It has a lot of names, Show & Tell, Show don’t tell, narrative summary, but it comes down to two basic ideas. Show me something, don’t tell it to me. I know, I can hear you sighing, “Oh God, here she goes with show don’t tell. Sweet bajesus, I’ve read about it a thousand times!” I’ve read about it a thousand times too, but for the longest time I couldn’t find much on it in plain English. I’m shooting for a compact, easy to understand tidbit here to hopefully make it seem less intimidating than so many things I’ve read about it felt. We’ll be done in five minutes, promise. So let’s dive in, show, don’t tell (I refer to it as narrative summary)….
The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries. In the space of no mare than five minutes, I heard several different people put forth their theories – all equally probable or preposterous – as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the conviction that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed, that for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties.
Now take a look at the same passage as it actually appeared in The Great Gatsby:
“I like to come,” Lucille said. “I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last, I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address—within a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it.”
“Did you keep it?” asked Jordan.
“Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered. It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars.”
“There’s something funny about a fellow that’ll do a think like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”
“Who doesn’t” I inquired.
“Gatsby. Somebody told me—“
The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.
“Somebody told me that they thought he killed a man.”
A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.
“I don’t think its so much that,” argued Lucille skeptically; “its more that he was a German spy during the war.”
One of the men nodded in confirmation.
“I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,” he assured us positively.
“Oh, no,” said the first girl, “it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.”
As our credulity switched back to her, she leaned forward with enthusiasm. “You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.”
What’s the difference between these two examples? The first version is narrative summary, with no specific settings or characters. We are simply told about the guests’ and the thrill of the air of mystery about their host. In the second version we actually get to see the breathless party-goers, leaning forward as they indulge in gossip and theories about the intriguing host.
All right, let me blow the top off of this “show, don’t tell” business. Sometimes you should tell. I can see some of you turning red in the face already! The fundamentals of writing can be very black and white, but there’s a whole lot of gray area in there too. Here is a quick look at one example of just that…We hear it all the time, over and over we read it in books, to never 'tell'. After it being drilled into your brain, it can be tempting to rip apart your manuscript knowing your novel has multiple sections of ‘tell’, or narrative summary. Narrative summary can be useful, and it is necessary. That’s right, I just said the dreaded “tell” is necessary. Don’t plow through your manuscript chopping entire sections of summary and change them into scenes. Yes some scenes may be dead weight, or better off shown than told. But remember that readers need a chance to catch their breath between high tension scenes. A novel with a constant high tension pace can be tasking to read after a while. As a reader, you find yourself setting the book down for a while even if you love the book; it’s hard to maintain that constant pace. You need to let a reader catch their breath, and a good way to do this is through narrative summary. Even in your action packed movies, are the chase scenes constant? Do we always see the hero running into the action? No. Even in movies, the hero gets a break and novels are no different. Readers, your ‘movie watchers’, need that break before you pull them to the edge of the seat again. Telling is also a great way to cover a large amount of time in your story. If you have a character, and you need to explain a large chunk of her life (say a year for example), but that chunk of time should not be broken into scenes. Yet still important for your reader to know, wrap it up in a little narrative summary. We’ll get the information we need (without a dreaded information dump), without having to go through unnecessary scenes. While you may have an itchy trigger finger, wanting to blow a fat hole in your narrative summary, “But I’m TELLING!” you’re screaming at yourself. Novels need a bit of telling, narrative summary, don’t throw it all to the wind.
Now, a bit about those pesky black and white areas. Does any of your narrative summary (telling) involve major characters, where a scene could be used to show us a bit of their personality? Particularly those times when you’re trying to squeeze in some of their past, or when you introduce new characters (including the beginning of your novel). Don’t do an information dump, give us a scene. Instead of telling us how Alley is a slob, piles of laundry scattered on the floor, remnants of last weeks takeout containers strewn about the apartment. And how her mother was insanely neat, Fridays are for cleaning, top to bottom in the entire house. Laundry was never left in the dryer or hanging off a chair…instead, have Alley in her apartment, which of course is a disaster, and have her mother pay a surprise visit. There will be no need to tell us about Alley’s past, because you can use a scene to show us what kind of house she grew up in with her Mothers disgust at the apartment.
Does any of the narrative summary involve major plot twists or surprises? Plot twists and surprises are your heavy hitters, don’t deny them the chance to make your readers jaw drop by cramming them into narrative summary. Use a bit of narrative summary as your warm up, to ease us into a scene. Then you drop the bomb on us in a scene that Aunt Mary is actually Howard’s mom, and Howards ‘mom’ is actually Aunt Mary’s childhood friend. Narrative summary is a great warm up and cool down spot before or after your big twists. Always put those gems in their own scene.
Do you have any narrative summary, or are you bouncing from scene to scene without taking a breath? Don’t forget to give readers a chance to slow down between scenes. Sink them into the setting, ease them into a relaxed state, which will give them the break they need and provide the chance for buildup of the next, big scene, your heavy hitter.
Are you describing your characters feelings? Have you told us they’re angry? Irritated? Morose? She looked at Bob, sprawled out on the recliner, bag of Ruffles between his legs while his greasy fingers fumbled with the remote. Chip crumbs were all over his shirt, little round stains covered his chest. It disgusted her seeing him waste a perfect Saturday afternoon stuffing his face in front of the TV. Here, you’re telling me about her disgust. She’s angry at her husband, disgusted about his Saturday eating habits. Don’t tell me, show me.
“You’re such a slob Bob, look at you, there’s crap all over your shirt! God you’re gross,” she said with disgust. There, we see the disgust, you’ve shown it to us in the dialogue. Instead of telling us about her disgust like the previous example, you’ve shown it to us in her words. But don’t forget to resist the urge to explain (see Dialogue mechanics), so drop the ‘she said with disgust’ We’ve seen the disgust she has in the dialogue, the reader can pick up on it so there’s no need to explain it by adding that speaker attribution.
Ok, that’s it, we’re done! See, I told you it wouldn’t be too bad. Now don't take me as a writer with a bloated ego, thinking I've got all the aspects of this writing thing down. I don't, every day I learn. I'm just passing on what I have learned.
So here are the main things to focus on in a nutshell:
Telling is necessary, in every story. It is your warm up/cool down, or way to wrap up a large chunk of time.
When introducing characters, don’t tell me their personality, show it to me in a scene. Show me how Alley is a slob when her Mom flips her lid in a surprise visit.
Plot twists and surprises get their own scene, always. Don’t ‘tell’ the good stuff, show it to me.
Don’t bounce from scene to scene of showing. Let me stop to take a breath in a little telling.
Don’t hide a characters feelings in narrative summary (unless perhaps if it’s meant to cover a length of time). Show me her disgust, his anger, their passion in a scene.