Self-Editing For Fiction Writers: Show and Tell

by Renni Browne and Dave King

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Ordering information:
What's wrong with this paragraph:
The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries. In the space of no more than five minutes, I heard several different people put forth their theories--all equally probable or preposterous--as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the kind of assurance that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed that, for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties.
In a sense, of course, there is nothing wrong. The paragraph is grammatically impeccable. It describes the mystery surrounding the party's host clearly, efficiently, and with a sense of style. The writing is smooth.

Now look at the same passage as it actually appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
     "I like to come," Lucille said. "I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last, I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address--within a week I got a package from Croirier's with a new evening gown in it."
     "Did you keep it?" asked Jordan.
     "Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered. It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars."
     "There's something funny about a fellow that'll do a thing like that," said the other girl eagerly. "He doesn't want any trouble with anybody."
     "Who doesn't?" I inquired.
     "Gatsby. Somebody told me--"
     The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.
     "Somebody told me they thought he killed a man."
     A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.
     "I don't think it's so much that," argued Lucille skeptically; "it's more that he was a German spy during the war."      One of the men nodded in confirmation.
     "I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany," he assured us positively.
     "Oh, no," said the first girl, "it couldn't be that, because he was in the American army during the war." As our credulity switched back to her, she leaned forward with enthusiasm. "You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking at him. I'll bet he killed a man."
What's the difference between these two examples? To put it simply, it's a matter of showing and telling. The first paragraph is narrative summary, with no specific setting or characters. We are simply told about the guests' love of mystery, the weakness of the arguments, the conviction of the arguers. In the second version we actually get to see the breathless partygoers putting forth their theories and can almost taste the eagerness of their audience. The first version is a second-hand report. The second is an immediate scene.

What, exactly, constitutes a scene? For one thing it takes place in real time. Your readers are seeing events as they unfold, whether those events are a group discussion of the merits of Woody Allen films, a lone man running from an assassin, or a woman lying in a field pondering the meaning of life. In scenes, events are seen as they happen rather than described after the fact.

Scenes usually have settings as well, specific locations that the readers can picture. In Victorian novels these settings were often described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. Nowadays literature is leaner and meaner, and it's a good idea to give your readers only enough detail to help them picture your settings for themselves.

Scenes also contain some action, something that happens. Mary kills Harry, or Harry and Mary beat each other up. More often than not, what happens is dialogue between one or more characters. Though even in dialogue scenes if s a good idea to include a little physical action from time to time--what we call "beats"--to remind your readers of where your characters are and what they're doing. We'll be talking about beats at length in chapter seven.

Of course, anything that can go into a scene can also be summarized. And since scenes are usually harder to write than summaries, most authors rely too heavily on narrative summary to tell their stories. The result is often page after page, sometimes chapter after chapter, of writing that reads the way the first passage quoted above reads: clearly, perhaps even stylishly, but with no specific setting, no specific characters, no dialogue.

A century or so ago this sort of writing would have been fine. It was the norm, in fact--Henry James wrote at least one entire novel largely composed of narrative summary. But thanks to the influence of movies and television, readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes. Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did. Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants to accomplish, you're well advised to rely primarily on immediate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you've created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can't do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world second-hand. You have to actually take them there.

Not long ago we worked on a novel featuring a law firm in which one of the new associates led a rebellion against the senior partners. The author introduced the new associate and two of his colleagues in the first chapter by describing their job interviews with the senior partners. The interviews were given as narrative summary--she simply told her readers what the law firm was looking for in a new associate, described the associates' education and histories, and explained why the firm hired them. She did include snippets of dialogue from the interviews, but since readers never found out who the other speaker was or where the conversations took place, there was nothing they could picture.

Since the first chapter is not the best place for narrative summary--you want to engage your readers in your plot early on--we suggested that the author turn these interviews into genuine scenes, set in the senior partner's offices, with extended conversations between the partners and the new associates. As a result, her readers got a much better feel for who the new associates were and a glimpse of the senior partners' humor and good nature. The book was off to a much more engaging start.

Showing your story to your readers through scenes will give your writing immediacy. It will also give your writing transparency. One of the easiest ways to look like an amateur is to use mechanics that call attention to themselves and away from the story. You want your readers to be so wrapped up in your story that they are not even aware the author exists. But when you switch to narrative summary--especially if you go on at length--it can sometimes seem as if you were breaking into the story to give your readers a lecture. And there is no quicker way to turn readers off than to lecture them. This is especially true if you are using narrative summary for exposition. To write exposition at length--your characters' pasts, or events that happened before the story began, or any information your readers might need to understand your plot--is to risk lecturing your readers. It is usually more effective to bring out all sorts of exposition through scenes.

