Show don’t tell. Say that to me and you are going to get a look. It is one of those phrases I hate because it is . . . ugh! It is so hard to balance showing readers who your character is with creating a scene when a single narrative line would do the same job.
How do you know when to show and when to tell?
The reality is that you need to have a balance. If you can create an interesting scene that moves your story forward and shows who your character is, do it. If you can work in a detail that will be vital later in the story, DO IT!
As so often happens, life events moved me to consider this. This weekend, my family made a trek to the cemetery. We had to find the family section but this particular cemetery only allows markers that are flush with the ground. They make mowing easy but they make locating things tricky.
It took my sister an hour to navigate the winding drives and then to find the plot. Should I tell or should I show? I could simply say “Frannie had no sense of direction.” That’s telling.
Or I could elaborate.
“Frannie circled the lawns, shifting from second into first. She had to keep an eye on the road which made looking at the map tricky. She’s already had to stomp on the brake twice to avoid the geese that were everywhere – east, west . . . she wasn’t even sure which was which. At last she saw an oramental pond and an arched bridge. She pulled over and looked at the map. Getting out of the car, she stood at the highest point on the bridge. The grass wasn’t long but it was long enough that she couldn’t see a single headstone. If she didn’t know better she would think she was in a country estate and not a cholera cemetery.”
Okay, I have to admit it. I just threw in the bit about the cholera cemetery. It seemed to add the right ZIP to the whole thing.
In this case, I would go with the scene. From it we know that Frannie has a poor sense of direction, that she drives a stick, and that she’s in a cholera cemetery. That’s a fair amount of information for one short scene.
Use a scene to help pull your reader in, to create a sense of place and time, or to plant clues and foreshadow. Use narrative for transitions and to avoid ho hum scenes like the dreaded “waking up” scene. Narrative can also be a good way to supply backstory.
You may find that there is a certain amount of trial and error involved. Fortunately we all know that rewriting is a big part of the writing process.