A Better Approach to “Show, Don’t Tell”

Dear Worldbuilder,

How's it going? I know it's been a while since my last post, but I promise you I haven't given up on this blog and plan to continue making plenty of posts.

To avoid interruptions in the future, though, I have decided that blog posts will be the first Wednesday of the month for the foreseeable future.

I will also try to alternate between my content and that of our guest, and we will be having a guest blog post by Jaime Watson for June!

While you wait for Jaime's amazing article, consider engaging in some discussion about the benefits and downsides of today's titular piece of writing advice. 

Quote from Anton Chekov

I love Anton Chekov. He’s come up with some amazing writing principles and inspired several useful tenets for writers to employ such as Chekov’s Gun, Flee the Stereotype, and Utilize Compassion—principles I often explain to my writers and encourage them to apply as tools for revision in their works.    

However, I have mixed feelings about this particular quote.

While I always enjoy such stunning and concise imagery, and I think Chekov’s words provide a useful lens through which to examine descriptions, I hate the writing adage inspired by this particular quote of his. 

This seemingly helpful idea has become a RULE, and an unhelpful one at that. 

I have quite a bit of experience with the concept of “show, don’t tell.” I’ve read several writing books that encourage the use of show, don’t tell, and I followed it devoutly at one point in time as a fledging writer (re: Middle schooler who wrote crappy poems and half-baked scenes).

As an editor, I used it with my clients in the past. This was in part due to a lack of confidence in my abilities and opinions, but also because most have heard of the concept, and it appears simple enough to explain to those who haven’t. 

If you happen to be part of the “haven’t” crowd, consider checking out this lovely article for an in-depth explanation of “show, don’t tell.” However, the rest of us will be moving on with the assumption that the mantra is understood as: 

The practice of using description, action, and/or dialogue to reveal (show) to the reader elements of character, backstory, or exposition rather than telling them outright.

On the surface, it seems like a wonderful idea, an easy way to help novice writers and veteran wordsmiths by encouraging them to:

· create meaningful descriptions,
· trust the reader,
· develop immersive experiences for them,
· limit White Room Syndrome
· be evocative

However, “show, don’t tell” has more than its fair share of problems. 

At its core this nugget of wisdom is misleading. It assumes that the best resolution to vague or white room writing is to add more—more descriptions, more foreshadowing, more hints, more events. That to create an immersive experience, writing must be filled with adjectives and details. 

That writing should be camera-like: each scene the written alternative to well-done cinematography, each moment a crisp photograph. 

But this isn’t true.  

Fiction is fluid and drifts between thoughts and dialogue, exposition and action. Furthermore, the reader is not meant to be beholden to the author’s envisioning of events. 

They’re supposed to understand the story and its characters, yes, but they don’t need to know the exact shade of brown of their well-worn boots, the specifications of a high-tech keyboard, or every word in your newly minted language. That level of detail can soon become boring and discourages imagination—one of the most important parts of reading as an experience.

Additionally, “show, don’t tell” assumes that telling is always an error, a defense, a copout. But the practice of writing comes from storytelling—the two aren’t exclusive. 

telling can be used effectively to:

· write time skips,
· share character realizations and inner dialogue,
· convey information and worldbuild,
· maintain a fast pace

It can improve your story dramatically and make it both more reader- and publisher-friendly. And, though others may encourage you to think otherwise, sometimes you just have to tell the reader things outright; sometimes it’s the best way to handle concerns. 

Like most writing rules, “show, don’t tell” can easily be overdone.

It promotes the kind of single-minded thinking that prevents writers from making quality revisions and can serve as a roadblock to publication and broader success.  

While it seems like it would be simple to just explain away all these potential issues as the fault of the writer for not understanding that moderation is key (note that part of my job as a developmental editor is to encourage clients to apply the vast majority of my advice with at least some restraint), simply saying not to overdo something is rarely the best solution in this case.   

For instance, when I was a lead editor for my high school’s Creative Writing Club, I gave a presentation on “show, don’t tell” that implored young writers to exercise discernment and caution while writing. It was one of my first experiences with this phrase and with editing in general. 

