Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Telling Yourself to Show: How to Identify Flat Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

We don't always choose the right scenes to dramatize in a story.

I wrote a scene for my third novel, Darkfall, where my characters were sitting at a table talking about stuff. Now, from a technical standpoint, there wasn't anything wrong with this scene. My protagonist, Nya, had a goal for what she needed to do at that table, and there were stakes if she failed. 

This led to another scene where Nya was talking to someone else in a different room, gathering more information about things important to the story. It all advanced the plot.

But something felt off.
Like I always do when something doesn't feel right (or is that write?) I walked away and let the brain think about it. Then it hit me.

I was telling myself the scenes I should have been showing.

In both scenes, a character was relaying information to Nya. It was important information, but there was a bit of summary to it because it all happened off-screen to other characters. I was literally having a character "tell" the story to my protagonist. It didn't matter that what they were saying created trouble Nya and she had to deal with a mess it made. Plot was happening without her. Worse, that plot influenced her decisions on what to do next, and she wasn't even there to see it.

Writing this scene was my brain's way of figuring out what I needed to do to revise that section of the book.

As Nya ran around talking to folks, I got to hear what was going on elsewhere that she could get involved in. Once I knew, it was easy to scrap that whole chapter and write one where Nya is actively doing something that allows her to experience what the other characters were telling her about.

The scene was ten times better because my protagonist was protagging, and her actions brought about the plot. She wasn't waiting for information or a direction to come to her; she was acting to discover that information.

And that turned a meh scene into a compelling one.

(Here's more with 4 Reasons Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

I've seen this same thing happen often enough in manuscripts I've read for others, that it's obviously a very common aspect of a first or early draft. Quite often in my critiques, I spot these moments and say:

"Love to see this dramatized."

This happens when something really cool in the story is being told to me by another character or summarized by the narrator. Usually, it's something that happened between two scenes that influenced the protagonist's decisions at that point, but the author didn't feel it was necessary to show the whole scene.

There's nothing wrong with a summary or an explanatory scene if that's what the story calls for, but sometimes the wrong scene is being shown, and there's something mentioned in that summary that has more inherent conflict and is far more compelling. 

It's like the author wants to tell the reader something significant happened to affect the protagonist, but they don't want to write a full-blown scene about it. 

Take a peek at your draft, especially those "something's not right" sections. Ask yourself:

1. Am I summarizing something that would make a compelling scene if I dramatized it?

Pay particular attention if the result of that off-screen event affects the plot or causes a significant reaction in the protagonist. That's a big clue it might be worth exploring how seeing that moment unfold could affect the story.

2. Are other characters relaying information to my protagonist that would be more interesting if my protagonist had been the one to discover it?

This can be tricky since it's not always possible for your protagonist to witness or experience something. In those cases, try brainstorming ways to make the "relaying information" scene more dynamic. 

Maybe the characters are forced to have this conversation in an unsafe place, or there's another layer of conflict they need to deal with as it happens. Perhaps the one who needs to explain all this information doesn't want to, or isn't being honest about what they reveal.

(Here's more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

3. Do I have a lot of scenes where my protagonist is learning plot-driving information by talking to people she knows? (such as, she has other folks "doing the work" to uncover plot details and she's hearing reports)

This could indicate a lack of agency for your protagonist, or that you might even have the wrong protagonist (or need more than one). Examine why your protagonist can't be there and brainstorm ways to get them back into the action so they're driving the story again.

(Here's more with How to Make Readers Care About Your Protagonist—and Your Plot)

4. Am I glossing over something that has a strong influence on my protagonist's decisions in another scene?

Any event that triggers a strong reaction in your protagonist is usually better when readers get to see it happen, so they can fully understand and appreciate the emotional impact it has—especially if that information is key to the protagonist making a major decision. 

Your subconscious often makes connections in your story your conscious mind hasn't noticed yet, and these little "told moments" are its way of letting you know about it.

Sometimes you'll spot these moments as you write, but more often you'll see after the draft is done. Keep your eyes open, but don't feel you have to second-guess yourself every time you summarize or have a character tell a story. 

Revisions are great times to take a more objective look at a story. You're able to see the entire plot and know what it needs, and you'll have had time for your subconscious to make all those connections and nudge you about them.

Not every summary or exchange of information needs to be dramatized, but sometimes, you realize the perfect scene is one you already told yourself about.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take a look at any "summary situations" in your story and examine them for potential scenes. Would they be better dramatized? Are you showing the best parts of your story? Try writing that scene and see how it feels and how it works with the story.

Do you ever go back and flesh out scenes during a first draft? 

*Originally published June 2010. Last update November 2023.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is something that I've been struggling with as I write my first draft. Thanks for your examples and questions to ask. I'm also thinking it might be easier to pick out these spots during the revision process.

  2. In a lot of cases, it probably would. That's such a great comment than I'm going to edit that in. Thanks!

  3. I think I'm going to have to print out the list to remind myself of things to look for when I get to the revision stage. Good stuff.

  4. Cool! I'll have to look into this as I revise my epic fantasy--and the UF whose first draft I finished over the weekend... right before my computer crashed. >_<

    Fortunately, I was able to salvage it, but my computer needs a new hard drive. I'm getting stir crazy without my computer. I started dabbling in a cute short story idea by hand yesterday, and it somehow morphed into a gruesome horror... thing.

