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09.06.2011 00:38    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Craft  Writing Narrative  Fiction Writing  Fiction Elements  Randy Ingermanson      Tags: creating  narrative slips  randy ingermanson  

Every writer has been told a thousand times, "Show, Don't Tell."

It's good advice, usually. But like most good advice, there are times when it's dead wrong.

One of those places is in a scene that would take quite a long time if shown in real-time.

Suppose you have two characters having dinner at a restaurant. They eat. They talk. Not much else happens. The eating is repetitive, so after you've shown the first bite, you pretty much have to focus on the talking.

How much can you say in a one-hour conversation? Figuring 100 words per minute, that's 6000 words of dialogue, which works out to 24 pages of manuscript.

For one lousy scene in a restaurant.

If you show the whole thing in its entirety, your readers aren't going to stay with you. Not unless it's a crucial scene with stakes so high that your reader can't afford to look away. But scenes with ultra high stakes are rare.

Most scenes have much less at stake, and so they deserve a lower page count. So what do you do?

You solve the problem by mixing up your "showing" and your "telling."

You "show" the important parts of the scene in dialogue. Those would be the high-tension parts or the parts that reveal character or the parts that reveal absolutely essential information.

 

You "tell" the unimportant parts using narrative summary. You do this by using a sentence or a paragraph that allows a big chunk of time to slip by.

 

I call these parts "narrative slips" because you use  narrative summary to "slip" the time forward. It's the  moral equivalent of the fast-forward button on life.

To see how a narrative slip works in practice, let's  look at a couple of examples:

In John Grisham's novel THE FIRM, protagonist Mitch McDeere is a young lawyer newly hired to a high-powered  law firm. Mitch hasn't yet taken his bar exam, and his  coworkers are lining up to help him prepare.

The first helper is Wally Hudson, who has a long  conversation with Mitch that goes on for more than two pages. Wally explains in detail how he's going to help  Mitch. Most of the scene is shown as dialogue.

 

When Wally leaves, Randall Dunbar walks in. Dunbar has  even more to say to Mitch, but this time, the dialogue is summarized in less than half a page, with no direct  dialogue.

 

Mitch's third helper is Kendall Mahan, and now Grisham  takes barely a third of a page to summarize his dialogue.

 

The scene then races ahead through the rest of the afternoon with a paragraph that summarizes everyone  else like this:

The procession continued throughout the afternoon, until half of the firm had stopped by with notebooks, assignments of homework, and requests for weekly meetings. No fewer than six reminded him that no member of the firm had ever failed the bar exam.

The scene ends with a return to dialogue -- Mitch calls  his wife and tells her he's going to be home late. Very late.

 

It's Mitch's first day on the job, and we've seen only a few pieces of it, yet we feel like we've been through hours and hours of exhausting work.

In Mario Puzo's novel THE GODFATHER, Don Corleone is riding in his Cadillac with all three of his sons and his consigliori. The scene begins with a snippet of dialogue in which Corleone asks his youngest son Michael about his girlfriend. The rest of the ride is summarized in a paragraph:

Because of the gas rationing still in effect, there was little traffic on the Belt Parkway to Manhattan. In less than an hour, the Cadillac rolled into the street of French Hospital. During the ride Don Corleone asked his youngest son if he was doing well in school. Michael nodded. Then Sonny in the back seat asked his father, "Johnny says you're getting him squared away with that Hollywood business. Do you want me to go out there and help?"

The dialogue then resumes with several paragraphs in which the Godfather assures Sonny that his consigliori can handle the problem in Hollywood on his own.

The scene is a short one, which serves to give the reader a bit of information about the family dynamics. It's not important enough to rate many pages of dialogue. Instead, Puzo whisks us through it in a single page.


How do you decide when to show a scene in full, and when to fast-forward through it using a narrative slip? That's easy. Show the important stuff; tell the fluff.

 

Telling has value. It allows you to efficiently get through the lower impact parts of the story without seeming to break up the action.

If you sandwich a "narrative slip" between two slices of "showing," even the slow parts of your story will fly.

 

 

Best regards,

 

Randy Ingermanson signature

Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D.

 

About The Author

Randy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 11000 readers.

 

Randy is best known for his "Snowflake Method" of designing a novel. The "Snowflake" page on his web site has been viewed more than 514,000 times over the years.

 

Randy believes that prepublished novelists fall into four distinct stages, Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. Each of these stages has its own unique needs. Have you been a Freshman longer than you think you should? Or are you stuck in a Sophomore slump? If you'd like to move up to that pesky "next level," check out Randy's acclaimed lecture series, Fiction 101 and Fiction 201. Don't settle for where you are! Take action today.

 
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