One of the most confusing words of wisdom writers are given is to show, don’t tell. I would change that to show and tell, because sometimes we do need to tell the reader something rather than show them by dramatizing a scene.
When we read a good scene, we feel like we’re watching a movie or TV program. A scene is immediate, and uses dialogue. Telling, however, uses narrative that creates necessary summaries.
What if your novel consisted only of scenes, no narrative? Not only would it be so long, no publisher would touch it, but it would be boring as you chronicle every minute of your character’s life in scene after scene.
When does your novel need telling narrative? It can be used to provide background, revealing something that happened in a character’s past. You can also tell about your characters’ interior lives. Narrative comes in handy for condensing time (“Three weeks later, Helen confessed she loved John.”) Some events don’t deserve a scene of their own but are nonetheless important to the novel (“The night Jane wore the green dress, Mark was out on a unforgettable date with Sylvia.”) Finally, telling gives the author an opportunity to offer interpretation when appropriate, telling the reader why something happened. Be careful, though, because overdoing the narrative slows down the pace, and brings your book to a screeching halt.
Confused? Here’s a helpful exercise to try. Take one of your favorite books. Using a yellow marker, highlight every scene. Using a blue marker, highlight all the narrative. The yellow passages should outnumber the blue passages, but there will be passages that tell, not show.
When you’re sitting down to create each chapter of your own novel, ask yourself, “Is this part important enough to warrant a whole scene of showing, or does it need just a quick narrative summary?” Pick and choose. Perhaps you’ll need two scenes together, followed by several paragraphs of narrative that illuminate a character’s interior life. Or you may choose a long scene, followed by just a sentence or two of narrative.
The more you write and master the craft, the easier it will become to choose when to show, and when to tell, but keep in mind that a good book needs both.