    Do you ever have story ideas (or stories) that make you blink, gulp, and wonder where in the world that came from? (And make you want to run screaming?)

    P.S. Dropbox. *thumbs up* And an external hard drive (which is sometimes cheaper to put together yourself, buying the drive and the case, than it is to buy an external outright). You do back up your work, I hope. ^_^

  5. Great advice. More than sometimes I have the characters talking about rather than doing something. I'll have to watch for that as I revise and work on my next story.

  6. Yikes, sorry to hear about your crash. I'm covered there, thanks. I have a better back up system than a lot of small companies :) I've had too many catastrophic crashes (both with my design work and writing work) over the years that my geek hubby made sure it never happened again. Dropbox is great and I'm actually using that now.

    And yes, I have ideas all the time that I wonder where they came from. My dark side is pretty developed, LOL. Only in the writing though! I'm a pretty happy go lucky person in real life. It's my imagination that's totally whacked.

  7. *breathes a sigh of relief*

    I'm glad you have backups.

    I'm also glad that I'm not the only one who people consider happy and chipper, though my imagination produces some psychotic things. That makes me feel better.

  8. I love this line "my protag was protagging".

  9. These are great examples, and thank you for your check list of things to ask yourself!

  10. This post is a little gem! Great stuff to think about. Thanks so much!

  11. "The scene was ten times better because my protag was protagging."


    Now another key is learning to develop that instinct. You have provided a great list of guiding questions, but I think part of why you're published and some of us are not is that you've already learned to integrate those questions into your subconscious writing process. :)

    Thanks for giving us the tools to help get us to where you are!

  12. I think you wrote it well when you stated that this is how your brain had to tell the scene to get the idea out. Then you went back and punched it up.

  13. Great post!! I don't think that I have any of that in my current novel, but it'll give me another thing to look for in the future. Your comments are always so helpful. :)

  14. I hope you don't mind, but I posted a link to this on the Blueboards in a Telling thread...

    Excellent post!

  15. I don't mind at all, Aimeestates, thanks. Link to any post you want. The info it here to help writers wherever they may be ;)

  16. Wow. I think that I was meant to come across this particular post at this exact moment in time. I JUST finished writing a scene eerily similar to what you described. Right down to them sitting around the kitchen table, and my MC being told some very important info-info that will influence her actions for the rest of the story. This scene has gone on for about 6 pages, and I knew that it just wasn't working. It was a total info dump, and I honestly was getting bored writing it.
    Major revisions are in order to get this scene to the point where she can experience it for herself. The scary part for me is that I was saving that moment for book 2-she was just going to hear about it now, and experience it later on. But I can see that it needs to happen in this book for it to really have the impact it needs to. Eeek. Great post, and just the kick in the pants I needed(although I suspect that I'm going to be losing a couple of nights sleep working this all out now!)

  17. Reading your post about choosing which scenes really reveal the story best is very timely for me (isn't it funny how reprints often are?) since that is something I'm learning about right now. For the first time ever, I just wrote a story, then put it aside and wrote it again from scratch with completely different scenes. Exciting stuff! :-)

  18. Anna, that's what I love about pulling from the archives. There's always someone who needed that post at that time. So cool about your story. Which version do you like best? Is it getting better?

  19. Janice,

    Yes, it's definitely getting better. Now it's time to enter the cutting stage and tighten the new scenes up. I'm trying to evoke themes without explicitly stating them, which is a challenge for me, and is part of why I am experimenting-- it's hard to convey the characters' separate arcs when they aren't telling each other how they feel :-).

  20. "Plot was happening without her." I love this statement. It really brings it into a clearer light for me of show vs. tell. Thanks!

  21. So glad you reprinted this because I really needed it right now! I had a similar scene with characters sitting around talking. I knew it wasn't working, but wasn't sure how to fix it. Now I think I've got a handle on it. Thanks, Janice!

  22. It's great to read the other comments about how clear you make everything, Janice. :-)

  23. Anna, that is a toughie. I like body language to help there. And subtext. Readers usually pick up on those even when the characters don't, so it works fairly well.

    2unpublishedgirls, most welcome!

    Joanne, that's awesome, I hope you whip that scene into shape :)

    Tracy, makes me happy, to, lol.

  24. Wow, this is such a great post. I sometimes summarize because I don't want to bore the reader, but this is a great reminder to bring to life the most important scenes. Thank you!

  25. Thank you for this post. I have a chapter that made me really hate my story and now I figured out why. It's boring, exactly how you said it. Lots of info and the main character all that does is listen. After I finish the first draft, I need to find a way around it, somehow. Glad to have come across your blog, very helpful tips.

  26. Oh, absolutely. It's a great way to get rid of info dumps and boring telling.

  27. Julie, summaries are good for that. It all comes down to making a judgement call. Is this good to talk about or does the reader need to see it?

    Tatyana, glad I could help. I've found that sometimes I have to write a scene just to figure something out. Maybe now that you've written it, you can pinpoint the important bits and work them into other scenes.

    Melissa, as long as we don't dramatize something boring, hehe.