or confounding.
  4. Use Show when dealing with character traits and clichés. For example, do not call someone a flirt. Show that they are one.




Exercise:   Do not overthink this. Forget it all and get writing.  The only way to actually learn is to keep writing, until it becomes part of you.


  1. Write a scene about a homemaker (Ellen) who goes to buy some meat, and finds the poor butcher bludgeoned behind the counter, with his apron wrapped around his neck.
  2. Write a scene about the same Ellen (from Prompt 1) describing the above murder to her husband, and Ellen is clearly puffed up with glee that something interesting has finally happened to her, even if it isover the unfortunate demise of the butcher. The scene should expose the dullness of her own life and marriage.
  3. A wife has an affair with the husband’s boss. Show a scene that brings out the tension between the husband and wife.
  4. A wife has an affair with the husband’s boss. Show a scene that brings out the tension between the wife and the boss.
  5. A man is trying to forge a relationship with his seven-year old son, six months after the wife abandoned the family.
  6. Write about when you did something bad and got away with it.
  7. Write about your body.
  8. Write about something ugly — war, fear, hate, or cruelty–but find the beauty (silver lining) in it or something good that comes out of it.
  9. A man is tied to a railway track…and…
  10. Write a story about a detective solving a crime that was committed against his or her partner or a crime that his or her partner committed.
  11. The kids were raised on the mantra “Family is everything.” What happens when they find out their parents aren’t who they pretended to be? Will the family fall apart?
  12. You walk into your house and it’s completely different — furniture, decor, all changed. It doesn’t look like the same house anymore. And nobody’s home.
  13. Turn ordinary animals into monsters that prey on humans: dog-sized rats, killer rabbits, or a pack of rabid mountain lions. Give the animals intelligence and set them loose.
  14. A twinkling eye can mean many things. Write a poem about a twinkle in someone’s eye.
  15. What determines an action or person as good or evil? Who gets to decide what or who is good or evil?
  16. Have you ever been just about to drift off to sleep only to be roused by a spontaneous memory of an embarrassing moment from your past?













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