Show and Tell:

The Proper Uses of Summary

Show don’t tell is the most common piece of advice offered to beginning writers—and it’s the right advice, most of the time. But not always.

There’s a novel structure technique called scene/sequel—action scenes, written in real time where the writer describes everything that happens (showing), are followed by sequels, where the protagonist processes what happened in the action scene and decides what to do next. And these sequels are frequently where summary (telling) comes into play.

As an example: You write the scene where Bob’s boss fires him in full show mode, with every sense engaged. We hear every word that’s spoken. We feel Bob’s shock. He picks up the paperweight and fidgets with it, yearning to throw it at his bosses head. He prays the sweat soaking his armpits doesn’t show through his suit coat, etc. etc.

But after that comes the sequel, where Bob slams out of the office and is driving home to tell his eighteen motherless children that he’s out of a job—what will this mean for them? At this point Bob performs dozens of boring actions like walking out of the building, finding his car in the parking lot, opening the door, getting into the car, taking out his keys, putting the key in the ignition and turning on the car, backing out of his parking place, turning left to drive out of the lot, etc. etc. All of these boring actions (and many more) can be summarized in four words. As Bob drove home, he thought about…

At this point, a lot of trivial actions will be summarized, or just skipped over, as Bob processes how the events in the proceeding scene have changed his life and he decides what he has to do now. And the decision Bob makes during the sequel is the writer’s natural bridge into the next action scene.

Sequels are almost always shorter than action scenes, and the proportion of scene to sequel depends on the genre, as well as an individual author’s style. In any kind of action/adventure plot, and in almost all children’s books, the sequels will take up a lot less space than they would in an adult literary novel—but don’t sell them short. Like Bob, the reader needs time to process what happened in the action scene, to relax a moment before moving on to the next bit of drama. For me, the scenes are where the novel breaths in, building tension and suspense, the sequels are where the novel exhales, letting the pace drop for a few moments before the next scene ramps the complications even higher. (Bob finds he can’t stand to tell his children the truth—he sneaks out job hunting, but in today’s market there’s no way he can get a new job. He decides to assassinate his boss ((who was leaving for a two week vacation right after he broke the news)) before the paperwork on Bob’s firing can be processed…)

Some sequels will be only a few sentences:

As Bob drove home, he thought about what this would mean for his family. Bill, now thirty-two, had been hoping to start college next year. And Betty, only eighteen months old, still wore those expensive disposable diapers.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat staring at the door. Finally he forced himself to move, but his feet felt weighted as he climbed the steps. Just as he pulled out his key, Belinda opened the door. “Pop! What are you doing home so early?”

Note how easily the sequel rolls back into scene? If Bob had decided to assassinate his boss on the drive home, I’d have devoted several pages to soul searching and increasing desperation, and maybe added a few more details to the drive—but most of his actions during the sequel would still have been told in summary form.

There are several other places where you’re better off telling than showing. Any time you have a long chain of events that don’t move your plot forward—summarize.

The flight to the Bahamas was uneventful, but as he got off the plane Sam Superspy saw…

Not all scenes are followed by sequels. If the action starts in the office you frequently don’t need to summarize Matilda getting up, getting dressed and going to work.

As soon as she arrived at work the next morning, Matilda could tell something had happened. The normally unflappable Ms. Maynard looked as if sparrows had molted in her hair.

This symbol, # ,centered on an empty line, is a signal to the typesetter to leave that line blank. I’ve mostly heard this blank line called a “time drop” though there may be other phrases. But whatever you call it, it’s one of the most useful tools available to tell the reader that a certain amount of time has passed, but that nothing they need to know about has happened.

And finally, there’s the dreaded “info dump.” This is a common problem science fiction and fantasy—and I’m the first to concede that a long passage telling the reader how your spaceship’s drive works, or the history of your fantasy world, stops the action, bores the reader, and is generally a bad idea.

However, long scenes where the same information is brought out in real time are no better. As you know, Bob conversations, where one character tells another something they both already know for the benefit of the reader, are actually worse than info dumps because they make your characters sound false, and they take even longer. Bringing in a character who doesn’t know this information and spoon feeding it to the reader through Joe Ignorant is only slightly better.

The best solution is to allow the information to come out in small bits, during the normal course of your plot. If the protagonist is going to sabotage the gammafluxator drive to stop the ship, then the details of its workings are going to come out pretty naturally. And if it doesn’t come out naturally, does the reader really need to know that the current conflict between the Barrins and the Squiparides started 14,000 years ago with the Moffant migration?

On the other hand I write SF and fantasy, and I know that sometimes the reader really does need to learn a significant amount of background information in order to understand the story. Sometimes you can bring these facts out in the character’s dialog in ways that don’t feel contrived. But sometimes the quickest, least bothersome way to get the information out there is an info dump.

Roger knew that it was the Moffant’s migration into their territory that had forced the Squiparides to invade Barrin. If the spell that had turned Moffaira into a wasteland could be reversed, the Moffant would return to their ancient homeland in a heartbeat! But how to reverse the spell? A spell cast 14,000 years ago, and rooted in the very soil of Moffaria? It seemed impossible. It was impossible.

Even if unending war was the alternative?

Yes, this is an info dump. But it’s short, comprehensible, and it’s probably better than taking two thirds of a page to convey the same information in dialog.

There are several tricks to making info dumps less painful. The first is to keep them as short as possible! Include only the information the reader really needs to understand the action.

The second trick is to cast the information as part of the characters’ thoughts.

Wilcox took a moment to consider the how the gammafluxator drive had evolved. Technobabble, technobabble. No wonder the thing was such a flipping mess!

Having your character take a moment to consider something he already knows is more than a bit contrived, but at least it allows you to flavor the dump with the character’s judgments and emotions, and maybe tie it into his plot predicament as well.

And speaking as someone who is currently reading a novel riddled with scenes where someone clues Joe Ignorant in on the political and legal ramifications of the history of this world, each scene taking at least several pages… There’s a lot to be said for short info dumps.

Show don’t tell is good advice—for writers who try to summarize their action scenes instead of writing them in real time. Because it’s the scenes in real time, where we experience every heartbeat of the story right along with the character, that bring the novel to life.

But there’s an old saying about getting over heavy ground as lightly as possible. When your main character needs to process information and decide what to do next. When you’re dealing with the mundane events that happen between the action scenes. And when you’re conveying necessary background information to the reader, this is the novel’s “heavy ground.” And summary (telling) is frequently the lightest way over it.

Winter 2008

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