As you may have heard before, it’s better to be specific than general most of the time. Like, “the bright pink tulip in the window” is better than “a flower.” It’s said that great criminals and sociopaths are especially good at including specific details in their alibis, because specific details read as “authoritative” to us. We think, “This person knows what they’re talking about,” if they can talk about it vividly and intricately.
But there’s a difference between specific details and specific details that matter. “The bright pink tulip in the window” is a nice piece of set-dressing to bring the visual of the room alive, but if it has been established in the beginning of the story that, “the more stressed mom would get, the more likely she was to put technicolored flowers around the house,” then “the bright pink tulip in the window” has an extra layer of meaning. It’s a sign that mom is stressed. It’s showing emotion.
So when you’re adding detail to a story, ask if it’s not only vividly specific, but significant.
In a story told in class once, a young lady wanted to communicate to us that her father was a frightening figure. “He seemed to loom so high over everyone. One night, my friend Valerie came over for dinner. She was a raw vegan and had been so for years. When dead slapped a big slab of steak on her plate, she didn’t even blink. She ate every scrap of it rather than piss him off.” The actions of the vegan friend show just how daunting the father is.
It’s always best to SHOW emotion rather than to tell about it. You could say, “I was really hopeful about this flute audition.” But better yet, you could show that hope in action. “I walked 12 miles to the music store and bought more 10th century sheet music than I’d ever have time to rehearse. I rubbed the wood reed between my fingers the whole weekend long.”
Two primary ways to show emotion are:
1) to show the physicality associated with emotions
(my palms were sweating; he couldn’t stop biting his nails; I could tell she was fighting back tears, my chest swelled)
2) to show what in the world of the story signals emotionally-laden times
(the room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in months; she was dressed like a movie star arriving at the Oscars; even the cats seemed like they were walking on eggshells)
SCENE AND SUMMARY
Stories are told in two basic modes: narrative summary and scenes.
Narrative summary is an overview. It’s an expository way of moving us along in the story. It’s very much “telling.” Most 19th Century novels begin with lots of narrative summary. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It’s more conceptual than cinematic.
In narrative summary, we don’t feel like we’re firmly rooted in one setting. We don’t see and hear specific actions and utterances unfolding in real time. We’re considering life in a more general way from a distance.
“I’ve always been a runner. I saw myself as being a runner even before I really knew what it meant.”
That’s a summary sort of statement. Compare it to this:
“I’m running as fast as I can. It’s so foggy out, I can’t see my fists pumping in front of me. But I keep saying to myself right out loud, ‘It’s okay Bill. You’re a runner. You always have been.'”
That second statement is told in scene mode, not summary.
When narration goes into scene mode, we go into something that feels more like “real time” events unfolding moment by moment, with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, whole spoken utterances, physical action, physical sensations within the body, thoughts running through the head and other details unfolding for us, step-by-step.
Both scene and summary are necessary. There are stretches of a story where important things happened, but they’re not SO important that we need to be shown them in great detail, so a broad overview of those events can be covered in summary.
But the major, essential events in a story — especially the inciting incident, the main event, and the key moments of connection or disconnection between the characters along the way — always sound far more interesting when we go into more meticulous, moment-by-moment detail and hear actual whole dialogue spoken or see complete actions taken or hear whole actual thoughts going through the protagonist’s head.
It is in fact possible to tell an entire story in scene mode or an entire story in summary mode. But most stories we love have a mix that adds up to a little more scene than summary. If you’ve got 60 or 70 percent told in scene mode and 40 or 30 percent told in summary mode, you’re probably just fine.