Show and Tell
Contrary to the “Show Don’t Tell” sound-bite circulating nowadays, the formula for creating an absorbing novel is a proportionate and pertinent blend of both of these elements – along with dialogue, which often shows and tells in its own right. The trick is to identify which portions of the story work well as scenes (showing) and which are served best by narrative (telling) and where to incorporate either of them in dialogue.
Now that The Great Gatsby is in the public domain here in the UK, we have a perfect opportunity to examine the example used by Browne & King. See below, an early draft from The Great Gatsby (courtesy Browne & King) that is in narrative style (telling):
“…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…”
The narrative is smoothly written and conveys the enigmatic nature of the host of the party very well, but to immerse the reader effectively in a story we need to take advantage of scenes (showing) which reduces narrator intervention and caters for the style of media to which we have now become accustomed, such as movies and screenplays.
Now take a look at the final draft – the narrative exposition was converted to a scene:
… “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—inside of 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 once.” 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.” …
As you can see, adopting the scene approach here immerses the reader more, who is now inside the story rather that looking down on it from the narrator’s point of view. There is still an element of ‘telling’ in the scene, some useful and some otherwise:
said the other girl eagerly
argued Lucille skeptically (tautological)
leaned together confidentially
The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly (2nd use of eagerly!).
he assured us positively (is there any other way?)
I have no beef with adverbs but if you need to attach one to convey the tone of your dialogue, then you really need to go back and rewrite, so it stands alone without an adverb (The above scene does not need them at all). The (modern) reader can feel patronized if you spell out the obvious with adverbs and explanations.
“…A thrill passed over all of us…”
Used sparingly, this kind of exposition adds spice to a scene and, if well done, slips under the narrative radar.
When to tell:
Although scenes are hugely important, there are times when the flow of the story is best served by narrative; sometimes a summary works better, especially with bit-part players or when we are placing plot importance on a following scene. For example, if the story involves a secondary character who gets injured but his main objective is to occupy an upcoming scene in a hospital ward with a main character, you would most likely be best served by introducing him and his misfortune in narrative exposition, then reveal more about him when you get to the scene he inhabits. Or perhaps your MC is an athlete who takes part in a series of knockout stages: most of the early races would likely be best served by narrative summary, which will be a backdrop to the sizzling final bouts of the contest. Think ‘proportion’ in these instances.
Plus, don’t get hung up on ‘telling’ – it’s a vital part of any storyline. If a passage of pure exposition is required to help the flow and comprehension of the novel, then so be it.
More pointers on showing:
First off: never be afraid to drop the reader into a scene in which they have to fend for themselves – give the reader credit for having a brain; if your scenes require explanation, then that is where you need to apply TLC, not by explaining the scene with a narrative intro. Readers are used to encountering new scenes in real life, such as being introduced to new people and/or activities/environments – it is our nature to ‘wing it’ and catch up as things unfold.
Milking a scene:
Below is an example of a scene that throws light on the MC, his car and his passenger – and isn’t afraid to ‘tell’ a snippet or two in the process. I'm going to throw you into this scene halfway through. You will notice that the very first sentence places the time of day:
Ernesto inspected the bank of warning lights reflecting off Al’s face. “Your gas gauge says empty,” he observed.
“Yeah. Been like that for a while. It’s broken,” Al explained. “I put some gas in before I picked you up. We’re golden.”
Ernesto tried again. “Aren’t you worried about all the hazard lights being on? Like the check engine light?”
“Nah. Those are just to let you know the manufacturer wants you to pay the dealer a bunch of money to verify everything’s working. I know everything’s working – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be moving right now…” Al’s brand of logic was unassailable.
Ernesto changed his opinion of Al. He modified his internal evaluation of Al from idiot to sub-custodial mouth-breather. He just prayed they would make it to the rendezvous point so he’d never have to see the cretin again.
Unfortunately for Ernesto, tonight wasn’t the night for prayers to be answered. At least, not his. A loud clunk and a series of shuddering slamming sounds came from the engine compartment, followed by silence, other than the motor running and the tires on the pavement.
“What the hell was that?” Ernesto asked.
“Dunno. Never done that before,” Al observed. “But hey, she’s running like a scared rabbit, so no worries.”
Which was true, until after a few minutes they both began to notice that the road was getting darker. The dimming headlights were soon barely illuminating the pavement. Al uttered an oath and pulled to the side of the road – in this case, the muddy shoulder.
[Courtesy The Geronimo Breach by Russell Blake]
Next time: #3 Characterization
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