It was asked here by Anonymole (and all over everywhere) when to show and when to tell. I can’t answer that, directly, but I have a few ideas. First, and this is critical to making the show/tell judgment call, here is an excerpt from Charles Ardai’s Afterword for James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. (The book discovered, edited and published by Ardai.) This is lifted out of context but hits the nail on the head.
“It’s the inherent contradiction in any work of fiction, the one we all conveniently ignore each time we sit down to enjoy a novel: Can we believe what this narrator is telling us? Well, no, of course not – it’s all lies, it’s all made up, that’s what fiction is. But within the fiction, you say, if we imagine ourselves inhabitants of the characters’ world instead of our own, can we believe what we’re being told then…?”
Credibility. With any audience, we need to judge when they will keep their suspension of disbelief going and hang with us, and when they will pull up and say, “Whoa, now. Really?” Here are a few thoughts about show vs. tell.
Ease up on the Minutia – An editor once told me that we don’t need to take every step of every day with the characters. We need to see them in their environment and show them in conversation and interaction with other characters when it matters. Telling is often scene setting, or setting up an important conversation or event. Janie brushed her teeth, threw on her clothes, picked up a drive-through coffee and made it to X in twenty minutes. We don’t need to stand there with her while the toothbrush timer runs down, button her blouse or select shoes (unless we’re showing some character) we need to get her and her hurried state of mind to the next show by getting the basics told.
Ass-U-Me – We might understand something physical or conceptual and ass-u-me the readers do as well. If a doohickey has a name, and only the fifteen people you work with know what it is, either tell what it is (if it’s mandatory to the story), show the doohickey by character interaction, (M in Bond) or drop it. The way Hans Solo used sci-fi slang to sell the speed of his ship in the original Star Wars always drove me nuts. But he glossed over it, the people at the table bought it, so we let it go and ass-u-me whatever the hell he said, it meant fast and he was some kind of hot dog space jockey to pull it off. Great generic transplantable bar scene, though, in spite of the gratuitous techno-babble.
Weather, battles, travel and digressions – If the weather matters, or turns into an antagonist/protagonist, get into it if you must. Otherwise, conditions if they matter told. Think of the intros to Dragnet. Do we really need to know it was a hot and muggy/wet and cold day in Los Angeles when it never really mattered to the ensuing story?
Battles and fight scenes are an either/or. Jim kicked Bob’s ass. Told. Extended blow by blow of Jim kicking Bob’s ass. Shown. Make the call. Do we need to see it, or is it enough to know it happened?
If a journey matters, show it. If not, tell it. Think Huck Finn on the River. “Me and this black dude named Jim, we got up to all sorts of stuff. The End.” No way. How about the Bible? Woops, Jesus is 12. Man, that went by fast. And now he’s 30 something! But those are the story markers. Why waste time on The Messiah helping Joe build furniture and go to Messiah school? TV and all genres of fiction (okay, leave Eco out) do this all the time. Example – “Springtime was cold and muddy in Colorado, which made Texas look pretty good. By early summer a gambler in Galveston had taken his horse and saddle, newspapering didn’t appeal to him, so he thought he’d try doctoring for a spell.” Now we could watch “him” lose the horse and saddle in the poker game, that would be fun, or it needs to come out in a backstory/catch up convo with a bartender or a “saloon girl nurse” so we get the character’s side of it, not ours, but we don’t need to ride across Texas with him if it’s just a ride and campfire trip. And the audience has been primed to accept those things. Ever see or read about a cowboy getting off his horse for a potty break?
Digressions, into characters’ minds or daydreams or god forbid lengthy postmodernism authors and their mindset and philosophy and opinions and preaching ad nauseum. Or endless architecture, seasonal weather, travelogue and set decorating ramblings. Moby Dick and whaling how-to. That is all us telling and we often need an outside opinion to point it out and defend it or let it go. In Cain’s book mentioned above his digressions into weather and architecture got cut as they did nothing for the story and weren’t in sync with his style. But – in another genre, another style? Judgment call.
Bottom line for show/tell is what happens to characters that we can dispense with and what do we need to show. Test – can you sell it without selling the story short.
Some authors can’t. Every gadget, every garden, the smell of leather and horse and…I prefer people to things, and if properly done we don’t need owners’ manuals for things in stories. Look how easily we accepted Warp Speed or salt shakers as stun guns or scanning wands in Star Trek. There are those who would invent a language for aliens. Roddenberry did not. Nor did he explain his dystopia. It was Bonanza in space. Dress the set, get to the people. Tell, show. This a classic chapter/scene set up since forever. Where are we, and…Action.
Which brings me to: why don’t a lot of (burgeoning) writers like dialog? Ask yourself that. Don’t like people? Aren’t comfortable talking? Can’t hear them in your head? Don’t know how the conversation should go? While you’re at it, ask yourself this: do you buy the leap you’re asking your readers to take by being so uninvolved with your characters? (telling). I faced this in Affable. I wanted Jackson out of the dump he’d landed in for several reasons. How? One line, two? Whatever, is it believable? “Oh my, Jackson is suddenly wearing a tux vest and ponytail playing in a piano bar off the strip and is also the houseboy for the I Felta Thi sorority of upscale hookers. Because they liked him.”
What? Why? How? In a movie it could have been some quick cut soft focus double exposure layers, girls at the dive, Jackson playing, laughing, girls hustling the talent guy, girls at the gas station, BAM. I didn’t have that luxury, nor did I buy it at two or four lines. A chance to reinforce Vegas without a travelogue, put up some strong, independent female characters (important for tone), lots of visual language, some foreshadowing. I could have gone over the top with damp carpet smells, told more scene setting, more sideline character development, bumped my word count, but why? Or simply told the whole thing. Divergence should have a purpose. Credibility and putting Jackson in a position for what’s next. For what’s next to be credible we needed to see it. I needed to see it. I couldn’t have told Savannah as vehicle and persona or Jackson’s improved caste half as well as showing it.
In the next chapter of THG3 I gloss over something that an erotic writer would have been all over for a couple of pages. So what’s important varies by genre. Regardless, credibility and stylistic consistency are the show vs. tell litmus tests. I got that straight from the editor’s mouth.