Wordsmith Wednesday–Show or Tell?


Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps you’ve heard the axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” When I first joined a writing critique group, that was advice that I heard often–either directed at me or one of the other writers. At first, of course, I went ahead and diligently tried to make the changes. The result was stilted narrative, sometimes full of purple prose and oh-so-rambling. It just didn’t work. Little-by-little, I began to modify the “showing” and inserted bits of summary to aid in transitioning from one scene to another or one time period to the next.

What’s the difference? Scenes usually involve action and rely heavily on dialogue. They focus on the characters external action and interaction or on their internal dialogue. Summaries are primarily dominated by comments from the narrator and serve to move the plot forward in time, to set the stage for the scene that follows, to make generalizations or to analyze. Both summary and scene are most effective when they take advantage of sensory description that enhances the readers experience.

The key, when making a choice between showing (scene) and telling (summary) is to evaluate which device will be most effective in keeping your reader’s attention and moving the plot forward. As I mentioned previously, overuse of scene may cause considerable lengthening of your manuscript. Irrelevant dialogue–How are you? I’m fine, thank you–will bore the reader and stall the story. On the other hand, too much summary causes the reader to drop out of the picture. He will feel like he’s on the outside of the story instead a part of it. Chances are, he will close the book and not pick it up again (that just happened to me this week).

Here’s an example of summary from my novel, Winter is Past:

The month of May crawled along like a semi going over Donner Summit. Each day lasted forty-eight hours, or so it seemed. Kathryn went to the outpatient center three times a week for treatment. When possible, I stayed with her, remembering boredom, chills and the helplessness of it all.

Now, contrast this with a scene from the same manuscript:

“I understand now, Claire. I get how you felt when I offered you a kidney. You freaked, remember? You were sure something would happen to me. God, girl, I lie awake at night thinking of that. I think about it while I’m having dialysis—it haunts me. I worry about Josh the way you did about me.”

“I can’t talk you out of that one,” I admitted.

“Are you afraid something will happen?”

“I can’t be. Today’s all we have, isn’t it?” As I spoke the words, I only wished I felt the strength that they implied.

I hope this will help you when you muddle your way through your novel or short story. Don’t be afraid to use a blend of scene and summary, showing and telling.