Summary Tell, or Interactive Show?

It’s that old conundrum of show versus tell. Every story has summary, every story has immediacy, but they don’t usually end up in the same paragraph.

There are reasons for that.

A tell is summarising something, a conclusion made, or an unmoving description (static, unattached to a character).

There are several ways to tell. Summarising (which is mainly what I’m using here), description that comes from without and isn’t attached to a character’s view, and exposition which explains things (ex = explain).

This is a hard one to win with, because we’ve all been sung the story in summary mode since fables were whispered.

The witch came at midnight to cut into Anna and take a vial of blood for the ritual.

That’s summary. Why?

I can’t visualise the action the witch takes to get to wherever there is, and I can’t know what’s on her mind. The main character isn’t there. It’s summary and exposition. Explaining something that happened and why it happened.

Would you like to see it shown, in immediate scene? Okay. It may not be perfect, but first drafts never are.

Black tatters of cloth fluttered across the clouds lit by moonlight. A long shadow slid along the ground, over the snow, pointed at the window where Anna peered through the slit.
‘She’s here for you,’ Betta whispered from under her pillow. ‘She wants the blood of the little witch.’
An owl screamed as it flew across the meadow, it’s path directly below the flying broom and its rider. The witch-shadow raised a long arm and slashed. The owl fell to the ground, a soft mound of feathers ruptured by red and black.
‘No,’ Anna squealed, slapped her hand to her mouth, and stepped back from the window.
The curtain darkened in the centre, a sharp pointed tip like a devil’s talon clawed a hole through the thin material, and pointed at Anna’s heart.
A gash ice-burned into her chest, black blood dripped into a wooden cup, overflowed and spilled, splatted onto the sheepskin rug.

Can you see it? Do you feel anything? Which do you prefer?

Okay, that last question is a Furphy.

It’s not what the writer prefers, nor really the reader. A summary moves a story along faster, so if the event isn’t important — in this case, if it’s no more than a scary story the big sister tells to scare Anna — it can be summarised, and summaries generally happen before and after a scene, but not often during (slows the emotional closeness of an immediate scene). However, if the event and action is a scene, it’s important enough to be shown, dramatised, acted out so all the senses are involved. I didn’t put smell or taste or setting (except the mention of cold snow, but not how the character reacts or interacts with it), only sound and sight and emotional context.

A show is the dramatic action that changes something in a way that can be seen, felt, experienced.

There are places for each, but the things that are important to the story, the emotions and changes and direct connections to the story, all need to be shown so the reader experiences them and understands that this is important to the story … or it wouldn’t be there for her to experience.

Easy. Not. I still need to do a whole edit just for show and tell. And after the story is finished, I still find places where the distinction either isn’t clear enough, or the show/summary should be more, much more.

How easy is it for you? How do you keep the lines clear? Is it easy, and if it is, would you like to share the secret? I’m all ears …

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on

5 thoughts on “Summary Tell, or Interactive Show?

  1. Absolutely agree. Important moments in the story must always be ‘shown’, but I loathe the ‘show don’t tell’ rule with a passion. I have literally read stories in which the exact same ‘action’ is shown…again and again and again because the writer has taken the ‘show don’t tell’ advice to heart without understanding what it really means. 😦

    As you so rightly point out, a good story needs both show and tell, otherwise it might never get past the first introductory scene. Or, shock horror, it could end up being utterly boring because there is no distinction made between things that matter and things that don’t. Imagine if a writer wasted an entire page describing the act of brushing one’s teeth…in excruciating detail! As a rule of thumb, I would never ‘show’ something that is common knowledge unless there is some other, deeper significance to the act that is both important and moves the story along.

    Scifi is difficult because there is often very little ‘common knowledge’ so I try to insert explanatory info only when it’s important /to the character/ and only as much as is absolutely necessary at that point in the story. Strangeness is best absorbed a little at a time. That said, getting the balance right is always hard. :/

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