Pacing in fiction has always been one of my great struggles because I get excited about a scene idea and rush to get there. It’s finally sinking in though that I need to slow down in order to get the interiority I want for my narrator and protagonist. But how do you slow down the pace of a scene? The trick is knowing when to show versus tell.
What is Showing Versus Telling?
Showing versus telling is an often-debated topic among many fiction writers. Some think you should always show and never tell, but I myself don’t want to read a three-excerpt about opening a bottle of wine—unless of course that bottle of wine means something or the character went through something to obtain it. If the protagonist stole that bottle of wine from a power-hungry vintner in order to support a revolution, and is celebrating with her comrades by opening a bottle, then that might merit the attention of a longer passage. A less bombastic example might be that it’s the first bottle produced by a struggling vineyard, and it carries great emotional weight. However, if friends are just cracking open a bottle at the end of the day, I’ll get bored if I have to read about every detail pertaining to that particular bottle of wine.
This is, of course, just an example. I’m not even drinking wine while writing this.
If you haven’t guessed already, the more you show, the slower your pace. Oddly enough, I also recently learned that this has the effect of making the reader speed things up in their mind, which is one of the phenomena that leads to them wanting to read the next page.
That’s a lot to unpack, so let me talk about my own story for a moment. I recently returned from a one-week residency as part of my MFA program. (It was fabulous and I’m sad the week is over, but I learned a lot.) I’d submitted for peer review the first two chapters of my thesis, a novel set in the seventeenth century. The first chapter opens with a death, and then my protagonist meets two main characters that will not only drive the plot and his own development, but also currently form the basis for the title of my work. In other words, they’re really important characters.
The consensus around the table while my work was being critiqued was that there was far too much happening in too short of a space. My peers felt a bit like I was giving them whiplash and that is not how I want my readers to feel. Part of the cause of this problem—in addition to my own excitement—was that I was trying to tell a story that encompassed my main character’s entire adult life. I made the decision to shrink my story to the span of five months, which has given me the space to show instead of tell, and slow things down so my readers can process the changes my protagonist is experiencing.
If showing slows your pacing, it stands to reason that telling speeds it up. Telling is like summarizing, like when your friend asks you how class went or how your last year at the office passed and you tell her in a few sentences instead of opening your calendar and taking her (excruciatingly) through every single day.
How Do You Show in Fiction?
For me, showing in fiction starts with a list. Sometimes I make a bullet list, other times, when I’m feeling the need to organize something, I use a chart. I write down everything a character:
To accomplish this, I put myself in as close a situation as is safe and possible. For example, if my character is in a city, I drive to a city, find a place to sit, and observe. I list everything I see, hear, smell, etc. Of course, sometimes it’s not possible to recreate a scenario in a story. My story has a gruesome scene of someone’s limbs being torn off. It’s horrifying to imagine, but I need to make my readers cringe and want to curl up in the fetal position as much as I do.
In the show The Tudors, there’s a scene—well a few scenes—where characters are racked. They’re not torn apart, but it’s a starting point that allows my imagination to take it the rest of the way. It’s not that I want to imagine such things, but rather that it’s based on a real event that shows the harsh world my protagonist lives in.
Examples of Showing Versus Telling
Now you know what showing versus telling is, and how to get those details into your fiction that will help you show your readers the world you’re creating. In this last section of this post that Sarah is kind enough to share with you on my behalf, I’ll offer some examples of showing versus telling.
Example #1: The Ice Cream Cone
Telling: The ice cream was good.
Showing: The ice cream coated my tongue and the roof of my mouth, giving me a brain freeze. I swallowed the melted portion and then chewed the the chocolate chips. Their sweetness lingered on the back of my tongue.
Which seems tastier? The one that shows.
Example #2: The Subway
Telling: The doors opened and everyone flooded off the train onto the platform, which smelled bad.
Showing: The door shook open with a protesting squeal. Men and women in suits, carrying briefcases, and women with babies in bjorns shoved their way out of the train. My feet shuffled along as I dodged elbows. The air outside the train smelled like garbage, so I opened my mouth, but then the foul stench turned into a flavor. I gagged on it.
Which one makes the reader more uncomfortable? The one that shows.
Example #3: The Haunted House
Telling: The old house had a creepy vibe; I was sure it was haunted so I left.
Showing: The 1702 colonial needed new paint. The roof sagged in the middle, where moss grew like mold on old bread. Inside, the wallpaper was faded and peeling, and as soon as I crossed the threshold onto uneven floor boards, the tiny hairs on the back of my neck lifted from my skin. I shivered. When I saw a shadow move out of the corner of my eye, I ran from the house, kicking up crab grass behind me.
Which one is spookier? The one that shows.
In all three of these examples, providing more information on the sensory experience shows the reader what’s going on, excites the senses, and slows the pace of the event. Each one could be slowed even more depending on the needs of the story.
I try to keep all of this in mind while I’m writing. But if you’re like me, and every other writer I’ve ever talked to, it’s next to impossible to keep in mind all the tools of craft while drafting. So if you’re in the drafting stage like I am with my book, my advice is to just keep writing. You can go back in later and figure out where you need to slow down your story—and where you need to speed it up.
Showing isn’t better than telling; nor is the opposite true. It comes down to what the story needs to make the most impact on the reader.
Margaret McNellis is an candidate in the Mountainview MFA program offered by Southern New Hampshire University. She earned her Master’s in English & Creative Writing in 2015; during that program she joined Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honors Society. Her fiction has appeared in Dual Coast Magazine, See Spot Run, The Copperfield Review, The Penman Review, and Fictitious Magazine. She blogs about writing, education, and freedom on her website.