This won't always be possible, of course, especially if you're writing historical or science fiction, both of which usually require a lot of exposition. But even so, you'd be surprised at how much exposition can be converted into scenes. Rather than describing the history of Hartsdale House, you can write a scene in which the present Lord Hartsdale points out some of the family portraits to his guests. Or rather than quoting an Encyclopedia Galactica article on how Llanu society is organized, you can simply drop your readers into the middle of that society and let them fend for themselves.

We recently edited a book about Antonio Vivaldi that was set, naturally, in eighteenth-century Venice. In order to follow the story the readers had to know some of the details of Venetian society in the late baroque era. But because the story was presented as the reminiscences of one of Vivaldi's students, it was difficult to work the information into the text. After all, why would the student write in detail about the society she lived in? As far as she was concerned, everybody knew what the bocca di lione was and how you gained admission to the Golden Book.

To solve this problem, the author created a frame story about a modern-day researcher who supposedly found the student's writings in an archive. The researcher would interrupt the student's story every once in a while to explain some of the background. But since the researcher's explanations were simply addressed to the readers, they read like the lectures they really were. We suggested that the author give the researcher a personality and turn his lectures into scenes.

The author liked the idea. In the next draft, she had cast herself in the role of the researcher, and the lectures became first-person accounts of how she was visited by the ghost of Vivaldi on a trip to Venice. Since her Vivaldi had a powerful character's voice ("That fool Mozart could roll around on the floor with the soprano between acts, and no one cares. I leave the pulpit once and it follows me forever."), her tour through Venetian society took on a new life. It was shown rather than told.

Even though immediate scenes are almost always more engaging than narrative summary, be careful when self-editing not to convert all your narrative summary into scenes. Narrative summary serves several good purposes in fiction, the main one being to vary the rhythm of your writing. Scenes are immediate and engaging, but scene after scene without a break can become relentless and exhausting, especially if you tend to write brief, intense scenes. Every once in a while you will want to slow things down, to give your readers a chance to catch their breath, and narration can be a good way to do this.

One of our authors was given to short scenes in which characters met, talked, and then parted. All of the dialogue was well written and advanced his story, but since the author reported only five minutes' worth of dialogue for each scene, it was as if he'd written his entire novel in five-minute chunks. Reading it was like jogging on railroad ties. He could have run some of his scenes together into longer scenes, of course (and, in fact, we suggested he do so), but the real solution was to use narrative summary to work some extra time into his scenes.

In the next draft he showed two characters meeting for dinner, summarized the dinner itself in a paragraph or two of narration, and then showed the five minutes of after-dinner conversation that were really crucial to the story. By simply adding a few paragraphs of narration, he could stretch the duration of some of his scenes out to two or three hours without two or three hours' worth of dialogue and action. As a result his book had a more expansive feel to it, and his readers had a chance to rest between snippets of dialogue.

Narrative summary can also be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action. Say you are writing a book about a track star in which your hero participates in several races. If you show all of these races as immediate scenes, eventually they all start to look alike. But if you summarize the first few races--have them happen offstage, in effect--then the one you eventually show as a scene will have real impact.

And then, some plot developments are simply not important enough to justify scenes. If an event involves only minor characters you might do better to summarize it rather than develop the characters to the point that you could write a convincing scene about them. Or if you have a minor event that leads up to a key scene, you might want to narrate the first event so that the scene, when it comes, will seem even more immediate by contrast.

We once worked on a short story in which the police were tracking a rather enigmatic suspect. In the course of the story, three events happened in quick succession: the police realized just what the suspect was up to, they captured him, and he escaped during interrogation in a surprising way. Since the emphasis of the story was on what the suspect was up to rather than on his actual capture, we suggested that the capture be written as narrative summary. By not developing the capture into a full-blown scene, the author was able to go almost directly from the first revelation to a second, more important revelation that comes during interrogation. The story moved at a faster pace, and the two important scenes were thrown into sharp relief because a key scene was given as narrative summary.

