Over the course of this series, we’ve learned what it means to show versus tell. We’ve discussed the significance of “show don’t tell” with respect to conflict and tension. And we’ve seen what happens when you show and tell simultaneously. But what happens when we fail both to show and to tell? Underwriting is what happens.
In this fourth and final installment of my series on showing versus telling, we’re going explore the consequences of underwriting, and the kinds of narrative omissions that can make your writing difficult or even impossible to follow.
Underwriting Through Omitted Context
A few months ago, I edited a manuscript in which the tension underlying a long-awaited confrontation between the protagonist and her best friend emerged from blaming her friend for the death of a parent. But there was a problem: Until the pages immediately ahead of this confrontation, there was no indication within the text of the story that the protagonist blamed her friend, or that she was motivated by a need for revenge.
These were fundamental components of characterization and conflict in this novel. But they simply hadn’t been mentioned.
Basic context is essentially whatever information readers need at any time to understand the story or scene in the way in which it’s meant to be understood. And it’s easier to miss than you may think. After all, you, the author, know the motivations of your characters. You know what drives the conflict. You know what your characters are supposed to know. In the course of writing, cutting, rewriting, and revising—everything that goes into crafting an effective novel—it’s not difficult to see how you may inadvertently delete or fail to mention something that, to you, is already evident.
But it’s not evident to readers. So readers, inevitably, are lost.
We learned in the first installment of this series that context emerges from conveying information alongside narrative action. The information in this case might be narration describing the protagonist’s feelings about her best friend and the confrontation she wants. The action could be scenes that show her as vengeful and angry and concrete efforts to track down her friend to confront her. One way or another, we need that context in order to understand the story.
Are you omitting essential context? Consider the following questions:
- Have you established the reasons this scene is taking place?
- Does the scene emerge from clearly established past action?
- Have you made any revisions in which you might have deleted important details of characterization and conflict?
Underwriting Through Omitted Setting
Suppose two characters are having a fistfight and one knocks the other to the ground. The connotations of that action are dramatically different if they’re in a school parking lot surrounded by classmates versus alone in a grassy field. Or suppose they’re in a narrow rowboat in the middle of a lake during a deadly thunderstorm. It makes a big difference to know if a character might fall into the violent water or onto hard asphalt in front of friends who might laugh at her. Take away the setting and you lose the fundamental details of the scene, and potentially also its significance in the context of the story.
Setting, then, is about far more than only specific and sensory details. It’s also about time, place, and context, and characters present. A scene must be set before it can be advanced.
Are you omitting needed setting? Consider the following questions:
- A scene must be set before it can be advanced. Did you provide setting at the start of the scene?
- Have you established details that will be important in the action to follow?
- Do you continue to provide details of setting throughout the scene?
Underwriting Through Omitted Action
But important narrative omissions can be smaller still. One of the most common manifestations of failing to both show and tellis the omission of basic action. It looks a lot like this:
Laura saw the terrorists running toward her, guns drawn. Bam! Bam! Laura turned and walked away.
What happens in this scene? It’s hard to say. The sound effects are probably meant to indicate guns firing, and only the terrorists are said to have guns. Yet Laura walks away without apparent injury or consequence. Does that mean she shot them? Again, there’s no writing to suggest that she has a gun, and the narration also doesn’t show anything happening to the terrorists.
Omitted action is one of the surest ways to lose your readers. If a reader doesn’t know what’s happening, what cause does he have to keep reading?
Are you omitting important action? Consider the following questions:
- How much of the action you’ve written is suggested versus actually shown? Are your suggestions clear enough?
- Are you relying too much on other tools (sound effects, dialogue, etc.) to carry the weight of action better described in narration?
- Are we missing beats in-betweenthe action?
Underwriting Through Omitted Transitions
Transitions are another basic building block of narrative action, because it’s transitions by and large that guide us from one moment to the next. It’s transitions that define the changes in place and time most long-form narratives require (because very few take place in only one setting in real time).
When we omit transitions, we end up with writing like this:
Barry honked his horn, but the cars in front of him refused to move. “Tough morning?” said Jessica from the next cubicle over.
As with omitted action, writing like this is going to leave your readers more than a little bit puzzled. Clearly there aren’t cubicles in what we assume to be Barry’s car (and ideally setting is established such that we aren’t just assuming that). So how do we get to our new setting? What, in fact, is our new setting? It needs to be set early so we can carry on with the scene.
You don’t need to show readers step by step how Barry gets to the office. All you need is a transition. For example, you might write, “A half hour later, Barry settled in behind his desk at the law offices of Demchick & Machate.” You might also divide these sentences with a section break, which usually indicates a new scene in a new time and/or place. But we need something to guide readers from one moment to the next.
Are you omitting basic transitions? Consider the following questions:
- Does the scene change? If so, how do you let readers know?
- Do we at any point jump forward in time? Again, how do readers know?
- Do you establish a new setting whenever there’s a change in time and/or place?
It’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of showing versus telling, on a fundamental level, is to convey information in an effective and engaging fashion. This isn’t possible if you aren’t conveying information at all. So be sure to keep an eye out for underwriting as well as overwriting as you refine your prose and embrace the principle of show vs. tell.
Do you more often underwrite or overwrite? Let us know in the comments below!