Show vs. Tell: Lessons from Wake of Vultures

Notice how phrases seem to lose meaning when you hear them over and over again? Overuse blunts clever expressions into clichés, especially nowadays, when buzzwords and sound bites clutter our newsfeeds (anyone else grind their teeth when they hear “power couple,” “game-changer,” or “hot-button issue?” Just me? Okay, moving along).

For writers, the phrase that’s been smothered under the weight of its own use is “show, don’t tell.” For new writers, it’s likely the first advice they hear. And that’s a good thing! Mastering this skill will elevate your work from “good” to “did I really just write that?!”

Trouble is, the more this advice is repeated, the more it becomes white noise. You nod along— yes, yes, of course I should show my readers this amazing world I’ve created— but may not stop to consider it until faced with the task of revising your beautiful (but limping) manuscript. At this point, panic creeps in: “I’ve already written 400 pages! How can I possibly show every little detail?!”

Obviously, you shouldn’t (and good god, please don’t— the resulting MS would be a gruesome, bloated travesty). So now you’re faced with the daunting task of figuring out which details to show and which ones to tell.

A quick rule of thumb: try to show character traits and emotion as much as possible. Don’t tell us she’s angry; show us how her hands clench, her jaw tightens, her breath quickens. Don’t tell us he’s an asshole; show us how he gaslights his girlfriend into feeling guilty she ever suspected he’d cheated.

Okay, that works for character development and interactions. But what about character movement? What about scenes and their interludes? How much action should you show vs tell?

The most elegant solution to this dilemma I’ve ever found came from Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules (2014) by Steven James. It goes like this: 

If something important changes, render it on the page (show). If nothing changes, summarize it (tell).

I like this because it’s so easy to remember. Change = show. No change = tell. Obviously, this is another rule of thumb, so it won’t apply to every situation. But its elegance lies in what you’re signaling to the reader. If you devote words to rendering action, you’re promising the reader it will be important.

If you render pages and pages of characters meandering around, pondering and musing and reflecting on information the reader already has, you are wasting their time. Don’t waste your reader’s time. They’re spending it on your words. Respect that.

The fantasy genre seems to have particular difficulty with this. Too many good stories are buried within chapters of characters traveling (I suspect Tolkien’s legacy may have contributed). They wake up and make breakfast and mount their horses and travel some and— oh look, there’s a river to cross— and then they travel some more and then they stop to make camp. All the while, they rehash plot points without providing any new revelations, or trade boring banter, or waste precious page space wallowing in their own thoughts. Rinse and repeat.

Indicating character movement is necessary to orient your readers. But it can be done in a few lines that summarize the action. Alternatively, you might render these travel scenes to include change: new information, new revelations, new character conflict.

Fantasy author Lila Bowen executes this effortlessly. Her novel, Wake of Vultures, is some kind of beautiful beast. First off, it’s a fantasy that takes place in a fictionalized wild west. Second, its voice is so fully realized it’s practically cinematic. And third (but not finally, else this would go on for another 1000 words), its MC is a biracial queer woman (who in subsequent books identifies as trans male) in a genre that’s shamefully lacking in authentic intersectional representation.

I’m not going to summarize the plot here (go read it!); suffice to say, its MC spends a lot of time traversing the desert prairie of Durango as she wrangles cattle and slays monsters. For some writers, all this character movement might trip them up, but Bowen rises to the challenge with style and grace. She balances showing and telling, rendering and summarizing. All her choices hinge on whether a scene shows change.

Bowen doesn’t waste time tossing her MC straight into an action-packed inciting incident. Conflict should almost always be rendered, because conflict— internal, external, and intrapersonal— is what drives change in story. Below is an excerpt from the book’s first few pages. Pay attention to how Bowen shows the action after the MC– Nettie Lonesome– slices her attacker’s neck with a sickle.

Then he sprang at her.

There was no way he should’ve been able to jump at her like that with those wounds, and she brought her hands straight up without thinking. Luckily, her fist still held the sickle, and the stranger took it right in the face, the point of the blade jerking into his eyeball with a moist squish. Nettie turned away and lost most of last night’s meager dinner in a noisy splatter against the wall of the barn. When she spun back around, she was surprised to find that the fool hadn’t fallen or died or done anything helpful to her cause. Without a word, he calmly pulled the blade out of his eye and wiped a dribble of black glop off his cheek.

On screen, a scene like that would last maybe five seconds; but Bowen uses an entire paragraph to render these few seconds because of what their action changes: Nettie has discovered that some men don’t die when sharp blades are rammed through their skulls; her world— and her worldview— has irrevocably changed.

Now, a few instances (stripped of all context) when much longer chunks of time are summarized:

The raid went off without a hitch.

“no hitch” = no conflict = no change

The next few days were about the same as her days at the Double TK.

“about the same” = no change

That night, they made camp on a butte, starting up two fires and setting guard rotations.

Routine events summarized to indicate the passage of time.

A few more details are provided with each of these examples, but again, they’re telling details. No rendering needed. Takeaway: change = show; no change = tell. There may still be some murky gray areas, but trust yourself to work through them!

Now go read A Wake of Vultures (and then a Conspiracy of Ravens, and then A Malice of Crows, and then a Treason of Hawks…)

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