It’s the most basic writing advice there is: show, don’t tell. My son’s sixth grade teacher wrote it on a short story he submitted. So why do so many writers struggle in this area? I recently reviewed a book for Chick Lit Central where the writer – who literally had dozens of books already under her belt – summed up important events in her protagonist’s life rather than including them as scenes. I felt gypped. I wanted to see how those incidents played out.
It’s an area I struggle in myself. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, in which my protagonist has two life-changing events happen to her: her mother’s death and her father’s quick remarriage, and her husband running off with another woman and leaving her broke. In my first draft, I summed these up in a few paragraphs. But my writing instructor said I should show these events in flashback, and so I did. I’m still not sure whether that was the correct choice. Sometimes flashbacks slow down momentum. (One of these days I’m going to write a post about the appropriate use of flashbacks. I’ve read books that were literally half, or more, flashback.)
How do you know if a piece of information should be shown or told? Obviously, we can’t show everything. Books would be twice as long and twice as boring if we did. But here’s a quick checklist:
Scenes that should be shown:
Forward the story
Demonstrate a character trait
Scenes that can be told:
Provide unbiased information
Communicate passage of time
Give uncomplicated back story
Generally speaking, a novel should be about 70-80 percent scene work (show) and 20-30 percent narrative (tell), but most writers I know aren’t keeping track mathematically of their writing. And it’s not something that should be at the forefront of a writer’s mind when working on a first draft. After a second or third draft, a writer should re-read the WIP specifically with this question in mind. Take note of which scenes show, and which scenes tell. Remember that pace and tension are derived from showing. Too much telling slows down the story and dissolves tension.
Before examining your own work, it may be useful to pull out a favorite book and look for examples of showing versus telling. Are there areas where you think the writer should have made a different choice? Can you write a scene from a section that was summarized rather than shown?