Show and Tell: The art of summaries and scenes in stories

Remember show and tell in school? You’d bring something that you wanted to share with the class and tell them all about it. There is something about the school show and tell process that contains a jewel for storytellers to consider: that is, how much do you show your readers – akin to bringing an object that your friends can see, touch, smell, and experience, and how much do you tell them about it— what do you report about the object’s nature and significance?

Scenes in book

In my editing and coaching work, I sometimes point out to a writer passages in their books—whether fiction, non-fiction or memoir— where I believe it may be more powerful for them to show rather than tell.  Often when I say this I am greeted with a blank stare.  They can only think of their grade school presentations.

So what does this mean exactly?  

In much of storytelling, you want to give people experiences not information.  This means you want to paint them a scene and draw them into the action so they feel they are present in the moments you are creating, as opposed to telling your reader what happened, which I’ll call narrative summary here.  

Really, both scene building and narrative summary have their roles in our writing and storytelling.  In this blog, we’ll explore the characteristics of each, and when it is best to use them.  

But first, an example of the difference between the two.  

Showing vs. Telling, an example

This is a passage from Michael Crichton’s memoir Travels. Here is is SHOWING us by scene what is taking place.

“Look here, don’t worry about it,” he said, laughing and slapping me on the shoulder. “I was just joking.”

“You weren’t.”

“I promise you, I was.”

“What do you want to bet I make it?” I said.

“Look here Michael,” he said, “It was just a joke. You’re taking this entirely too seriously.”

I persisted. “I’ll bet you a dinner, when I get back to Nairobi,” I said, and named a French restaurant that he had mentioned as expensive and good.

Mark agreed to the bet. “Right,” he said. “Now: how will we verify that you actually get to the top?”

“Do you think I’d lie?”

He raised his hands. “I’m just asking how I’ll know. A bet’s a bet. How’ll you prove it?”

“Well, there’ll be pictures,” I said. “I’ll have pictures.”

“They won’t be developed yet.”

“I’ll develop them in Nairobi for you.”

It turned out that you couldn’t get color processing done in Nairobi; the film was all sent to England and it took weeks.

“I’ll get a statement from the guide or whatever.”

“Could be forged.”

“Well, Loren will tell you whether I made it or not.”

“That’s true,” he said nodding, “she’ll tell me whether you got up there.”

So we agreed, back in Nairobi, if Loren and I had climbed Kilimanjaro, he would buy me dinner.

Then a thought occurred to me. “What if Loren doesn’t make it?”

Mark shook his head. “The boys are six to two that she’ll make it to the top.  We’re not worried about her. We’re worried about you.”

“Great,” I said.  

Here we learn a lot about Michael, Mark, and even Loren, as the author shows us about their character and action through dialogue, inner thoughts, and action.  Crichton is showing us a lot about Michael’s upcoming trip to climb Kilimanjaro.  

Now consider how this might be presented in narrative summary:

Mark and I had a close brother-like relationship and bantered in a friendly way.  But I felt competitive and like I had something to prove.  I wanted him to believe I could climb Kilimanjaro successfully, I wanted him to believe in my abilities.  But I couldn’t tell him that.  So I made him bet me that I could do it.  We labored around the logistics: how would he know I’d actually climbed the mountain? I suggested that maybe I could take pictures, or get a note from the guards, or maybe Loren could vouch for me.  Mark thought Loren had a better chance of making the climb than I did,  I was determined to make it.  I made a bet with Mark that if I did it, he’d take me to the fanciest French restaurant in Nairobi.  

Using Scenes in Story

Using narrative summary in your book

Narrative summary is when you tell people about a scene rather than showing them.  You tell your reader about your characters, their location, what they are doing, and what has happened.  It’s a second hand report and can create a sense of distance between your reader and the action your are presenting.  Narrative summary engages the reader’s mind not their emotions. 

When to use narrative summary:

When you want to slow the pace down: Using in right proportion of narrative summary to scene can vary the rhythm and texture of your writing.  It can slow things down to give your readers a chance to catch their breath if the action has been fast-paced or intense.  

To account for a long period of time: Using narrative summary can give continuity to your story on a larger scale— can capture weeks or months of slow steady growth or change that a scene can’t capture, for example.  

Repetitive action: using narrative summary can be appropriate when you are accounting for a repetitive action, something that a character does again and again.  You can use narrative to summarize the first few of a series of similar actions (i.e. track races for an athlete character)

For brevity: You can use narrative summary when some events don’t justify having a whole scene dedicated to them.  

Building scenes in your book

A scene is your (re-)creation of a moment or moments in real time by showing your reader the real time events as they are happening (in present tense) rather than described after the fact, as with narrative summary.  This gives your readers the feeling that they are watching the events as they transpire, draws your readers into the world you are creating, makes them feel part of it, and, ideally, allows them to get “lost” in your world. 

Scenes give your writing a sense of immediacy and transparency.  Scenes engage reader’s emotions more than their minds, generally speaking.  While scenes are so powerful, they can be harder to create than just telling your reader something, and it can take some practice to develop confidence in their use.  

Scenes are created by action, through dialogue, and interior monologue.  A scene engages the senses and the emotions.  You offer specific locations and actions that readers can picture, so they can imaginatively enter your scene.  You show them things about your characters through dialogue, their actions, and their inner thoughts.  You can show us about a character’s motives and behavior rather than just telling us.  You can reveal why a character feels or acts the way they do.

Scenes can be immediate and engaging; but can also be relentless and exhausting if overused.  

When creating a scene, the question a writer often explores is how much detail to offer.  A good guideline is to use enough detail to jump start your reader’s imagination so they can picture your scene themselves.  Be wary not create scenes that are totally exhaustive and non-plot moving.

And it is wise not to tell your readers something you’ve already revealed through dialogue and action.  You must trust your reader to have gathered this information from your scenes.  

Using scenes + summaries in your writing

Good storytelling employs both narrative summary and scene building in wise proportion. Often, I find that writers are more comfortable with one mode of storytelling than the other. To this I would suggest, that you practice the one that comes less naturally to you.

If you are working on a piece and realize that you have all narrative summary, go back in and locate places where you can build a scene, and practice with dialogue, real time action, and inner monologue. It can take some intentionality and revision to develop the right blend of scene and summary.

Three questions for book writers

When looking at your own writing, here are some questions you can consider when it comes to building your scenes and summaries through story.

  1. How often do you use narrative summary when you are writing stories in your book?  Are there long passages where nothing happens in real time?  Do main events take place in summary or in scene?

  2. What is the proportion of summary to scene?  Are there some summaries you could convert to scenes and vice versa?  Good places to write scenes are those with major plot twists or surprises and those involving main characters.  

  3. Are you describing your character’s emotions or can you show us how they felt through action, dialogue and monologue?  

Over to you

What questions do you have about scenes and summaries, I’d love to hear! Which one comes more naturally to you?

If you would like support writing your memoir or non-fiction book, let’s talk. I offer private coaching to help you write your book.

Jaime Fleres