Balancing Show and Tell in Storytelling

by Ali Shaw, founder and executive editor

Ali One of the first rules many of us are taught when we’re young writers is “Show, don’t tell.” While there are good intentions behind this rule to help us include more detail and help readers fully experience our scenes, it can often be crippling when we are ready to string scenes together into a story. How do we get from one scene to another? Do we have to include all those details too? Won’t the story drag if it’s detail after detail after detail? Well, yes, and that’s why it’s important to include some telling too.

My friend and colleague Vinnie Kinsella calls the telling part of storytelling connective tissue. The scenes are the muscles of the story, doing the majority of the work, but they’re different muscles and there’s space between them, and they need connective tissue to be able to work together.

Three kinds of telling, or connective tissue, you can use to help balance showing and telling in your writing are transition, summary, and explanation.

For transition, let’s look at an example. In my story “Going Home,” published in the Celebrating Animal Rescue anthology, the story opens with a scene of my dog Henry waking up screaming in pain, unable to walk. The second scene is a flashback to an earlier vet visit to diagnose his back injury and discuss pain management options. To get from point A to point B, I used a transition paragraph to fill in the basics of the backstory before zooming in to show the detailed scene. The following excerpt shows the last sentence of the first scene, the transition paragraph, and the first sentence of the second scene:

He’s obviously in less pain when he drops it but trying to lift it to look at me, to plead for my help.

This is not the first time Henry has screamed. Just three months after I adopted him, a lively lab-chow mix barely a year old, he woke me up screaming into the darkness. It took three emergency vet visits to identify his problem as a back injury—maybe from an incident when he was a puppy or possibly a congenital condition.

“He’ll need to be on steroidal pain meds for the rest of his life,” the vet said.

The transition paragraph tells instead of showing to give a larger amount of information in a short time, all for the purpose of helping readers understand the importance of both scenes and how they work together.

That was just one paragraph for transition, though. What about when we need to tell quite a bit of backstory? This is common especially in personal essays, where you don’t have as much room for details as you might have in full memoir. That’s where summaries come in. Later in “Going Home,” I worry that Henry’s pain may mean he’s near the end of his life even though he’s only seven. While most people who have had pets can fill in the emotion about why this is a big deal, the story begs to tell exactly why this is so significant to me, so I included the following summarized backstory:

No, it’s not time yet! We’ve done so much to prevent this.

Henry has been my constant. Through friendships coming and going, through love and breakups, he’s always greeted me, reminded me to play, to eat, to go outside. Together, we’ve hiked in the Columbia River Gorge, the Cascades, and the Rockies. He’s greeted me every morning with tail wags, and he never fails to bring me a sock at the door when I come home. I’ve taken countless pictures of his wide smile that seems to say, “Life is grand,” something I need to be reminded of from time to time.

Henry came to me when most of the constants in my life had scattered. My college roommates and I had grown apart since they got married. Now they spent their time planning events for married people only.

From there, I go into a short scene that shows an awkward interaction with these friends and my decision that night to get a dog.

Summaries can go for a couple paragraphs up to even a couple pages, depending on how much you need to fill in for readers between scenes. If you’re linking two scenes that have different characters and take place in different settings but are perhaps linked by theme, you may need to include a summary that’s a bit longer to cue readers in on exactly how the scenes relate to each other.

A third form of connective tissue is explanation. This is especially useful when readers need to understand how or why something works in order to comprehend the character’s actions or motivations. For example, in a memoir about living with Parkinson’s disease, certainly readers want to know what the author is thinking and feeling, but beyond that, the most readers probably need a basic understanding of what Parkinson’s does to the body—that it’s a neurological disorder that causes tremors among other painful and frustrating symptoms—as well as how medications and brain stimulation surgery work in the body to help alleviate the symptoms. While it’s true this could potentially be shown in a scene with a doctor explaining all this to the patient, the use of dialogue to explain the ins and outs of the neurological system could be tedious to the reader, whereas straight explanation can give the reader a base understanding in a short space between more significant and detailed scenes.

Avid Another big value of the tool of telling is that it allows for some variety in the pacing of the story. While the showing scenes slow the pace down and let readers experience nearly every detail, the telling passages can shift the pace into fast-forward—or fast-rewind to head into a flashback—and this balance creates interest and tension to help keep the reader engaged.

There’s no one right way to balance showing and telling, so experiment with it and see which methods work for you and your story. You’ll likely find that you’ll use all three of these methods—transition, summary, and explanation—at different times in your writing, and you may find other types of connective tissue that work as well.

Thanks for joining me at the Sacramento memoir workshop at Avid Reader at the Tower. Best of luck to you, and keep writing!