Sooner or later, just about anyone seeking training in the fiction-writing craft is given the adage, “Show! Don’t tell.”
When starting out, newbies generally want to just tell their stories, much as we tell a friend what happened in a TV episode or a book we read recently. Our quick summation gets across the gist. However, the drawback to most narration is that it’s flat and less than involving for the recipient. The individual doing the telling may enjoy it immensely. After all, the story is clear in the teller’s head and imagination. But recipients are often unenthused by dull summations that go on and on.
How, then, do writers show a story? By dramatizing it in scenes–where the conflict that’s taking place between two opponents unfolds moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, and in verbal exchange-by-verbal exchange. Also, by dramatizing it in sequels–where the viewpoint character hits a scene setback or meets momentary defeat and has to stagger back, react, process, and cook up a new plan of action. Getting the hang of writing dramatically takes time and practice. It requires considerable thought, and it’s a slower writing process than just dashing off a summary of what your characters are doing. But once you get the hang of it, it has the potential to bring stories to life.
Why, then, am I reversing all of that sound, solid writing advice in this post? Am I actually urging you to stop dramatizing and resume telling?
But only under certain conditions and for certain purposes that will benefit your story.
Narrative summary is a specialized tool. Consider the sculptor of metal. This artist uses hammers, tin snips, welders, etc. This artist may also have a small acetylene blowtorch used to create a patina or apply colorization to the finished piece. Does the artist use a flame-thrower all the time? Probably not. But to achieve a particular effect, flame is exactly the right tool.
Like fire, summary possesses some drawbacks, but it offers benefits as well, and sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show.
What if, for example, you’ve written a story that’s stretched longer than your intended market allows? Perhaps you’re writing a children’s fantasy story, and intend to launch a series with it, so you’ve filled it with numerous character introductions, bringing in story people that will span the series beyond this initial book. You’ve thrown in subplots for the same reason. You’ve built a quirky, enchanting (pun intended) world. All of those factors gobble manuscript space. And perhaps you’ve tightened and streamlined all you can, but the scenes just kept marching forward, and the manuscript grew to be much too long.
Do you throw out a subplot? But if you cut it from the midsection then won’t a later reference to it seem contrived? Do you omit some of your characters? But what if you’ve chosen them carefully and ensured you haven’t included anyone extraneous to the plot. In other words, your story is tight but just too long.
The best solution is to pick certain scenes and summarize them. Not because you don’t know better, but because you don’t want to lose their essential contribution to your plot even while you need to reduce page count.
Look at scenes that have been written for character, perhaps to demonstrate or reveal some important character trait or an aspect of a character’s past that will play a subsequent part in the manuscript. Otherwise the scene carries little conflict or dramatic impact. Preserve what’s important and summarize the event.
Look at small scenes that are perhaps amusing or quirky and reduce them to indirect dialogue and a few paragraphs of summary.
Perhaps you’ve written a scene where Igor and Natasha are teaching Pytor how to tame a fire-spider (and no you can’t really use a fire-spider in your fiction because author Jim Hines created the beast and it belongs to him). Pytor is reluctant to learn and the fire-spider is less than cooperative. Maybe the scene is funny, conveys a vivid sense of place, and you just by golly like it, but the only truly important aspect of it is that Pytor needs to be able to minimally handle or control the creature. So you may have to sacrifice all the sparkling dialogue and moment-by-moment account of Pytor getting his fingers scorched while trying to safely pick up the fire-spider and boil down a ten-page event to a paragraph:
It took most of the afternoon to persuade Pytor to even pick up the fire-spider. By the time he’d burned his fingers twice and hopped about, shaking his hands and swearing so vehemently the fire-spider hid under a rock and the ground trembled, Igor was finally able to persuade him to use the gloves. Natasha made certain he understood how necessary it was to handle the fire-spider gently and not crush it in his fist. Natasha also enticed the fire-spider from beneath the rock with bits of a Twinkie she’d brought just to reward it. And eventually Pytor was able to balance the creature on his palm and even remember to orient it so that its head faced any on-coming foes. It was, Igor said resignedly, the best they were going to get, given the approaching deadline and what they had to work with. Pytor by then was too tired to argue. He knew, after all, that Igor considered him unsuitable for the job.
Nothing critical has been lost; the pacing stays quick; and the story can advance with a few less pages.
Boiling down your copy this way, for a valid reason, is effective. It varies how you’re presenting story, which makes your plot seem less predictable to readers. Just keep in mind that you should do this kind of thing in revision and not when you’re writing a rough draft. Otherwise, you’ll backslide into old habits of just telling.
Show, then tell … if you must.