Editing,  Style,  Writing

Showing or Telling? A strategy for writers

Showing and Telling Made Easy: episode five

How do I know if I’m showing or telling? Does my writing have a good balance of narrative modes? Have I managed to avoid writing big chunks of backstory?

If you need answers to these questions, keep reading! 

In this episode of Showing and Telling Made Easy, we’re going to explore a practical strategy that will help you find answers.

First, let’s recap the five tools, or narrative modes, fiction writers use to communicate their stories. They are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Thought
  • Description
  • Exposition

Action and dialogue are the tools most commonly used to show, but it doesn’t mean that thought, description and exposition should never be used. Each tool has a purpose—the trick is to balance all five in a way that communicates your story effectively and keeps your readers engaged.

If you need to know more about these five tools that show and tell, and when and how to use them, check out 5 Tools that Show and Tell in Fiction.

Showing or Telling? A practical strategy …

It’s time to hit the books! We’re going to study how successful, published authors use the tools that show and tell. Once we have a good understanding of what balanced writing looks like, we can determine whether we need to adjust the way we use these tools.

Bear in mind, balance can differ from one genre to the next, so for this activity, get your hands on a copy of a book by a successful author that writes in your genre. Perhaps an author you admire who writes the kind of stories you aspire to write.

Now, let’s get practical!

Carry out the steps below to determine how the author has balanced their writing:

1 | Open the book to a page or double-page spread somewhere close to the beginning of the novel. If you have access to a photocopier, consider copying the pages.

2 | Read through the pages one sentence at a time to determine which of the five tools each falls into—action, dialogue, thought, description or exposition. If you’ve copied the pages, write notes, circle, highlight—whatever you need to do to help you study the balance of the writing.

3 | How has the author balanced the five tools that show and tell? Note how the tools that tell are balanced or interspersed amongst the tools that show. How much action is there? How much dialogue? Thought? Description? Exposition?

4 | Now try the same activity on a page or double-page spread from somewhere in the middle of the novel, and again from somewhere near the end. Does the balance vary depending on where the scene is located?

At this point, you may wish to carry out the steps above on another author’s work to see if there are similarities or differences in how the writing is balanced. Otherwise, move on to the final step—studying your writing!

5 | Finally, print out some pages from your manuscript and carry out the same activity. How does the balance of your writing compare? What action do you now need to take?

showing or telling

Take action!

Considering everything you now know about showing and telling and the tools you can use for each, as well as what you’ve learned about balancing these tools after carrying out the practical strategy above, what action do you now need to take?

If you can’t answer that question, you may wish to revisit some of the previous episodes of Showing and Telling Made Easy.

Have you given this practical strategy a go? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a note in the comments and let me know if you found it helpful.

Further reading: Writer’s Digest | How to Balance Action, Narrative and Dialogue in Your Novel


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Thanks for reading,

Libby M Iriks is the commissioning editor of romance at Vulpine Press and offers freelance fiction editing services at Perfect Pear Editing and Proofreading. Libby is also an author of contemporary small-town romance where the chemistry sizzles and love is forever. Learn more about her writing at libbymiriks.com.

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