Six impossible things

Writing basics: Show and tell

“Show, don’t tell” has been basic fiction writing advice since Homer. It could be rendered less colloquially as “Dramatize, don’t summarize,” but either way, it doesn’t say “Show everything, tell nothing.” This leaves many beginning authors with two unanswered questions: 1) How, exactly, is showing/dramatizing different from telling/summarizing? And 2) If I’m not supposed to show everything, how much should I show?

In my experience, a lot of folks understand the concept, but not how to execute it. “He woke up and had breakfast” is pretty clearly a summary, but so is “He woke early and grumbled his way through his morning shower-and-shave routine. The refrigerator was nearly empty, so he had to make do with oatmeal for breakfast.” The second version has more details, but it’s still narrative summary – we’re not watching the guy swing his legs out of bed and shuffle to the shower, muttering under his breath because it’s way too early to be up and why is he always the one who picks up George’s towel and makes breakfast?

When an author dramatizes an event, the reader gets to see it played out in front of him with blow-by-blow actions and dialog and emotional reactions and everything. It’s the difference between a plot outline and the novel itself. A summary isn’t immediate; any time the reader or a character is being brought up to date on something that has already happened (in the story’s timeline), there’s a summary involved somewhere in the scene.

When it’s the reader being brought up to speed, the summary is usually in the narrative; when it’s a character, the summary is usually part of someone’s dialog (and may be interrupted several times to keep everything flowing along smoothly). In the latter case, the conversation between the characters is being dramatized, but the shocking development that one character is revealing to the other is being summarized in the dialog. This further confuses many people.

Actually, everything in a story is told; that’s why we call it “storytelling.” This is, of course, totally unhelpful for any author trying to decide what degree of dramatization needs to be used in a particular section of a novel, but it’s still worth mentioning for those who try to make “show, don’t tell” into some kind of absolute rule.

For any period of time that is covered by a novel, there are three categories of things that the writer has to consider: 1. Events and information that don’t add to the story, 2. Information that is important to the story, and 3. Events that are important to the story.

#1 should be obvious, but judging from the manuscripts I’ve been seeing, it isn’t. Events and information that don’t add to the story are usually things that can either be assumed (like the POV character getting up and brushing her teeth) or that are totally irrelevant to the story being told. There is always severe weather happening somewhere, but the tornado that is destroying a small town in Kansas is probably not relevant to a story about solving the murder of a Turkish diplomat in Beijing the night before, even if the Kansas town is home to one of the suspects.

A writer can come up with ways of making either thing – tornados or tooth-brushing – add to a story. But if you have to make something relevant, you can probably just leave it out entirely. If the character’s morning routine is irrelevant, then you don’t even have to include “He got up, showered, shaved, dressed, and breakfasted before heading out to rescue the kidnap victim.” You can just start with “By noon the following day, he was outside the deserted warehouse…” and let the reader assume that he slept, dressed, ate, etc.

Information and events that are important to a story are where things get sticky. Information that’s important, for instance, can include parts of a character’s backstory, but should the author just tell the reader that Avery murdered his mother ten years earlier, or should the murder be shown in a dramatic flashback? A ton of great information and background could be worked into the meeting of the science team, but is the meeting really worth dramatizing? That walk the heroine takes in the rain isn’t particularly fraught or important to the plot, but dramatizing it would provide atmosphere and mood and a bit of characterization that can’t be had from just saying “She walked home in the rain.”

There aren’t any rules of thumb for these things, because they depend so heavily on the kind of book the writer is writing. The closest I can come is to say that when you’re in doubt, ask yourself “What way of handling this bit will enhance the reader’s experience of this story?” which is pretty abstract and intuitive. On the other hand, if you don’t trust your intuition, writing may not be the best career choice for you. Or there’s always “When in doubt, leave it out.” You can also write it both ways – as a summary and as a fully dramatized scene – and see which one you like better (or which one your beta readers like better). If you do this, I recommend saving the alternate scene somewhere on your hard drive in case you – or an editor – decides that the other version really does work better.

6 Comments
  1. It’s interesting that you use breakfast as an example. In the early James Bond books, Fleming dedicated an inordinate amount of space to detailing meals. I suppose he did so to accentuate the lavish lifestyle that his notion of secret agents indulged in, but how is the story advanced by the reader being told that Bond “consumed half a pint of orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon and a double portion of coffee without sugar”? (Most meal descriptions are far more wordy.)

    To describe a character’s particular fondness for or addiction to, say, sweets is a revealing quirk (and even has potential for serving as a plot point), but Bond’s meals are just food.

    • You said it yourself — it’s there to illustrate the lifestyle of the agent, which makes it a blend of characterization and worldbuilding. One could argue that Fleming didn’t do it particularly well; the purpose might be better served if the descriptions were actually longer, with the savory richness of the eggs upon the tongue and the sluicing bitterness of the coffee, just half a degree below scalding. (Which takes us back to the previous posts on description.)

      It also says something about the character that Bond will risk sacrificing his life, but won’t sacrifice having a full and leisurely breakfast before he does so.

    • Food rationing in the UK lingered on until 1954, and was a hot political issue in the early 1950s. So lavish meal descriptions had more zing to them when the early James Bond books were first published. Bond eating that breakfast wasn’t just being lavish, he was being transgressive.

  2. One issue I keep bumping into is that information and events don’t divide into neat binary categories of “important to the story” and “not important.” A related one is that characters don’t divide neatly into “major” and “minor” characters.

    Should I put a gun over the mantlepiece? It isn’t going to be fired during the climax, but mentioning it might help give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Or it might just be a story-clogging excessive detail.

  3. This can be tricky. I remember someone ranting over a book in which the narrator had had a big secret, kept thinking “I hope (person) doesn’t find out about my big secret”, but never said in her narration what the secret was. You could argue that that’s a valid literary style, but my friend will never buy a book by that author again.

    If you’re going with first or tight-third, then I think a good rule of thumb is “what is that person actually thinking”. A heroine who lost her husband in a botched police raid five years ago isn’t necessarily going to be thinking “I lost my husband five years ago” – though she might – but it’s going to provide colour to things she does think about. In any case, if a bit of writing can tell us what’s going on and about the narrator, so much the better.

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