We’ve all heard the saying, ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a piece of writing advice that’s been thrown around so much that it’s become a common catchphrase. No article or video about writing advice is complete without including “show, don’t tell”. Go to any book, filter for 1-star reviews, and there’s a high likelihood at least one of those reviews will contain some sort of critique along the lines of “there’s too much telling” or “all tell and no showing”. (Yes, I’m guilty of making this complaint too.)
I kind of hate this piece of writing advice because as a writer, it’s not very useful. Blindly following the rule of “show, don’t tell” results in pointless prose and bloated books.
Instead, I prefer to think of it as a choice you should consciously make for every event in the story:
Dramatize or summarize?
That is the question!
I went to an excellent writing workshop at NIDA once, which was about writing for the screen and stage. One of the most useful exercises I remember was a discussion of story versus plot. In the context of that discussion, ‘story’ meant ‘a bare, chronological succession of events’ and ‘plot’ meant ‘how the story is presented by the writer’. Or, more specifically, ‘events as ordered and connected in a drama; smaller than story; subject to authorial will’.
One exercise to explore this point was to picked somebody famous and think about how we would construct a plot around the story of their life. What should the plot be about? Their rise to fame? Their fall from grace? Their legacy?
How you answer that question changes the scope of your plot. Something like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (musical, 2 hours and 30 minutes excluding intermission) requires different decisions on what to dramatize and what to narrate versus Breaking Bad (television series, 62 episodes, total run time of 61.3 hours, each episode sitting between 47-53 minutes without ads) versus Whiplash (feature film, 106 minutes) versus Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (novella, 126 pages) versus Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (standalone novel, 272 pages, mostly first person epistolary) versus Janny Wurts’s The Curse of the Mistwraith (first in 11-book series novel, 233k words).
Which brings me back to Petition: so far, it’s Rahelu’s story about Petitioning the Houses. We open on Petition Day and we’ve followed her POV closely, event by event, as she goes through the Petitioning process.
At the end of Chapters 10 and 11, Rahelu has three spheres. The expectation is: three spheres, invitations from three Houses, therefore surely three scenes showing the three audiences.
So why did I end up skipping over House Isca to focus on Houses Issolm and Ideth instead?
Well, I had a problem: I didn’t know what I would write in a scene between Rahelu and Elder Nhirom (who, honestly, along with Elder Anathwan didn’t exist as a character.)
That’s not exactly news; I never know exactly what I’m going to write before I write it. I can outline all I want but the moment I open up a blank document in side-by-side view next to my painstaking outline of all the beats I’m supposed to hit, my discovery writing brain laughs and laughs and laughs and then just writes whatever the hell it wants to instead. (It wasn’t like I knew how the Issolm or Ideth audiences would turn out either.)
No, the problem was I did not know what the conflict would be in the Isca audience. And conflict—at least, when it comes to the style that is preferred in genre fiction today—conflict is the engine that drives the story.
No conflict? No scene.
No compelling conflict? Super lame scene.
The thing with House Isca is, everything you know up to this point you’ve learned based on Dharyas’s example—and you’ve probably surmised that Rahelu would not be well-suited to House Isca. Which means, you can also probably guess at how that audience is going to go. Unless I plan to subvert those expectations—or make the way the events unfold extremely entertaining—dramatizing (a.k.a. showing) the scene on page doesn’t do anything to serve the plot.
Don’t get me wrong; I could have written an Isca audience scene set in Nhirom’s workshop—but I would have had to introduce some other form of conflict because “Rahelu is clueless” is not a conflict; it’s a descriptor. 1500 words about Rahelu walking into Elder Nhirom’s workshop and having no clue what to do with her wire sphere is not interesting. You’d just be reading pages and pages of description about what Elder Nhirom’s workshop looks like (not that Rahelu would even have the vocabulary to describe what she’s seeing)…and for what purpose? It doesn’t contribute anything to the plot.
To turn that descriptor into conflict, I would need Rahelu to do something to the status quo. Maybe she disrespects the Elder and causes trouble for Tsenjhe. Maybe thugs break into his workshop during the audience and she saves his life. Maybe she decides to cheat and he catches her. Whatever it is, the characters need to end the scene in a different place to where they started otherwise there’s no advancement of plot/character/setting—just a lot of pointless words you could have skipped without missing anything.
Far better to summarize the Isca audience in ~250 words instead.
That frees up word count to compare and contrast House Issolm and House Ideth in how Elder Anathwan and Atriarch Mere Ideth’s approaches vary in their approach which builds on what you’ve already seen before.
I’m not entirely happy with those two scenes; I mean, let’s call them what they are: thinly-disguised world building exposition dumps about the Houses. But I hope that you found them somewhat organic and interesting to read without feeling like I’ve shoved a bunch of words I’ve copied and pasted straight from my world building wiki.