No, I’m not talking about kindergarten class. I’m talking about that most common piece of writing advice: Show, don’t tell. I have found some writers, however, take that too literally and believe everything must be shown, to the detriment of their stories. So, I prefer to call it show and tell.
I am going to rely in part on an essay by Anna Keesey titled “Making a Scene,” which I found in The Writer’s Notebook from Tin House Books. Keesey does a great job distinguishing between a scene and a summary; that is, between showing and telling. So, for example, two characters are having a conversation. This conversation helps to establish character and to further the plot. It is not a series of “Hi, how are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” comments that are best handled in indirect dialogue, but rather meaty, substantial dialogue. Therefore, the conversation should be written out, should be shown. This, Keesey says, means you have written a scene. Then let’s say the characters go off in different directions, one of them to the bank, where he cashes a check; and he then drives to the liquor store where something important happens. The business with the bank is just to put money in his hand to spend at the liquor store and therefore does not have to be written out in full, does not have to be made into a scene. It’s covered in a few sentences. It’s a summary, according to Keesey. It’s something you tell, not something you show.
This may sound fundamental, but I have found that authors often write these inconsequential scenes in too much detail. It could be because they adhere too closely to Show, don’t tell, fearing that any telling is bad; or because they believe every action their character makes has to be recorded because it’s inherently interesting; or because they thought, when they wrote the scene, that something was going to happen in the bank and realized belatedly that the vital event was going to be at the liquor store.
Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter look at another aspect of show and tell in their book What If?
When a writer depends solely on showing and neglects the narrative that artfully shapes, characterizes, qualifies, or in some other way informs the character’s actions, the reader is abandoned to extrapolate meaning based upon what is observed—for example, a character’s sweating palms or nervous twitch—and the reader then, rather than the writer, creates the story.
And so in her book The Photograph, Penelope Lively tells us:
Nick goes to a health club these days. This is on account of his paunch, which has been causing him disquiet. He is also disturbed about his bald patch, and while he is aware that visits to the health club will not do much for that, he feels that all the same there may be some general knock-on effect. Nick cannot understand how he has come to be fifty-eight.
Lively could have shown Nick lifting weights and swimming in the pool and anxiously checking out his paunch and his bald spot in the health club’s many mirrors. But the scene might have seemed too similar to other scenes of people in health clubs, it probably would have been lengthy—thereby running the risk of boring the reader—and the reader would have had to intuit why Nick was at the health club in the first place. Lively wanted to make sure there was no mistake. For myself, I’m much more interested in Nick’s vanity and aging than I am in how much weight he can lift or laps he can swim.
Anna Keesey might have called this insight into Nick infolding. As opposed to unfolding—that is, when a scene is filled with action or dialogue and no narrative introspection (think Hemingway)—infolding involves interrupting a scene with this sort of telling; with background about a character, or an explanation of why a person has come to a certain place, or anything not able to be discerned simply from dialogue or actions. Keesey cites a short story, “Labor Day Dinner” by Alice Munro, as an example. The story opens with four people arriving together for the dinner. As they get out of the pickup truck and head for the house, carrying their various contributions to the dinner, Munro pauses to tell us about the dessert one woman made—which tells us a bit about her character—how the two girls are related to the others, how the dessert-carrying woman changed what she was going to wear because “she thought her skin looked like a piece of waxed paper that had been crumpled into a tight ball and then smoothed out.” All of the information Munro chooses to tell, through her narrator, heightens the reader’s interest in the characters and the impending dinner.
A short story could be composed entirely of scenes, all showing and no telling; and there is Hemingway and other writers like him, who rely on carefully crafted dialogue, body language, and actions, with little description and narrative. But I certainly enjoy when a capable writer feels confident enough to blend show and tell, enhancing what she is showing in scenes by telling me intriguing details.