The students all nodded along, but when the time came for everyone’s creative work to be edited, I found that the vast majority of pieces suffered from overwriting and infodumping, with a few that were overly concise. I spent more time encouraging writers to add less detail than I did imploring them to “show” more in moderation.

Just because we—as editors, critique partners, beta readers, or writers—say that something should be used in moderation doesn’t mean that others will, or even that they’ll understand what moderation looks like when applying editorial advice. 

The problem here is a lack of specificity.

The boundary between what’s enough and what’s too much is difficult to establish. It’s often individual to every writer and if I, as an editor, am not specific then all I’m doing is producing more anxiety around writing and making it more difficult for the writers I work with—and the books I come to love—to grow, to succeed.   

So, I’ve found an alternative. 

Instead of “show, don’t tell,” I’ll be preaching “Scene vs Summary” from here on out. 

Now, when I developed this concept, I assumed that I was the first to ascribe this pairing to the concept. Unfortunately for my ego, I discovered that this was not the case and that a handful of individuals in the writing community have toyed around with this particular alternative to “show, don’t tell.” 

In the remaining portion of this blog post, I’ll be utilizing a combination of my original definition for this term with some insights from their works to provide a more developed explanation. If you’d like to see my original concept, consider checking out this social media post.

Let's begin! 

The concept of Scene vs Summary as explained on Jackie Cangro’s blog, encourages writers to write in scenes for the most part. These scenes include action, dialogue (spoken and inner), and description to ground the reader in the setting and the details that develop the characters' environment. They also take up a lot of space on the page.  

Here’s an excerpt of a scene from a soon-to-be-released novel from my client, Liz Sauco.

He stood and walked the two steps to the door and pushed it, watching with some surprise as it opened. “More of your ‘magic’?” he asked dryly, deciding to humor her.

She smiled at him. “The light, yes. The general power outage and other problems this building is suffering, no. We had outside help with that.” She all but skipped over to the door, but then paused to eye Jamirh, who hadn’t moved. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked pleasantly. “Surely you don’t want to stay arrested?”

Jamirh briefly considered his options. On the one hand, he hadn’t been conscious enough to take note of how to get out of the building by himself. Also, if Hel was bionic, as he had begun to suspect, she could prove useful in escape. On the other hand, Hel was clearly unhinged, and that unstable element could land them right back behind bars. Wander around by himself and risk recapture trying to find an exit, or rely on a crazy chick. He was so stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 As a scene it develops conflicts are exposed and the reader is able to make inferences about the nature of the characters presented. 

Summaries, in comparison, are short and full of exposition. They may include broad descriptions and actions but lack imagery and dialogue. Still, summaries encapsulate all the positive benefits of telling: they help to stifle overwriting and move the plot along. Below is an example summary from Krystin Rose Bady’s recently published novel. 

After Walters gently bullied her in and out of the bath, she demanded Blythe take a medicinally encouraged sleep and be looked over by the on-site doctors once or twice more. The old woman made no further mention of Polaris or The Library Incident. Blythe was so wrapped up in her own untethered mindset that she didn’t think to ask about the aftermath. 

If a section of your manuscript contains dialogue it can’t be a summary, but it doesn’t have to be a scene. 

Though I’ve never included the concept in my previous explanations, according to another editor half scenes exist in between these two extremes. 

Half-scenes include elements of both scene and summary. They may have a bit of dialogue, thoughts, and a few actions but tend to be lacking in description. They may also float somewhere between scene and summary, focusing in on a specific detail quickly before drifting out to a more summary-like style. 

They aren’t something I typically encourage within my editorial work, as novels ripe with half-scenes tend to feel lacking in description.

Likewise, others may simply see them as I once did, as underdeveloped scenes. Still, they are often found in drafts and fast-paced novels and can prove effective when selectively used. 

My client’s work provides an example of half scenes as well: 

She might have found the coddling amusing once upon a time. Now? Not so much.

“Let me take it!” Blythe hissed at the nameless servant as she tried to yank the food tray from his hands.

