Review: Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts

As writers, we’ve all been told to “show, don’t tell.” This oft-repeated advice is useful, but can sometimes be counterproductive. There are times when you actually want to tell.

Laurie Alberts helps to reframe the problem in her book on writing craft, Showing and Telling. Alberts tells us that in fiction (and other narrative prose) there are two primary modes of writing: scene and summary. Ultimately, we need both of these techniques, and few (if any) successful books use exclusively one or the other.

One important thing to note here is that scene (in the sense used by Alberts) is not a unit of organization of a book (a division smaller than a chapter). Similarly, summary is not synposis. Instead scene and summary are modes of writing, a bit like prose and poety (though not so extreme). Any given “scene” (in the book organization sense) could contain both scene and summary interwoven, or one or the other exclusively. A book will typically be structured to alternate scene and summary, though sometime will flow from scene to scene or summary to summary.

Scene is the mode you’re probably most used to when you think of fiction. This mode is most accurately characterized by the perceived passing of real time. Think about a movie. The camera is watching the characters and you see what they’re doing as they do it, as if you were standing there yourself. Similarly, in creative writing, and especially in fiction, much of the narrative is spent with the characters, watching their lives unfold as if we were living alongside (or inside) them.

In contrast, summary is characterized by breaking the flow of real time, or perhaps more helpfully, unified by a common theme, mood or emotion. Time may be condensed, repetitive, or “general” (i.e., the state described is true in general and is not specific to a certain time frame). In any case, summary permits a description of state or events without pedantically describing everything as if it were happening in real time. This gives readers a breather between scenes, but it also serves to unify the narrative around a theme, mood or emotion. Often, mood changes (e.g., between scenes) can be accomplished with a summary that gradually transitions from one mood to another. Thus scene and summary fill complementary roles, focusing on the passage of time and thematic elements of a book, respectively.

Why is it important to use a mix of scene and summary? Because to use only one would be repetitive and tiring.

Using scene exclusively is exhausting. Scene happens in real time, and that means you need to write each and every event as it occurs. Worse, scenes are often build or extend tension. To use scene exclusively is to run along from one event to the next without any breaks. This wears the reader down and ultimately causes them to put the book down, even if every scene is engaging on its owns.

Similarly, using summary exclusively would be challenging. There are exceptions, books that use primarily summary, but they are very rare. In this day and age of movies and TV, readers are more visual than ever. They want to be able to see and feel what happens to the characters. This requires scene to be delivered effectively.

Coming back around to the original problem statement, why are we told to “show, don’t tell”? Because we’re not using scene effectively. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need summary! Instead, we need to learn to use both scene and summary effectively.

Beyond the framing of the problem itself, the real value that Alberts delivers in this book is specific advice about how to effectively write both scene and summary, how to transition between them, and how to embed small parts of either one in the other. This is the heart of the technique that, if writers truly master it, will vastly improve their craft.

Though a certain amount of this borders on generic craft advice, Alberts’ framing and presentation make this book a particularly helpful resource. The book starts at a high level, describing the purposes, types, and structures of scenes and summary. Then it delves into more specific aspects of craft, such as beginnings, middles and ends of scenes and summary, and specific techniques related to time, setting, character, dialogue, and even specific verb or word choices. Alberts really digs deep into the nuts and bolts here, using frequent examples to show precisely how to effectively accomplish each technique described in the book. Little is left abstract, and Alberts includes both positive and negative examples (things to do, as well as things to avoid).

If the book has a weakness, it is that a small number of potential pitfalls are stated, but given little in the way of concrete suggestions for correction. Writers are told to avoid cliche, for example. This is obvious enough advice, but how precisely are we supposed to know what cliche is and how to avoid it? Alberts never really says. Or in another case, Alberts exhorts writers to avoid sentimentality. Again, there is a lack of insight here as to what sentimentality is exactly and how to avoid it.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fresh perspective on your writing craft, Showing and Telling is an excellent place to start. The framing is insightful, the examples are truly a joy to read, and the advice is direct and helpful.

By the Way…

I’m writing an epic science fiction novel set in a distant future universe. Want to know more? Head over to The Exander Project.