Show and Tell

by Patricia Averbach

I just returned from the Chautauqua Writers Festival in Chautauqua, New York. I’ve attended the festival many times since its inception thirteen years ago and I’ve enjoyed watching events that began as experiments, evening hoot nannies and open mic readings by the lake, become venerable traditions. Other programs have been dropped, venues have changed, and the food has improved. What has remained consistent over the years is the heart of the festival, the opportunity to work closely with well known writers, including Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning authors.

This year I signed up for a four day workshop with Pamela Painter who has published three volumes of short stories: Getting to Know the Weather, The Long and Short Of It, and Wouldn’t You Like to Know.  She’s won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni’s John Cheever Award for Fiction. Pamela’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Ploughshares, and in numerous anthologies, including Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, and Microfiction. A tidbit that doesn’t appear in her official bio is that she was married for many years to Robie McCauley, Playboy Magazine’s fiction editor from 1966-1976. Most significantly for me and the other members of my workshop, is the fact that she is also co-author of a widely used textbook on creative writing called What If? Fiction Exercises for Fiction Writers.

Prior to the festival, all of the workshop participants were asked to exchange ten pages of prose from a novel or short story they were working on. This is pretty standard operating procedure for a workshop and we all sent out our pages expecting to take turns critiquing each other’s work during the festival. However, instead of “workshopping” our stories, Pamela lectured us on craft using examples from great literature then sent us off to expand our pages using techniques from her book. We were all rather miffed and resistant at the beginning, but as we each came to see our work improve we shut up and listened. It was amazing how much more texture and depth our stories developed  by following her instructions.

So, I now present to you, at no additional charge, a condensed class on craft per Pamela Painter. Be advised, she’s a bit of an iconoclast. Also, she writes exclusively in short forms and I’m not sure that all her advice applies equally well to the novel. However, the techniques I’m about to share should work equally well for everyone. To begin, and I hope you’re sitting down, she told us was that it is absolutely essential to tell not show – at least some of the time. Yes, this is blasphemy. I can hear you gasp,  but she assured us that most great stories involve the author telling us what’s happened and what it all means. She presented irrefutable evidence from Hemingway, Atwood, and Flannery O’Connor as examples. To quote from her book, “When a writer depends solely on showing and neglects the narrative that artfully shapes, characterizes, qualifies, and in some other way informs the character’s actions, … the reader rather than the writer creates the story.” Bottom line, if you show a young man breaking into a sweat, readers are left to decide whether he’s frightened, nervous, agitated or hot. It’s the author’s job to tell them what’s going on inside his head. Tell don’t show, or maybe tell and show.

Another technique she recommends, and that I’ve always been told to avoid, is summarized dialogue. Most workshop instructors preach, “write it out, let’s hear what your characters have to say.” Pamela certainly isn’t opposed to dialogue, however she believes, (and I’m quoting from her book again) “too often dialogue is incorrectly used to provide information that could have been artfully done in summarized dialogue…the reader is given pages of the entire scene…when in fact only the closing lines are important to hear verbatim. Summarized dialogue allows the writer to condense speech, set the pace of the scene, reveal attitudes, use understatement, make judgments, avoid sentimentality and emphasize crucial lines of the actual dialogue.”

Each member of the workshop was asked to write a section of summarized dialogue and add it to the pages they’d already submitted. I condensed an argument between my protagonist and her husband and was amazed by how much it revealed about my characters. Suddenly, the husband’s back story, his desire to win the approval of an old high school buddy even if it meant putting his family’s financial future at stake, was out in the open and added enormously to the reader’s understanding of why he’d made a disastrous decision and what it meant to his marriage. I’m keeping that summarized dialogue in the final manuscript and will refer to it in later sections.

First cousin to summarized dialogue is another technique Pamela calls narrative summary. As the name indicates, a series of events is told in a condensed version. The author sets the pace, highlights what is critical and glosses over what is boring or unimportant. Condensed narrative lets us see events through the point of view of a particular character, make judgments and reflecting on what’s happening rather than have action unfold in real time.  Per Pamela’s instructions, I had my protagonist recall long ago events involving her childhood on a dysfunctional hippy commune and her subsequent abandonment of her mother in just a few sentences. That small addition sharpened her motivation for the action that followed (throwing up in the toilet) and artfully revealed a bit of her back story. I’m keeping those sentences in the final version of my novel.

Another technique, condensed time, gives background and context to a character or event without having to ponderously replay everything that happened. It brings the reader up to speed in a few carefully chosen sentences that deliver the impact of events without having to relive them.  Pam talked about time quite a bit and discussed the issue of another technique that she called distancing, the temporal perspective from which the reader views an event. She pointed out that there is a hierarchy of time from immediate to just past to  remote. For example:  Robert bent over to tie his shoes  (immediate or close.)  Robert had tied his shoes tightly knowing he’d have to run (just past or seen from a mid distance.)  Robert recalled tying his shoes on that long ago morning (remote or from a great distance.)  Consciously or unconsciously we all frame our stories from one of these perspectives.

What most of these techniques (summarized dialogue, condensed narrative and condensed time) have in common is that they all involve some form of telling not showing. A story using these techniques exclusively would be awful, probably unreadable, but used judiciously they can definitely enhance your work as I and my fellow workshop participants learned. There is definitely craft to the art of writing and there are definitely “tricks” that can be learned to enhance your work. Each of the methods Pamela Painter taught us has its virtues and its limitations. Most of the time, continue to show not tell, but don’t forget that telling is also an important part of the storyteller’s art. Sophisticated writers are aware of all their options and in control of the choices that they make.

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2 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. Wow, thanks for letting in on this award-winning writer’s workshop. I feel lucky to benefit from you being there and I’m going to experiment with all her techniques in my new novel. One of these years I hope to join you at this festival. Sounds like a wonderful opportunity to grow one’s craft, make terrific writer friends and even find a mentor.

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