Up until this point, we've been talking about showing and telling on the large scale, about narrating what should be shown through immediate scenes. But even within scenes there are ways in which you may tell what you should show. The Gatsby scene quoted above (Fitzgerald's version) shows us how people reacted to Gatsby, and shows us effectively. But the author also tells us that the three Mr. Mumbles leaned forward "eagerly," that one girl spoke with enthusiasm, that a man nodded "in affirmation." Granted, stylistic conventions have changed since 1925, but still the telling detracts because it's not needed: we've already been shown what the author then proceeds to tell us.

Authors usually indulge in this sort of small-scale telling to put across character traits or emotions. After all, the primary aim of fiction is to get your readers so involved in the lives of your characters that they feel what your characters feel--and they can't do that unless you make your characters' feelings clear. So you tell them. "Bishop Pettibone was never a man to let his religion interfere with his private life." "Wilbur felt allow his religion to interfere with his private absolutely defeated." "Geraldine was horrified at the news."

But telling your readers about your characters' emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show why your characters feel the way they do. Instead of saying "Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust," describe the room in such a way that the readers feel the disgust for themselves.

It's more work this way, of course. It's easier to simply say "Erma was depressed" than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she's depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you could by simply describing it. It is nearly always best to resist the urge to explain (or, as we so often write it in manuscript margins, RUE).

This tendency to describe a character's emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the author. And more often than not, authors tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action--it's as if they're repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character's emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn't needed. If the emotion isn't shown, then rewrite the passage so that it is.

To show you what we mean, take one last look at the Fitzgerald scene, this time with the explanations taken out. (We've also made a few other editorial changes along principles you'll be learning later in the book.) You can see from the results just how good a job Fitzgerald has done in showing all the emotions he tagged for us unnecessarily:
     "I like to come," Lucille said. "I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address--within a week I got a package from Croirier's with a new evening gown in it."
     "Did you keep it?" asked Jordan.
     "Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered. It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars."
     "There's something funny about a fellow that'll do a thing like that," said the other girl. "He doesn't want any trouble with anybody."
     "Who doesn't?" I inquired.
     "Gatsby. Somebody told me..."
     The two girls and Jordan leaned their heads together.
     "Somebody told me they thought he killed a man."
     A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward in their seats.
     "I don't think it's so much that," Lucille said. "It's more that he was a German spy during the war."
     One of the men nodded.
     "I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany," he said.
     "Oh, no," said the first girl, "it couldn't be that, because he was in the American army during the war. You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking at him. I'll bet he killed a man."
Even within descriptions that have nothing to do with character emotion, there are ways you can show rather than tell. Rather than telling your readers that your hero's car is an old broken-down wreck, you can show him twisting two bare wires together to turn on the headlights, or driving through a puddle and being sprayed from the holes in the floor. That way your readers can draw their conclusions about the car's condition for themselves.

And just to show that editors aren't the only ones who notice showing and telling imbalances, here's a quote from Frederick Busch's Los Angeles Times review of Peter Ackroyd's Dickens: Life and Times:
The need to announce, along with a need to reinforce with comment what has just been clearly shown, results in tones more appropriate to Dickens' funnier re-creations of his father's pomposities: "So far had the young author already come"; "So did the real world enter Dickens' fiction"; "So did his life, interior and exterior, continue." Where was Ackroyd's editor?
Bear in mind that "show, don't tell' is not a hard and fast rule--in fact, none of the self-editing principles in this book should be treated as rules. There are going to be times when telling will create more engagement than showing. In the Fitzgerald example, for instance, the line "A thrill passed over all of us" is clearly telling. And yet this line, coming so close on the rumor that Gatsby may have killed a man, gives a flavor of cheap gossip to the scene that heightens its effect.

But in good fiction this sort of telling is the exception, and a rare exception at that. Because when you show your story rather than tell it, you treat your readers with respect. And that respect makes it easier for you to draw them into the world you've created. Excerpted from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Copyright ©1991 by Renni Browne and Dave King. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

** Renni Browne, formerly editor for William Morrow and other publishers, founded The Editorial Department in 1980 to teach fiction writers the techniques professional editors use to prepare a manuscript for publication. Dave King has been a senior editor with the company and now runs his own editing business in Massachusetts. Their book, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers is described as "a superb tutorial" by Library Journal and "one of six indispensable books for writers" by the LA Times. Other chapters, complete with exercises, discuss characterization, exposition, dialogue, interior monologue, proportion, sophistication, and voice.

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