For years I took the old creative writing adage of “show, don’t tell” to heart. I’d detail every trip my characters took to the bank, the bar, the bathroom. They were stuck in micro-orbits of the same quotidian actions; I produced bloated scenes that barely moved their stories forward. It took writing—then scrapping—hundreds of pages of writing for me to realize I needed to shake off that conventional wisdom.
For writers of long-form fiction, we are tasked with telling a captivating story and showing the passage of time in a (mostly) credible way. But how do we do it without writing a thousand-page opus detailing each day of our characters’ lives—in real time? Conversely, how do we sum up the necessary bits of narrative without creating awkward jump-cuts that throw off the rhythm of our story?
There are a number of strategies I turn to in deciding when to “show” (i.e., dramatize a scene) and when to “tell” (summarize). Here’s one: Take your favorite novel and examine it paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. Note the tempo of the narrative. Are there short, punchy scenes webbed together by delicious narrative description? Or one long scene embedded with nuggets of backstory “tell”? What kind of rhythm has the writer created, and what effect does it have on you, the reader?
Now close the book. Which scenes can you still recall vividly, filled with concrete, specific details that enrich your understanding of the characters? What necessary information stays with you—and what does not? Can you remember how the author conveys that information, those moods and emotions? The results may surprise you—as I found with both Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children—master works in the artful “tell.”
Apply these exercises to your own work. Take inventory of all the scenes you’ve written. Are there repetitions of similar scenes that, like an echo, grow weaker with each iteration? Where are the missed opportunities? Look to what needs to be expanded or contracted, and examine their corresponding effects.
Scenes and summary are the bricks and mortar of fiction; the more we understand how they work in tandem, the better we can produce fiction with a structure and rhythm uniquely our own.
Patricia Park is the author of the debut novel Re Jane (Viking, May 2015), named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and American Library Association's Best Books of 2015. She received her BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and her MFA in fiction from Boston University. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and SUNY Purchase College. She was a Fulbright scholar to South Korea, an Emerging Writers fellow with The Center for Fiction, and a Fellow with the American Association of University Women. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, Daily Beast, Slice Magazine, and others. A Queens native, she lives in Brooklyn.