Deciding When to Show and When to Tell
"Show, don't tell" is probably the most common advice given to writers. But that's not the whole story.
I've been thinking a lot about this issue. It came up in both large and small ways in a number of the critiques I've done for other writers recently, and it was flagged in my manuscript by a couple of the writers in my wonderful critique group. I started thinking about researching my thoughts and doing a blog post, but serendipidously, several of the blog's I regularly read posted articles on the subject last week. Michael Bourret described how he has been seeing a lot of manuscripts that aren't engaging or engrossing because of too much telling. Mary Kole had a post on "Good Telling" based on an essay she received from Melissa Koosmann. The Plot Whisperer (Martha Alderson) also had a great post on how people may hide strong emotions.
So I'm going to tell you what I think. (Because really, when don't I?) And I want to know what you think. Tell me if you agree or disagree, and let me know how much you think style, skill, POV, and genre fall into the equation.
First, there's a difference between narrative and scene, and each has its role in a novel.
- A scene takes place in real time, in an idenfied location, and it involves action and/or dialogue between characters. By definition, a scene is "show." It engages the reader, engrosses them, and makes them feel connected to what the characters are feeling.
- Narrative summary describes--"tells" about--action or an event, but doesn't show it. Just as you would have a hard time selling a manuscript that's all narrative, you would have a hard time getting a reader to enjoy a book that is all nonstop action. As readers, we need time to breathe and absorb. Narrative serves that purpose.
- Is the event or information significant enough to the story to warrant a full scene?
- Does it move the story forward?
- Does it lead the character toward a turning point or plot point, preferably both, that you want the reader to remember and experience along with the character?
- Are the events action or reaction? In other words, is something happening, or are the characters making decisions based on something that has already happened?
- If it is action, does it directly impact the POV character and are you giving her an opportunity to react to it?
- Is there identifiable conflict between two characters, between what your main character wants and what she needs, or preferably both?
- Are you providing important information that a reader is likely to skim over, misunderstand, or not care about in narrative form? Remember, the reader doesn't know what you know -- that it's important.
Narrative summary, on the other hand, works best for:
- moving the story forward in time.
- covering repeating actions so that the one instance you show in scene will stand out.
- varying the rhythm of the writing.
- giving the reader a break after a tense scene.
- briefly covering a character's reaction following a scene.
- providing information in a way that would fall flat in a scene through lack of conflict.
- delivering information that's not significant enough to merit a scene.
- subtly directing attention to an emotion or piece of information that might otherwise get lost.
- misdirecting attention to manipulate the reader's perception.
- supporting the reader in the suspension of disbelief.
- inviting the reader to share a secret.
Melissa Koosmann's essay was in part based on excerpts from a speech by Arthur A. Levine senior editor Cheryl Klein titled "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter." Klein described how J. K. Rowling uses brief lines of narrative "telling" to carry scene shifts and provide a context through the use of topic sentences. Klein further points out that narrative can misdirect as well as direct.
Just as the best dialogue doesn't always tell the truth, great narrative summary doesn't always say what you think it does. One of the great examples provided in essay is the line that precedes Harry's unexpected trip to the zoo on Dudley's birthday: "Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time." Why is this a great line? Because it is followed by Rowling's examples of Harry getting treated like a second class citizen. Instead of merely going on for pages and pages with scenes of how Harry's life sucks, she lets us see that things we would think are horrible, Harry considers a special treat. Rowling's narrative shows the events from Harry's perspective and subtly calls attention to the humble, resilient side of Harry's nature.
But Rowling's narrative does even more than that. As the essay puts it, there is a supportive web of good telling even within the scenes; Rowling uses it to punctuate and control the reader's takeaway. All of that together lets Rowling's readers know that we are in the hands of a master. We feel we can trust her.
Especially in fantasy, trust is essential. Nicola Morgan did a post about Suspending Disbelief in which she pointed out that a strong narrative voice is critical to allowing readers to believe in your story. And the more incredible the story, the more you must work to earn their trust.
Which brings us to the little things that build credibility. Showing details and small pieces of business within your scenes is what brings your characters to life. And again, this is crafted into your novel through planning, not through some rote repetition of insert Action A into Dialogue B, add Dialogue Tag C, and punctuate with Action Beat D. As Mary Kole points out, "a lot of convoluted, cliche stuff happens when a writer desperately tries to avoid telling (like hammering hearts and foot-tapping gestures, instead of just saying, “She was nervous,” or “He hated when she was late,” or whatever)."
To avoid these:
- make your scenes visual and memorable by setting them somewhere with built-in actions, props, and symbols to use in punctuating the emotional conflict within the scene.
- know your characters well enough to know how they will react.
- make other characters react to each other.
- don't overdrive the words and actions to substitute for emotion.
- don't make your characters too emotional to substitute for lack of conflict or tension in your scene.
- do look for fresh ways to show what the character feels or sees or experiences.
- employ telling stylishly, and use it with confidence in situations where you want to call attention to the narrative, bridge or transition between two scenes, or use irony to show that things aren't what they seem.
- avoid telling things you've already shown; trust your reader to infer from action and dialogue.
Now I am often guilty of lapsing into schmaltz, and I am an active member of Overwriters Anonymous. The word "look" and its variants appear in my manuscripts too often and must be ruthlessly stamped out. I have to do a word search for the word felt as often as the next writer. But I firmly believe that a character's heart shouldn't clench over every set-back. Eyes really can just look at someone or something. They don't always need to gaze, or narrow, or bulge. Tears don't have to be present in every scene. And characters shouldn't coo, croon, sneer, or smirk more than once in a very great while. (And certainly NOT in a dialogue tag!!) Those kinds of stock actions are conveniences to the writer, crutches just as false as the "she was something" or "she felt something" telling pattern. Characters can nod, shake their heads, and do things that are relatively invisible to the reader, but more unusual actions must either be used as a habit you've deliberately given to your character--and only that one character--or reserved for one-time use.
And I'm not saying that most instances of telling wouldn't be stronger when converted to showing. But after agonizing over the examples in my own writing, and changing most of them, I'm not sure that the obvious cure isn't sometimes worse than the problem. If you can't come up with a unique and original way to express emotion, is it better to stick with simplicity?
It comes down to this: the rules for writing well are guidelines. Good writing is an art. Like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it is different for each of us. I know that from now on, when evaluating showing versus telling in my own work and that of other writers, before suggesting that something is "telling," I'm going to be careful to see if there is a reason why the writer "told," and evaluate whether there is a pattern in that telling which brings integrity to the book. If the telling results in lack of connection and engagement, that's one thing. But if it doesn't interfere? Should we fix it if it isn't broke?
What do you think? What are some of your favorite examples of good telling? Can you think of any published examples where the showing didn't work?