Don’t tell it, show it. One of the first pieces of advice I got when I started on this crazy road –and that would be 8th grade, and a short story I wrote that just didn’t have an ending. An unthinkable seventeen pages in I brought it to my English teacher, who was cool that way, and she told me two things: 1) it looked like the start of a book (pause so 13 year old me can faint from shock), and 2) I was summarizing a lot of things that deserved to be shown.
Eh? said I. But I did that. It’s right there. Look.
No, said she. You gave me the highlights. I don’t want Cliffs Notes, I want the play-by-play.
Oh, said I, trying to sound intelligent. And went home to sulk with great adolescent industry while I tried to figure out what the hell she meant.
Bless you, Miss Rough. It took me a decade or so, but I got it.
Summarize means to tell in or reduce to a summary (thank you, Merriam-Webster). Reduce is the key word here. It’s the bulleted list version of your scene. And it’s so damn easy to do: you know the scene, you know what your characters are thinking and/or learning, so you tell your reader, forgetting that 1) you reader hasn’t been in your head before, and deserves the grand tour, and 2) nobody actually liked listening to those book reports we had to give back in junior high.
Telling is the book report. Showing is Pictionary. (If you haven’t played this, for the love of dog go out and get it.) You have a thing, a concept like hitting a home run, and you have to get your teammates to say said thing without you actually telling them what it is. So you draw a bat, which due to your lackluster sketching skills looks uncomfortable phallic. You erase, and draw a ball. Then a cap. Eureka, we’ve got baseball now. People are hollering out things like Babe Ruth and Red Sox; some goofball invariably bellows steroids! Shake your head frantically and keep scribbling: four bases, stick figure swinging the giant phallic thing, other stick figures with caps looking up, tiny ball flying over the packed bleachers. Bingo.
Okay, now just do the novel-writing version of that.
Easier said than done, right? Showing isn’t any one thing: it’s dialogue, and internal monologue, and setting, and action. It’s easier to just say what it’s not, which is narrative summary. Telling is just the recap of a scene that exists, at this point, only in your head; showing is getting the scene itself on paper in all its dialogue-tagged, adverb-spackled glory. I know this post is ridiculously long even for me, but I decided to go nuts and give examples, because I’ve spent a long time messing around with it, so I have some.
Version the first:
Our road trip started out badly and progressed, with speed more or less equal to what Aaron’s lead foot was forcing our little car to achieve, to much worse. We bickered like a pair of cranky old ladies over a really close bridge game, only with less dignity, prettier shoes, and far better background music. I’d come to the conclusion that going back home to Vermont was quite possibly the worst idea my roommate had ever come up with, and Aaron, in typical Aaron style, just dug in and threw stupid little clichés at me every time I questioned our mutual sanity. He even had the temerity to suggest I play tour guide.
That sounded only slightly less fun than gouging my own eyeballs out with a pair of tweezers ought to be.
Truth was, I was terrified, not only of what was happening to me, but of going home, and I was pretty sure Aaron knew it. Which didn’t help my mood, or his. So we snarked at each other until I started to think throwing myself out the door while we were going ninety on the beltway might be a viable alternative to another two days of this.
Version the second:
“I still don’t understand how you think this is going to help.”
“Maybe I’m just curious about where you grew up.”
That was a new one.
I looked over at Aaron. We’d been driving for over three hours and I’d already asked this question so many times I was sick of hearing it. I couldn’t imagine how sick of it Aaron must be. I’d gotten answers ranging from ‘you dreamed of it, it must mean something’ to ‘when in doubt go back to the beginning’, and finally ‘shut up, Dari’ –that last one with a rare edge that reminded me even my saint of a roommate had limits to his patience.
This answer, finally, sounded like the truth.
“Great,” I grumbled, and folded myself into one of the limited configurations possible in Aaron’s shiny two-year-old VW Golf. They’re pretty little cars, and they go like hell, but you can’t exactly sprawl in one. My beaten up old Camaro would have been a far worse choice, but at least I wouldn’t be scrunched up in the passenger seat like somebody’s used newspaper.
“You asked,” Aaron said peaceably. “What do you expect? I’ve known you for five years and you never talk about where you grew up, Dar. You know how many cousins I have, where I went to high school, hell, you’ve met my parents –and for all I know you were found wrapped in a blanket on a ski lift in Stowe.”
“I didn’t live anywhere near Stowe! Everyone thinks Stowe when they think Vermont. It’s a tiny little town, goddammit. There’s a lot more in Vermont that Stowe.”
“Well, you can play tour guide then. I’ve never been to New England.”
“You’re going to be cold, you bastard.”
Both are voice-y (or, well, I’d like to think so, anyway). Both tell you something about the MC, and her relationship to Sidekick A. Both move the plot forward. And the 2nd version still has some summary in it, of course, because telling does have a place in your novel! However only one of these is a scene. The other one is a disembodied voice in a dark room.
There’s risks to showing, of course, that you avoid in narrative summary. Showing is, by its nature, less accurate than telling: it leaves room for interpretation. For example I don’t know for certain that you got how scared my main character is in the 2nd version. There’s space between a character’s actions and their words that a reader will fill in with whatever fits best to their way of thinking. It means you can’t guarantee that your point is understood precisely as you wanted. It means that you need to have confidence in a) your ability to make your point without spelling it out, and b) your reader’s ability to see home run in the phallic-looking baseball bat and the stick figures standing on the diamonds. It requires a certain amount of trust.
It also, of course, means that you need to practice drawing your baseball bats. Figuratively speaking.
To see more fun posts about show vs. tell today, particularly some great examples of when telling is a good thing and how to use it, check out these ladies!Bryn Greenwood (Redzilla) Gretchen McNeill (Blond) Tracy Martin (Ink) K.A. Stewart (Tas) Wendy Cebula (Wendy) Dee Garretson (Melia)