Brenda Copeland: Show AND Tell

This essay was published on on March 17, 2021 (link below).

I was recently involved in a lively discussion on Facebook, and it had nothing to do with the Royal Family, the governor of New York, or whether or not A-Rod and J-Lo had broken up for good. I’m a book editor, so this argument centered around writing advice—specifically, show don’t tell. My heart sinks whenever I read this old saw. It’s overused and overly simplistic, an imperative that misleads the writer to believe in an either/or proposition that hurts their writing and leaves the reader unsatisfied.

What makes a book

Every book is a blend of scene (the action itself, the what happens of the story) and summary (the reflective overview that teases out meaning from specific events). Without strong scenes and vibrant action there’s no immediacy. Without summary and the interiority that accompanies it, there’s no perspective and little opportunity to connect with a character. This is true for fiction and non-fiction alike, especially memoir.

It’s every writer’s task to balance these important elements. Too much scene, and the reader is faced with an abundance of action and anecdote—a this happened, then that happened quality. Too much summary and interiority, and the reader is left wading through dense passages without anything to propel her forward. In other words, those passages people tend to skip.

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What happens when and where

A scene is simply a part of the story that is played out in a particular time and place. The smallest dramatic unit, it relies on showing your character in action. Consider this example from Megha Majumdar’s devastating novel, A Burning:

The next morning, at the courthouse, a policewoman opens for me a path through a crowd moving like they are joyous, like they are celebrating at a cricket stadium. The sun blazes in my eyes. I look at the ground.

“Jivan! Jivan! Look here,” shout reporters with cameras mounted on their shoulders or raised high above their heads. Some reporters reach forward to push recorders toward my mouth, though policemen beat them back. I am jostled and shoved, my feet stepped on, my elbows knocked into my ribs. These men shout questions.

“How did the terrorists make contact with you?”

“When did you start planning the attack?”

This scene is emotional, physical, and active. It’s an event grounded in real time and real things—people (the policewoman, the reporters, Jivan herself), places (the courthouse), objects (cameras, recorders, elbows and ribs). Something is happening. This vibrant passage has energy, emotion, and drama. It’s satisfying on its own level, and also has a place in the larger scheme of the narrative. Without giving anyway away, all I will say is that this moment resonates with elements that come up elsewhere in the book and is an integral part of the plot itself.

Think of that expression the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and consider how each scene must be a part that contributes to that greater whole. That’s the show portion of narrative.

Do tell

As for tell, it’s an opportunity for discovery that offers the reader a chance to pause, to take in what is happening and a character’s relationship to it. In other words, a summary. A book like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, …  

Read the rest of the essay:

Brenda Copeland is an editor with more than twenty years’ experience at the big five publishers and over ten years’ experience as an adjunct professor in the graduate publishing program at NYU. She has published a robust list of fiction and non-fiction, quality books with strong commercial appeal. Now an independent editor, she works closely with authors through all stages of the writing and publication process, helping them reach their creative potential. 


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