Hearsay vs. first-hand observation, or, “He ran into the room and said…”

Last week, I waxed poetic on the joys and perils of showing, rather than telling, as we writers are so often urged to do in our work. Theoretically, this advice makes oodles of sense: it is far, far more graceful to allow the reader to draw conclusions unassisted than for the author to state point-blank that a character was like this or that, right?

Well, I guess that settles that. In other news…

Wait a minute: contrary to what some hit-and-run advice-givers would evidently have you believe, in practice, it isn’t always so obvious what should be shown and what for reasons of parsimony or pacing should be merely summarized. Today, I am going to talk a little about how striking a balance between what you choose to show and what you choose to tell can affect a reader’s perception of what’s going on in a story.

Summaries, while often necessary, have the nasty propensity to compress acres and acres of fascinating action into, well, a compressed little bundle. Why is this a problem, you ask, if a writer is trying to cover quite a bit of material quickly?

Well, many aspiring writers make the serious mistake of assuming that if what’s being DESCRIBED is interesting or action-packed, the summary automatically will be as well. However, this is often not the case. Even when the summarized activity is inherently exciting, glossing over it as quickly as possible tends to sap its impact upon the reader. Compare, for instance:

Ghislaine flung her well-muscled arms around her long-lost lover, Robert. In the midst of one of the most passionate kisses the world has ever known, her eyes closed fully for the first time in seven years. Gone was the crowd of blunderbuss-wielding soldiers awaiting her culinary artistry; vanished were the king, queen, jack, and rook whose movements across the checkered floor had diverted her from her labors. Even the snarling dog at her heels, Lord Augustine’s pet, faded from her consciousness until it savagely ripped her foot off at the ankle. As she fell to the ground to be worried into sandwich meat, she saw her kid brother rush forward and stab her one true love between the third and fourth rib.


Ghislaine hugged Robert. Lord Augustine’s dog bit her, and as she fell, her kid brother stabbed Robert.

Both of these passages are describing exactly the same event — and there’s no denying that the second moves the plot along pretty expeditiously. But when speed comes at the expense of enough detail for the reader to understand what’s going on, the story suffers.

And lest you nonfiction writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout the discussion of show, don’t tell, over-summarization can also seriously undermine an argument as well. Often, summary in nonfiction will take the form of presenting conclusions before (or even instead of) the detailed facts from which the author is deriving the conclusions.

Don’t believe me? Check out this historical summary about today’s poster girl:

Lucilla was a Roman empress of ill repute. Actually, we only have her successors’ word for that — her younger brother, the emperor Commodus, was no prize himself. The two of them were continually trying to assassinate each other, and Commodus, after having his sister executed, was left in charge of her reputation. As has often been the case with history since, the victors in Roman times used to work overtime to smear the reputations of those whom they deposed. Recently, scholars have begun to argue, albeit not very loudly, that Caligula, Macbeth, and Richard III might not have been such bad guys.

Leaves you wanting something more, doesn’t it? Evidence to support these contentions, for instance, or perhaps some indication of WHY Marcus Aurelius’ children might have been at each other’s throats? Clearly, this is a paragraph that deserves to have SHOW, DON’T TELL scrawled in the margin next to it — in Latin, presumably — even though everything in it is factually correct.

(Yes, really — someone actually is trying to rehabilitate Macbeth’s reputation. Hard to believe that he would care much at this point, but still, it’s kind of sweet.)

In both fiction and nonfiction, readers tend to perceive summarized information as less important than detailed accounts — unless, of course, the author has overwhelmed them with five million tiny facts, each presented as equally important.

We’ve all experienced this as readers, right? As we saw above in poor Ghislaine’s case, if a narrative presents a scene vividly, it’s inherently more memorable than summarized action. In the reader’s mind, s/he was there for the former, but merely told about the latter.

Try this on for size: when the herald comes running into the banquet hall to announce that the army has lost the battle and the enemy is about to storm the castle’s walls — as anyone who has ever seen a filmed costume drama or Shakespearean tragedy would naturally expect him to do — you might want to ask yourself, “Would this scene be more exciting if I SHOWED the army fleeing and the enemy scaling the walls, instead of having good old George just turn up and tell all the rest of the characters about it?”

I’m sensing some discomfort with that last suggestion. “But Anne,” I hear some of you herald-huggers out there protesting, “isn’t George’s running into the room active and exciting? If I show the marauding hordes approaching, won’t that cut into the sense of surprise in the room when they find that they’re under siege?”

Well, yes, announcement aficionados, George’s flinging the door open and yelling at the top of his lungs would indeed be action — but is it the most effective (or important) way to impress upon the reader the practical implications of being overrun? Would it not perhaps be more startling if the revelers had no advance warning at all, so the reader just saw them react when a hundred armed Amazons broke down the door?

I’m just saying.

The classic active-teller vs. shown action misstep is somewhat more complicated than this: a character’s narrating a scene s/he observed to a third party. Here’s an example from Louisa May Alcott’s potboiler BEHIND A MASK, a highly amusing and ethically dubious tale of Jean Muir, an actress who infiltrates an affluent English country family with an eye to the main chance. (The outcome will, I promise you, surprise most readers of LITTLE WOMEN.)

