by Brenda Copeland

I was recently involved in a lively discussion on Facebook, and it had nothing to do with the Royal Family, the governor of New York, or whether or not A-Rod and J-Lo had broken up for good. I’m a book editor, so this argument centered around writing advice—specifically, show don’t tell. My heart sinks whenever I read this old saw. It’s overused and overly simplistic, an imperative that misleads the writer to believe in an either/or proposition that hurts their writing and leaves the reader unsatisfied.

What makes a book

Every book is a blend of scene (the action itself, the what happens of the story) and summary (the reflective overview that teases out meaning from specific events). Without strong scenes and vibrant action there’s no immediacy. Without summary and the interiority that accompanies it, there’s no perspective and little opportunity to connect with a character. This is true for fiction and non-fiction alike, especially memoir.

It’s every writer’s task to balance these important elements. Too much scene, and the reader is faced with an abundance of action and anecdote—a this happened, then that happened quality. Too much summary and interiority, and the reader is left wading through dense passages without anything to propel her forward. In other words, those passages people tend to skip.

What happens when and where

A scene is simply a part of the story that is played out in a particular time and place. The smallest dramatic unit, it relies on showing your character in action. Consider this example from Megha Majumdar’s devastating novel, A Burning:

The next morning, at the courthouse, a policewoman opens for me a path through a crowd moving like they are joyous, like they are celebrating at a cricket stadium. The sun blazes in my eyes. I look at the ground.

“Jivan! Jivan! Look here,” shout reporters with cameras mounted on their shoulders or raised high above their heads. Some reporters reach forward to push recorders toward my mouth, though policemen beat them back. I am jostled and shoved, my feet stepped on, my elbows knocked into my ribs. These men shout questions.

“How did the terrorists make contact with you?”

“When did you start planning the attack?”

This scene is emotional, physical, and active. It’s an event grounded in real time and real things—people (the policewoman, the reporters, Jivan herself), places (the courthouse), objects (cameras, recorders, elbows and ribs). Something is happening. This vibrant passage has energy, emotion, and drama. It’s satisfying on its own level, and also has a place in the larger scheme of the narrative. Without giving anything away, all I will say is that this moment resonates with elements that come up elsewhere in the book and is an integral part of the plot itself.

Think of that expression the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and consider how each scene must be a part that contributes to that greater whole. That’s the show portion of narrative.

Do tell

As for tell, it’s an opportunity for discovery that offers the reader a chance to pause, to take in what is happening and a character’s relationship to it. In other words, a summary. A book like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, that follows four people brought together at an abandoned Italian villa in World War Two, relies heavily on summary. The author uses it to differentiate between the characters and—contrary to what we may think of summary—bring each one to life. Telling is particularly important to Ondaatje’s narrative collage, as it provides a wealth of backstory that will not be played out on the page.

This paragraph comes from the novel’s third chapter and is told from the point of view of the patient himself:

We travelled through three storms during nine days. We missed small desert towns where we expected to locate more supplies. The horse vanished. Three of the camels died. For the last two days there was no food, only tea. The last link with any other world was the clink of the fire-black tea urn and the long spoon and the glass which came towards us in the darkness of the mornings. After the third night we gave up talking. All that mattered was the fire and the minimal brown liquid.

Clearly a summary, these lines are informative and historical. They add details to the story of the patient’s past and may turn out to be vital in solving the mystery at the heart of this book, the identity of the patient himself. Because the passage is not dramatized as in a scene, it is not brought to life; nevertheless there is a sense here of life reflected, as we follow the narrator through the vanishing of the horse, the death of three camels, and ultimately, the men who give up talking.

Scene and summary, action and interiority are vital to any good book. Like the best of friends, each props the other up in a here where you need me sort of way. There isn’t an indelible line between them; often there’s no line at all. Look at the opening paragraph of My Name is Lucy Barton by the goddess, Elizabeth Strout. Here, the titular character is introduced in a summarized scene that comes vibrantly to life. The passage drips with the evaluative quality that is the mark of interiority, and yet the reader has the sense of being in one specific moment, even though the narrator is moving us through past and present.

There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks. This was in New York City, and at night a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible from my bed. During the day, the building’s beauty receded, and gradually it became simply one more large structure against a blue sky, and all the city’s buildings seemed remote, silent, far away. It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women—my age—in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze. I thought how when I go out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that—I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

In less than 200 words Elizabeth Strout conveys place, emotion, and context—the narrator’s very outlook on life. There is a sense of movement, of the fullness of time, of specificity of place, of judgment—of action and interiority, show and tell.

Rules are seductive to writers. They give us something to cling to as we stare at the blank screen, trying to respond to that hideous question—what next? But beware of easy answers, of unbendable techniques and stubborn systems that urge you to do this, not that. You’re not counting calories or filing your taxes.

You’re writing a book. There’s room not just to bend the rules, but to break them.

Figure out what works for you, your characters, your book. But if you still find yourself needing some sort of yardstick, consider these wise words from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”


Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.


Brenda Copeland is an editor with more than twenty years’ experience at the big five publishers and over ten years’ experience as an adjunct professor in the graduate publishing program at NYU. She has published a robust list of fiction and non-fiction, quality books with strong commercial appeal. Now an independent editor, she works closely with authors through all stages of the writing and publication process, helping them reach their creative potential.