He held firm. “Absolutely not! I will accompany—”

“I don’t need a fucking escort!”
He flinched, turning his face in mild disgust to avoid her spittle.

“Stars above!” Blythe released the tray to toss her hands in the air, her face burning. She took a breath, but it did little to cool her down. “I am perfectly capable of carrying a plate.”

To write a novel you need scene and summary if not all three. For most of the novel, according to modern conventions and reader expectations, you’ll want to use scenes with concise descriptions, revealing actions, and careful dialogue, that all work to immerse the reader into the world and place them right behind the character's eyes. 

But the entire novel can’t take the scenic route. 

Readers don’t need to know about every spaceship ride or magic-filled trek. They need to be exposed to Summaries and Half scenes as well to maintain a welcome pace and deemphasize cursory details and passing events. 

Only in tools and ideas that can guide you through the writing process.

And if this concept of Scene vs Summary fulfills that role for you then spend your editing process thinking critically about your use of description, dialogue, and action when building narratives. Look for spots where scenes prove beneficial for character development or where a Summary might help you keep up with the pace of a story.

Remember that fiction is a balancing act.

Sure, not every book follows some exact measurement—meets the requirements of some arbitrary scale—but all the parts of your process must add up to a complete, beautiful novel at the outset. 

Likewise, as I often tell my clients, this is your project. Own it and don’t let anyone, not me, and definitely not some misleading writing tool dictate your process.  

Happy editing, 

Breyonna Jordan, signed in a cursive-like font.

Comment below: What’s your favorite writing rule to break?

5 thoughts on “A Better Approach to “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Staging this scene with dialogue would have taken several pages, with no payoff commiserate with its cost in pacing.

    IT HAD BEEN EIGHT MONTHS SINCE THE REVELATION THAT OFF-WORLDERS had been homesteading on Earth for twenty-five thousand years, a milestone long-anticipated among the AjJivadi, organized decades in advance, inevitable, measured against the clockwork of nature.

    Consequently, after the hubbub died down, an AjJivadi workforce of furry lemur-folk and their human co-constituents set up shop along the solar system’s path through the galaxy, two-trillion kilometers distant, where they labored to interrupt a river of cosmic particles.

    A dust cloud, one of many such formations arranged like spokes on a wheel, was flowing toward a super-massive black hole at the galactic core. Unless removed, Earth’s sun would burn the material for extra fuel. There’d be a micro-nova in 2041.

    Geological indications of cyclic catastrophe had been reported since the 1930s. NASA found evidence on the moon. No conclusions were reached. The President of the United States had to learn about it from the AjJivadi.

    Lying abed in the throes of REM sleep, Carmen Benequista explained these matters to her deceased husband, concluding, “They’ve been around long enough to say they’re from here. Imagine you didn’t know about Italy, and all of a sudden you have Italians.”
    Anton showed no interest in the topic. He said, “I thought you’d died, and I was here to greet you.”

    Her husband’s cheeks were ruddy from years playing golf, a skin cancer curiously missing from the picture. It made her wonder if the experience was real. “I’m asleep, dreaming.”

    1. I’ll take show-don’t-tell over a basic recitation of facts (I call it “and then” writing: “He fell out of the tree and then I went and got Mom and she came out and called the ambulance and then, and then, and then . . . .”)

      1. Basic recitations are telling at its worst. Most every author would benefit having both Show don’t tell in their repertoire as a story that leans to heavily one way or the other is boring.

  2. What popped out to me in your first example was the CLICHE, “between a rock and a hard place.”
    I write lit fic and cliches are BANNED!
    As a writer who takes careful consideration of each sentence, cliches pop out to me and I always point them out when reviewing others’ work.
    Mahalo for the class!

    1. Most of the writers I work with write genre fiction where some usage of cliches are allowed, although discouraged. I also work with clients before they get to the line editing stage, so that exact line may not have made it to final publication.

      I’ll try to be more careful with the examples I choose next time, though, to make sure I’m representing the writers I work with at their best.

      Did you still find it to be helpful in determining the difference between scene and summary?

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