Fair warning: there is more than one problem in this passage; see if you can spot the full array. Lucia has been sitting with her presumptive fiancé, Gerald, who keeps flitting away to spy on his brother and sister being enchanted by the mysterious governess:

Lucia looked at her cousin, amazed by the energy with which he spoke, the anxiety in his usually listless face. The change became him, for it showed what he might be, making one regret still more what he was. Before she could speak, he was gone again, to return presently, laughing, yet looking a little angry.

“What now?” she asked.

“‘Listeners never hear any good of themselves’ is the truest of proverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Ned, and heard the following flattering remarks. Mamma is gone, and Ned was asking little Muir to sing that delicious barcarole she gave us the other evening.

“‘Not now, not here,’ she said.

“‘Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough,’ said Ned imploringly.

“‘That is a very different thing,’ and she looked at him with a little shake of the head, for he was folding his hands and doing the passionate pathetic.

“‘Come and sing it there then,’ said innocent Bella. ‘Gerald likes your voice so much, and complains that you will never sing to him.’

“‘He never asks me,’ said Muir, with an odd smile.

“‘He is too lazy, but he wants to hear you.’

“‘When he asks me, I will sing — if I feel like it.’ And she shrugged her shoulders with a provoking gesture of indifference.

“‘But it amuses him, and he gets so bored down here,’ began stupid little Bella. ‘Don’t be shy or proud, Jean, but come and entertain the poor old fellow.’

“‘No, thank you. I engaged to teach Miss Coventry, not to amuse Mr. Coventry,’ was all the answer she got.

“‘You amuse Ned, why not Gerald? Are you afraid of him?’ asked Bella.

“Miss Muir laughed, such a scornful laugh, and said, in that peculiar tone of hers, ‘I cannot fancy anyone being afraid of your brother.’

“‘I am, very often, and so would you be, if you ever saw him angry.’ And Bella looked as if I’d beaten her.

“‘Does he ever wake up to be angry?’ asked that girl, with an air of surprise. Here Ned broke into a fit of laughter, and they are at it now, by the sound.”

Leaving aside the editor-annoying facts that people do not generally shrug anything BUT their shoulders and that if Gerald could hear the others laughing, chances are that Lucia could, too, did you catch the show-don’t-tell problems here? Or was the over-use of the verb to look just too distracting?

Give yourself a big gold star if you said that the first paragraph watered down Gerald’s changed mien by filtering it through Lucia’s conclusions about it. Give yourself two if you murmured that the transition between her perspective and his was a trifle abrupt.

If you are like most readers, though, none of these things would have qualified as this passage’s biggest problem: its real downfall is the soporific effect of having Gerald narrate this scene, flattening out all of the individual characters’ quirks. To render the reader even sleepier, the tension is lax, since we knew (because the narrative TOLD us) that he returned right away; evidently, then, what he had to tell could not have been particularly dramatic, or at any rate not life-threatening.


Yet this scene could have been rather amusing and revealing, with slightly different authorial choices. By making Gerald not only the reader’s eyes and ears in a scene in which he is a passive listener AND using him as Lucia’s eyes and ears as well, this scene becomes all about Gerald’s perceptions, not about the actual dialogue he is reporting.

Had our friend Louisa instead elected to hide him behind a curtain and OBSERVE that scene, the narration could have embellished, shown each speaker’s tone, and increased the tension by introducing the possibility that he might get caught eavesdropping.

Instead, Ms. Alcott decided to keep it all from his perspective AND in his voice — anyone out there care to guess why?

To a professional reader, it’s pretty obvious: clearly, because the author wanted to use the line And Bella looked as if I’d beaten her, an impossibility UNLESS Gerald was the narrator at that juncture.

Believe it or not, an aside like this is not an uncommon reason for drafting an uninvolved actor into narrator service.

While I’m on the subject of characters narrating others’ activity, I should probably mention a pet peeve shared by scores of agents, editors, and contest judges the world over: when the narrator reports things s/he could not possibly know, presumably in the interest of not switching out of the chosen narrative voice.

This is VERY common in first-person narratives — where necessarily, ALL the reader should logically hear about is what the narrator can observe or recall. So how could the narrative possibly include other characters’ thoughts, feelings, or incidents that occurred when the narrator was not physically present?

Most of the time, writers choose one of two paths around this problem, both extremely hard to pull off on the page: abandoning the chosen narrative perspective just long enough to include necessary information that the narrator can’t know (dicey, unless the perspective shifts to an omniscient narrator) or by having someone like Gerald lope up to the protagonist and tell him what happened.

I blame television and movies for the pervasiveness of both of these strategies.

Just as the limitations of film have told writers that all human experience should be conveyed merely through the audible and the visible, leaving out other stimuli except as verbally described by the characters, they have also instructed us that where the camera can go, so can the narrator. But in a first-person narrative, this logically is not true.

I have quite a bit more to say on this subject, but for today, suffice it to say that from a reader’s perspective, just because character is shown summarizing action doesn’t make it any less a summary than if the same information appeared in a narrative paragraph. On the showing vs. telling continuum, it tends to fall toward the telling end.

Every so often, consider giving that poor herald a rest. Let the actions — and actors — speak for themselves.

Keep up the good work!

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