Editor Rachel Starr Thomson dives into our new monthly fatal flaw: # 6 Telling, instead of Showing, Story . Writers often succumb to this fatal flaw of fiction writing, explaining and telling and summarizing instead of showing action as it’s happening. Topics this week cover three ways writers can RUE (resist the urge to explain) and hook readers will dynamic scenes.
Once upon a time, we were storytellers.
We wrote like Homer:
The men flew to arms;
all the gates were opened, and the people thronged through them,
horse and foot, with the tramp as of a great multitude.
Or like whoever wrote Beowulf:
Hwæt! w? G?r-Dena in ge?r-dagum
þ?od-cyninga þrym gefr?non . . .
Okay, never mind about Beowful. The point is, stories were told, and while that meant some especially poetic details were thrown in, for the most part stories got summarized, with huge swaths of action happening from a long-distance view, like in the Iliad above.
But then along came technology (hail, Gutenberg!) and changing literary conventions, and movie cameras, and somewhere along the way we became storyshowers instead.
We now have an axiom in fiction: “Show, don’t tell.” In practice, the rule works out in a number of ways, and we’ll be looking at several this month. This week, I want to look at “show don’t tell” as it relates to scene vs. summary.
Essentially, we write in one of two ways: in scenes—with specific action, dialog, characters, a place, a time—and in summary. All novels use both to some degree, but the balance should always be heavily on the side of scenes. And even in summary, there are ways to show effectively.
In my novel Taerith, I needed to cover a period of captivity during which the hero is captive to a barbarian tribe. But I didn’t want to just switch over to pure summary—I still wanted to write in a way readers could see and hear and feel. My goal was to open a window into the captivity and allow readers to feel as if they’d experienced it too, even though it’s passed over relatively quickly in the book. You can judge how well I did.
The tribe kept Taerith captive for several weeks. They let him out of his bonds in the evening, so he would exercise to try to stay strong. The winter made it hard and painful, but he was glad to be alive.
His arms were bound behind him most of the time, tightly pinioned with several thin cords. Each evening the barbarians cut loose the cords and watched him with a curiosity that was almost friendly, five or six standing guard at a time, while he swung his arms and rubbed them and set his teeth against the pain, allowing circulation to come back, making sure his arms stayed strong.
He dropped to the ground and pushed himself up a few times, even as his bare hands slipped and ached in the cold snow and the colder mud.
Aiden’s lessons on survival thundered in the newly released blood flow through his arms and fingers. It hurt, but it was good. There were white and blue patches on his hands and feet where frostbite was setting in, and his face stung, but he was alive and still grateful for it.
The Before paragraph is pure summary—akin to the Iliad passage I quoted earlier. It shows us, from a distance and without any real detail, what happened. And it would be appropriate in some books, in order to transition from one scene to the next.
The After paragraphs, on the other hand, show. What makes the difference?
- First, detail—especially sensory detail, the kind we can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Closely related is the need for time and place—so events don’t just happen in white space but within a world that is present to the senses.
In the first paragraph, we read: “the tribe kept Taerith captive.” In the second, we have thin cords, pinioned arms, and barbarians standing around to watch. He isn’t just cold; he’s got blue and white frostbite batches, and his bare hands ache. In the first paragraph, Taerith exercises to stay strong; in the second he’s slipping around in the snow and mud each cold evening. There’s a strong sense of place and of time actually passing. We can see and feel the surroundings.
- Second, action. Specifics are the key here. He’s not just “exercising”; he’s doing push-ups, and blood thunders through his arms and fingers. Barbarians cut him loose and watch with friendly curiosity.
- Although there isn’t any in this example, dialog is a third key to showing—writing a scene rather than just summary. If you say, “He called out,” you’re summarizing. If you say, “Hey, you in the red coat!” we can hear what’s being called out—specific words, and a tone and implied volume that go with them.
On occasion, a writer will send me a manuscript that is almost pure summary—one hundred pages of it or more. It’s told, not shown. In a book like that, we do learn a story. But we don’t enter it—we’re never immersed. We never get into the skins of the characters or the world they inhabit.
Summary keeps readers distant. Showing invites them into an experience. We writers are storytellers, but if we want to immerse and engage our readers, we need to be more. We need to be storyshowers.
As you work through your WIP, do you see places where you’re telling instead of showing? Do you revert to summary instead of writing out scenes that are anchored in a specific place and time, with dialog, action, and sensory detail? How might you convert these passages so they come alive?