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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second EditionHow to Edit Yourself Into Print
By Browne, Renni
Show and Tell
What's wrong with this paragraph?:
The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries. In the space of no more than five minutes, I heard several different people put forth their theories -- all equally probable or preposterous -- as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the conviction that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed that, for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties.
In a sense, of course, there's nothing wrong. The paragraph is grammatically impeccable, and it describes the mystery surrounding the party's host clearly, efficiently, and with a sense of style.
Now look at the same passage as it actually appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
"I like to come," Lucille said. "I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last, I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address -- within a week I got a package from Croirier's with a new evening gown in it."
"Did you keep it?" asked Jordan.
"Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered. It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars."
"There's something funny about a fellow that'll do a thing like that," said the other girl eagerly. "He doesn't want any trouble with anybody."
"Who doesn't?" I inquired.
"Gatsby. Somebody told me -- "
The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.
"Somebody told me they thought he killed a man." A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.
"I don't think it's so much that," argued Lucille skeptically; "it's more that he was a German spy during the war."
One of the men nodded in confirmation.
"I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany," he assured us positively.
"Oh, no," said the first girl, "it couldn't be that, because he was in the American army during the war." As our credulity switched back to her, she leaned forward with enthusiasm. "You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking at him. I'll bet he killed a man."
What's the difference between these two examples? To put it simply, it's a matter of showing and telling. The first version is narrative summary, with no specific settings or characters. We are simply told about the guests' love of mystery, the weakness of their arguments, the conviction of the arguers. In the second version we actually get to see the breathless partygoers putting forth their theories and can almost taste the eagerness of their audience. The first version is a secondhand report. The second is an immediate scene.
What, exactly, makes a scene a scene? For one thing it takes place in real time. Your readers watch events as they unfold, whether those events are a group discussion of the merits of Woody Allen films, a lone man running from an assassin, or a woman lying in a field pondering the meaning of life. In scenes, events are seen as they happen rather than described after the fact. Even flashbacks show events as they unfold, although they have unfolded in the past within the context of the story.
Scenes usually have settings as well, specific locations the readers can picture. In Victorian novels these settings were "I heard that from a man who knew all about him, often described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. Nowadays literature is leaner and meaner, and it's often a good idea to give your readers just enough detail to jumpstart their imaginations so they can picture your settings for themselves.
Scenes also contain some action, something that happens. Mary kills Harry, or Harry and Mary beat each other up. More often than not, what happens is dialogue between one or more characters. Though even in dialogue scenes it's a good idea to include a little physical action from time to time -- what we call "beats" -- to remind your readers of where your characters are and what they're doing. We'll be talking about beats at length in chapter 8.
Of course, anything that can go into a scene can also be narrated. And since scenes are usually harder to write than narration, many writers rely too heavily on narrative summary to tell their stories. The result is often page after page, sometimes chapter after chapter, of writing that reads the way the first passage quoted above reads: clearly, perhaps even stylishly, but with no specific setting, no specific characters, no dialogue.
A century or so ago this sort of writing would have been fine. It was the norm, in fact -- Henry James wrote at least one entire novel composed largely of narrative summary. But thanks to the influence of movies and television, readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes. Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did.
Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants to accomplish, you're well advised to rely heavily on imme-diate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you've created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can't do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.
We once worked on a novel featuring a law firm in which one of the new associates led a rebellion against the senior partners. The writer introduced the new associate and two of his colleagues in the first chapter by describing their job interviews with senior partners. The interviews were given as narrative summary -- she simply told her readers what the law firm was looking for in a new associate ...Continues...
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