Show don’t tell. Master that rule and you’ve mastered a big one. For some reason, that most basic of writing rules, has taken me years to really appreciate. After much thought, and after having it pointed out to me a few times in my edit, I’ve decided it comes down to lazy writing. It’s much easier to tell the reader the information than to show them the details.
Writing in summary, or narrative summary, is simply summarizing events instead of showing them through action.
Here’s a quick example. The following sentence tells the reader how JoAnna feels. It summarizes the situation.
JoAnna was tired and cranky. All she wanted was a bubble bath and a bed.
The following example shows the action.
JoAnna rubbed at her eyes, red rimmed and burning from sixteen hours of popping a rivet gun on the factory line. All she wanted was a bubble bath and a bed.
For years I’ve used the following as reasonable excuses to write in summary rather than to provide the information through action: There are times when writing summary can move the story along quickly. It allows you to give the reader necessary information without doling out all the boring details. It allows you to travel quickly through time, rather than providing every detail.
The kicker is, when writing mysteries, the details are critical. I added an additional 8,000 words to my manuscript during my first edit and very little was additional plotting. Most of the additions were fleshing out the details of particular scenes. What I thought of as moving the story along, and carefully pacing the story, was actually cheating the reader of the details that make the story interesting. Not only do the details make for a visual read, but they also provide fodder for the mystery. The reader puzzles over the details, however insignificant, wondering if they are key to the mystery. Not red herrings, just minor plot specifics that can turn into major plot points later in the book.
Following is a specific example from my book, The Territory.
My Original paragraph:
Walking upstairs, they talked about how Vie was handling the stress from the shooting at the Trauma Center and her ability to brush off stress like dust. Once in the office Josie got them both a bottle of water and turned the fan to blow straight at them. Smokey sighed and seemed to relax a little.
Expand this. Add action, put their lines into dialogue. Vie’s a good character, this will flesh her out more.
Walking upstairs, they talked about how Vie was handling the stress from the shooting at the Trauma Center.
“I was out at the maintenance barn and one of the guys came running in. Told me the Trauma Center was under attack. Wanted to know if Vie was working. I said, hell yes she’s working! She’d just sent me a text saying she couldn’t meet me for lunch. She didn’t bother to mention she’d just lived through a gun fight.
They reached the top of the stairs and Josie opened the office door and flipped on the lights. She pulled out chairs at the conference table as Smokey continued.
“I told Frank I was going over there. I was hell-bent on pulling my wife out of that operating room. I knew she wouldn’t do it herself. She’d get herself shot before she walked out on a patient. Frank finally talked sense into me. Told me I’d get in the way. Get myself arrested.”
Josie got them both a bottle of water and turned the fan to blow straight at them. The window air conditioner took the edge off, but it didn’t actually cool the room. Smokey sighed and seemed to relax a little.
“I don’t know anyone who handles stress any better than Vie does. She’s a perfect fit for her job. I know yesterday was over the top, but no one could have handled it any better than she did,” Josie said.
Smokey shook his head “She brushes that stuff off like lint. Nothing fazes the woman.” He paused and smiled. “Except Donny.”
Pretty big difference in the two examples. It was an excellent opportunity to develop character, and it made what Vie had lived through a more real experience for the reader.
Next week – checking your facts