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
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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?