Show Don’t Tell? Not Always. Here’s When to Use Summary

I was inspired to write this post after getting a question from one of my email subscribers: “What’s your opinion on the whole ‘show don’t tell’ advice? Do you have any tips for when to show and when to tell?”

Here’s my response:

I honestly think that “show don’t tell” is one of the most over-quoted and least-understood pieces of writing advice out there.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, “show don’t tell” means that instead of explaining or telling something to your reader (“Sheila was reckless and impulsive”), you should show Sheila’s impulsiveness through action or dialogue. For example, “Even though her rent was overdue, after she got her paycheck Sheila spent $400 on an antique toilet.” This would allow the reader to draw the conclusion that Sheila was impulsive for themselves, rather than being told.

Theoretically, this is great advice for new fiction writers, who, left to their own devices, tend to write their stories entirely in “telling” mode.

But summary (telling) has a place in fiction as well, and it’s an important one.

For one thing, summary allows you to pace your story. If everything is shown in the moment, a story can sometimes seem to be unfolding with breathtaking speed. Alternating with a bit of summary allows your reader to slow down for a break every once in a while.

Secondly, scene takes a lot longer to write than summary. In the earlier example, it might take several scenes or hundreds of words to thoroughly show and convince the reader of Sheila’s impulsiveness. Whereas the sentence “Sheila was impulsive” takes three words. So summary can allow you to fit more into your story or novel and keep it a reasonable length whereas if you wrote every single little thing that happened in scene your story might be prohibitively long.

Summary helps control the pacing of the story and also helps the writer moderate the story’s length.

Even the most fervent supporters of “show don’t tell,” as far as I know, do not dispute that every story can make use of and benefit from summary.

Try it yourself: Pick up your favorite story or book off of the shelf and see if you can locate parts of the story that are told, explained, or summarize to the reader. It’s there. It’s part of the package. Good writers use summary, and they know how to use it well.

So how do you decide when and where to use summary?

The answer is in itself another question and topic. But here’s a quick guideline:

Use summary to give the reader any information she needs which is not important enough to the story to warrant a scene, or to show the passing of time between important parts of the story.

Example #1 Using summary to quickly present inconsequential information.

If the fact that Sheila is reckless and impulsive is a central part of the story—maybe this is a story about how Sheila, your protagonist, learns to overcome her impulsiveness, for example, or maybe in this story it becomes a major issue in Sheila’s relationship that she is impulsive, etc.—then by all means show Sheila’s impulsiveness in scenes.

But if Sheila is a minor character who is only mentioned by two or three times in passing, and whose behavior doesn’t really affect the story one way or another, then go ahead and summarize Sheila’s behavior. For example, if Sheila is a distant cousin of the protagonist and is only mentioned in a few sentences when the protagonist bumps into her at a family reunion. She is not a central part of the story, but for whatever reason it’s important for the reader to know a few minor details about her.

Example #2: Using summary to show time passing between important scenes.

If your story is about a couple being trapped inside a cabin for a long winter, by all means show the bitter cold days in full scene. That’s the essence of your story, you wouldn’t want to summarize it and deny the reader the chance to experience it.

But if your story is about two friends who share a friendship at summer camp every year, you might want to recap the winter that passed between their visits in a paragraph or two.

Another time to quickly summarize time passing is to use a sentence or two when characters transition from one important location to another, e.g. “They left the movie, drove back to the house, and started dinner.” Again, check up on your favorite writers. I promise you they are not showing every single tiny action blow-by-blow. It would be tedious as hell and make it almost impossible for the reader to figure out what’s important and what’s not.

A few final words about “show don’t tell”:

  • If you’re having a hard time deciding what to put in scene and what to put in summary, you might not understand your story well enough yet. Go back and make some notes, or have someone you trust read your story and give you feedback.
  • Everyone has different levels of tolerance for summary and exposition. Find out yours. You want to be the kind of writer that you would want to read, right? Go through your favorite short stories and novels with a highlighter and highlight any passages or sentences that are telling. Are you the kind of reader who loves a page of summary about the snow falling outside, or do you prefer your stories to be more action-heavy?
  • There is a lot of bad advice out there about showing versus telling. Some writers would have you write: “She sighed deeply as a single crystalline tear gently glided down her face, tracing the line of her button nose before splashing onto the yellow formica countertop” instead of “She cried.” “She cried” is not telling! Cried is a verb: it shows. “She was sad” or “She was upset” is telling.
  • Similarly, beware of anyone who applies the “show don’t tell” advice prescriptively, or who seems to be repeating it like a parrot. Those people usually don’t know what they’re talking about. They heard that advice somewhere, and they’re just repeating it. Anytime anyone reads your writing and says, “You should show more,” without giving any further explanation, question them. Get them to specifically tell you what they’re talking about. If they can’t, find someone else to look at your writing.
  • Summary doesn’t have to be boring. When it is appropriate to summarize, look for ways to add verbs and sensory details to your summaries to keep them more vivid. Give your reader something to visualize. “My father was restless” is hard to visualize. “My father was like a squirrel on cocaine. By the time I woke up, he’d been out in the yard for hours, stuffing Easter eggs into his pocket like they were acorns,” is, well, absurd. But easier to visualize.

Want to learn more about summary? I write about the difference between scene and summary, and how to choose which one to use, in my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Hope this helps!