One of the first things young writers get told is “Show, don’t tell.” Show us Tommy is angry, don’t just say “Thomas was mad.” Show us the school play was a disaster, don’t just say it was.
In general, this is great advice. Showing is often how a reader starts believing and living a story, instead of just feeling like it’s being related to her. But the advice can be taken too far. Writers start feeling like they have to show everything. And of course, showing takes up far more room than telling (usually), and then we run into all sorts of problems like lagging pacing and a general lack of interest because no matter how vividly you show someone brushing their teeth, if there’s nothing else going on, people are going to get bored.
Sometimes, telling is just better. The trick is to tell in an interesting way. There’s also the mixing of the two—we don’t come right out and tell something, but we don’t go into a long scene, either. A lot of things can be summarized neatly this way—arguments that need to happen (but where what they’re arguing about isn’t particularly important), dinners that need to be eaten, etc.
Purely telling: The school play was a disaster.
Purely showing: [long scene where we actually see the entire play, and how everyone messed up, etc, etc, etc.]
Mix: The audience started filing in by 7pm. By 7:50—twenty minutes later than planned—the curtain rose. By 8:15, four children had forgotten their lines, one seem to have forgotten he was in a play at all, and Billy Johnson had knocked a hole in the scenery. By 9pm, it was all, blessedly, over.
Purely telling: John and Molly had a terrible fight in the alleyway behind the restaurant.
Purely showing: [long scene full of actual lines of dialogue]
Mix: Halfway through dinner, both John and Molly excused themselves from the table, assured everyone that everything was fine, just fine, don’t worry—and went to shout at each other in the restaurant’s back alley, the air thick with the stench of garbage. Between the kitchen noises of pots scraping against burners and waitresses calling out orders, Molly told John absolutely everything she’d ever hated about him, past, present, and future. He responded in kind. They were halfway through screaming about the time he’d lost her dog when they were both, suddenly, absolutely, exhausted by it all.
“We need to get through the rest of dinner,” Molly said, her shoulders slumped.
John nodded. Without either saying it, it was understood that this dinner was the last thing they’d need to get through together.
Of course, the two examples I gave were both slightly humorous/tongue-in-cheek in tone. They needn’t be, though.
What do you think? Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out just how much “showing” you should do in a scene, and what can just be summarized?