Ambit Creative

Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the editing and writing workshops for libraries and other venues. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She's also working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi, Facebook, LinkedIn, Redroom, Twitter, and Word For Words.

Show and Tell: How to Know, How to Fix

Editors often advise writers to show not tell in their work. But what does this mean, when is it better to tell thanto show, and how do writers edit their stories to accomplish one or the other?

Editors usually advise writers to show what’s happening in a piece when the narrative is dense with explanation of what’s happening (an attempt at scene) or what has happened (back story). The best scenes, whether flashbacks or current day, usually include dialogue and setting. Back story, on the other hand, can be conveyed by straight narrative. Yet, even with back story, less can be more.

For beginning writers, or those exploring a new genre, a chunk of narrative often begins as a glorified list of events or character traits, but this isn’t the real story or the real characters. It’s more a description of what the writer wants to say. In these instances, the writer is still telling herself the story and learning who the characters are. If these sections of the text aren’t revised appropriately, readers (and literary agents) will see as much.

Compared with a full scene treatment, even well-written narrative can be one-dimensional. This type of writing is flat and doesn’t raise the story to life. It also fails to add depth to the piece and its characters. In cases like these, it won’t take long for readers to lose interest.

One way to revise narrative to become a scene is to break up the text almost by sentence, with one or two sentences per line. This clarifies what you want to say by showing what’s already been said and revealing what’s missing. It also highlights redundancy, especially where you’ve said the same thing but in different ways. This is the time to remove redundancy and condense what’s left.

Next, consider what the character or characters would think or say to one another at this point. Then flesh out what you have by having them speak. Keep in mind, you’re not doing this primarily to convey information, but to reveal who the characters are and to move the plot along. Let your people go a little so that they let their verbal hair down, and see where the scene takes you. To round it out, describe where the encounter takes place; in other words, include setting. To add complexity to the scene, intersperse bits of description amid the dialogue.

Here’s an example:

The fire had spread, and the second floor was ablaze. The sound of sirens was audible against its roaring frenzy. Ryan stood by the car not caring if he scratched it. Lisa joined him, but he couldn’t watch any more.
Sirens blared as the fire roared through the two-story Bronx apartment. Ryan leaned against the convertible, his stomach in knots. “I can’t watch this,” he said, and pushed through the crowd.

“You can’t just leave me,” Lisa shouted.

Showing is usually better than telling, but telling works well when the writer must convey a lot of information in a short amount of space. One example is to show the passing of time. This can be done through flashback, but sometimes, especially when there’s no great significance to the events, it’s best to just say “Don Bishop was in California on business” instead of showing him there.

To convert a scene to narrative so that you keep what you need and discard the rest, reverse the earlier process. Scenes, by definition, are already broken down almost by line because of the dialogue. Review what you have, remove anything that’s not necessary, and see what’s left. Describe this with one or two sentences, and you’ll have the narrative.

Another example of where straight narrative can work best is in conveying back story, and with back story less is usually more. Here’s a scene that started as narrative, then evolved to include dialogue, setting, and a bit of back story, without adding much verbiage:

Stabler stared at the money on the desk. It was clear from his expression there was some interest, and with the five years he had spent in prison it was understandable.

Stabler gaped at the stack of hundreds on the counter. The nickel jolt at Attica should have reformed him, but the lure was too great. He stuffed the bills under his hat.

When writers show instead of tell, they’re often forced by the very structure of dialogue and scene to use detail instead generalization and precision instead of ambiguity. This approach elevates the writing and renders the writer invisible, honing the writer’s talent and making the reader’s experience more satisfying.

To know when to use straight narrative and when to use scene, ask yourself this question: Which technique serves the work best at this point in the story—shallow waters or depth?