Welcome to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers mini-lesson number uno:
Show and tell. Or, rather, show-and-don’t-tell-except-in-certain-circumstances.
To quote from the boldfaced titled aforementioned book:
What, exactly, makes a scene a scene? For one thing it takes place in real time. Your readers watch events as they unfold, whether those events are a group discussion of the merits of Woody Allen films, a lone man running from an assassin, or a woman lying in a field pondering the meaning of life. In scenes, events are seen as they happen rather than described after the fact. Even flashbacks show events as they unfold, although they have unfolded in the past within the context of the story.
Okay, that’s easy enough. Now that’s the book’s general description that begins the chapter. It goes on to discuss how a scene also includes setting, characters, action, some type of narration, and enough imagery to “take your reader” to the scene.
There are two types of narration. The regular one is “showing” and not “telling”.
I glanced at the man, trying to decide whether to shake his hand or yell Stranger Danger. Somehow my palm made its way into his. “Nice to meet you, sir,” I stuttered, “Now who the heck are you?”
The second one, and the one to avoid (especially in the exposition, where you’re trying to hook readers) is either labeled “passive narration” or, as the book calls it, “narrative summary”.
The girl shook the man’s hand and stuttered a bit.
Renni Browne and Dave King, co-authors of SEfFW, explain that narrative summary does indeed have its uses. To show irreleveant tasks, the passing of time, a small plot point that doesn’t deserve an actual scene but needs to lend transition to the plot.
That’s the exception to the rule, however. Irrelevant tasks could most likely be cut out altogether, and may add to a sharper storyline. The passing of time can either be described as a few sentences of narrative summary, or as a collection of scenes in which you’re free to tie in subplots, character-building, world-building (for sci-fi or historical fiction), and character relationships. In some cases a small plot point can be conveyed with narrative summary, but this is rare and you should use narrative summary with caution.
If you can manipulate your ‘showing and telling’ techniques, however, it can be beneficial as a writer. (Aka, if you think you have ‘showing’ down, stay tuned. There is much to be learned by telling, as well.)
Narrative summary can… be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action. Say you are writing a book abouta track star in which your hero participates in several races. If you show all of these races as immediate scenes, eventually they all start to read alike. But if you summarize the first few scenes–have them happen offstage, in effect–then the one you eventually show as a scene will have a real impact.
…If an event involves only minor characters, you might do better to summarize it rather than develop the characters to the point that you could write a convincing scene about them. Or if you have a minor event that leads up to a key scene, you might want to narrate the first event so that the scene, when it comes, will seem even more immediate in contrast.
I’d quote more, but I’d probably have to charge you for buying the book =P
Basically, there are two types of narration. Showing and telling. If you’re descriptive, include good characters, strong scenes, and interesting descriptions, you’re ‘showing’ the audience your story. If you ‘tell’ them, they’ll bore of it. And if you write your entire novel about a girl that yells Stranger Danger whenever offered a handshake, you won’t have any readers.
Show (whenever possible) and tell (if you absolutely need to).
It’s like kindergarten all over again. Sans naptime.