Tag Archives: show

Show, Tell and Narrative Summary

Here’s a scene I wrote some time back.  A scene is a little bit of the story. You string a bunch of them together like pearls in a necklace to make your story.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Sculpted beauties gazed at him. He was out of place with his middle age sag and his wrinkles. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. Since the death of their youngest son she had taken comfort in food. You could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing. But Harry knew what it was like to lose yourself, only he had chosen drink over food. She saw the buffet and gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He started to mingle with the others. He held a drink and pretended to drink from it. He was just thinking that it was time to leave when a woman came up behind him and took his arm. He knew immediately that she was three parts intoxicated.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said starting to get annoyed.

“What, you prefer her?” the woman sneered.

Harry looked at his wife. For a moment he saw what everyone saw. A fat woman with an over full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce. Then he looked deeper and saw the woman who still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. The woman who had brought his four children into the world. He saw the woman who on the day he married her outshone any two woman in this room.

“I do.”

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,” said Harry and he went to join his beautiful wife.

I’ve highlighted the parts of this story that are telling rather than showing. You can see that they are most of the parts that are meant to show emotion. The problem is that the emotion is being pushed at us. They aren’t attached to Harry, rather they are about Harry.

Here is the scene rewritten to show rather than to tell.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Everywhere he looked sculpted beauties gazed back at him.  I don’t belong here, he thought, not with my wrinkles and sagging body. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. He figured he could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing.  She gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He fetched a drink and pretended to drink from it as he  mingled with the others in the room.

Maybe it’s time to leave, he thought a short time later, I shouldn’t have to work this hard to smile.

A woman came up behind him and grabbed his arm almost spilling his untouched drink. The smell of alcohol on her breathe hit him like a wave.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said.

“What, you prefer her?” She pointed at his wife; a fat woman with an over-full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce.

For a moment he saw what he guessed everyone else saw, but he saw things that no one else in this room could see. On the day he married her, Faye had outshone any two woman in this room. She’d brought his four children into the world and stood beside him as they buried their youngest. She still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. Harry blinked away tears that tempted him to sip the drink in his hand.

“I do,” he said as he carefully put his drink on a nearby table.

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,”  Harry said. He walked over to the buffet and picked up a plate. He put his arm around Faye and gave her a smile and a hug.

I can hear you saying, “But you didn’t change that much!” I didn’t add much to the scene. It was written for a contest with a word limit of 300 words. I wanted to stay within that limit. What I did do was attach the emotions and memories to Harry.  Instead of narration, they become Harry’s internal thoughts. I dropped the extra words on the attributions since they weren’t really necessary.

Now say this is a scene in a much larger work. A novel about Harry whose novel has been picked up and is being made into a big budget movie. It is all about his experiences in Hollywood. There are lots of parties in Hollywood. Do we need to show each and every one of them? That would get old fast. Even though we were showing rather than telling, we are showing  the same thing each time. So we use narrative summary. Narrative summary is the string that holds the pearls together and helps the reader move from one to the next.  It could be as simple as:

Harry attended an endless string of parties, each one filled with the same sculpted beauty and the same empty conversation. He could feel the siren call of the booze that would let him fit in. He could see the self-loathing on Faye’s face as she tried and failed to stay away from the buffet tables.

That little bit gives the reader a sense of time passing, but also of the cost of that time. So when I write the next scene I don’t need to tell the reader about Harry and Faye’s despair.

So, there is no hard and fast rule to never tell, but your story does need to mostly show. And it MUST show the really important developments. To go back to Harry and Georgia, you can’t later in the book talk about Harry starting to drink at the parties or having an affair without showing that particular party.

So quick summary, showing is letting the reader experience the story through the thoughts, words and actions of the characters. Telling is dumping information that is unconnected to the characters into the story. Often, but not always, telling is in the passive voice and often, but not always, involves a lot of adverbs. Narrative summary is a form of telling that smooths the movement from one scene to the next, but you want to make sure that it doesn’t replace necessary scenes in your story.

To get more of the picture of show, not tell, Go read Don’t Think, Don’t Feel

Shades of Nuance: Shades of Feeling

Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.

So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.

Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.

Give up?

I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.

So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.

When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.

Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.

The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.

This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.

How many did you come up with?

From my editing these are the favourites:

Sinking or rising heart/stomach

Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice

Shaking legs, hands

Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head

Various forms of crying/laughing

Blushing/heat in the face

and of course the ever present Sigh

As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.

If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.

I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.

Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.

A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The emotional thesaurus:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression