As a writer, you get to choose how to manage showing and telling. Jane Austen wrote entire novels in the "telling" style; Philip Roth's novel Deception is rendered wholly in dialogue, an extended "show." Reread some favorite stories or novels and identify the passages that tell, the ones that show, and the ones that combine the two. It can be an enlightening and inspiring exercise to see how admired authors handle the balance. Before you try imitating Roth or Austen, however, you should familiarize yourself with the practice of combining scene and narrative.
Generally speaking, when a story calls for some action, you write a scene. But some action is more important than other action. If you are writing a story about a woman who goes to the local butcher to buy some meat and finds the poor man bludgeoned to death behind the counter with his apron wrapped around his neck, you probably will render that action in scene rather than narrative. However, if the story is really about the woman herself and not the crime she witnessed, you might want to skip that scene altogether. Maybe the story depends more on how she describes the murder to others, over and over again. Witnessing the aftermath of a murder gives her an identity, a status in her family or town that she never dreamed of having.
You title the story "Witness," and begin by "telling":
On Tuesday Ellen Kornbluth witnessed a murder. Or close enough. She saw the butcher, dead on his stained tile floor, the bloody apron wrapped around his poor pulverized head. Then she saw the orange tail of the murderer's coat, a whisk of movement through the back door.
With two lines of narrative you've introduced the witness and the murder as the given of the story; the actual story is revealed a few lines later, at the beginning of this scene:
"I saw something," she said to her husband. "I saw a murder."
Her husband looked up from his paper. "No, you didn't."
Ellen felt a little flutter of triumph, a cool trilling through her veins. "Oh, but I did. And I've been to the police, and I sat in one of those interview chairs like you see on TV."
He folded the paper once, twice. Set it down on the coffee table that still held the sheen of a special polish Ellen had bought from the hardware store two doors down from the butcher. The dead, murdered butcher. "You saw no such thing," he said, and she could see he was already jealous.
She smoothed her sweater over her bosom, then again down each arm. "I stopped in for the polish, and then I picked up some bread at Mrs. Cutler's, and then I ran into Mrs. Doyle. She had herself a nice pork roast and asked me if I could give her my pineapple pork recipe from memory, which of course I could, and it took about ten, fifteen minutes what with the other things we found to talk about. Ten minutes at least, long enough for a man to do murder." She looked up slyly. "I thought to myself, I'll pick up a nice pork roast myself, since I'm right here in the neighborhood. That's what I thought to myself." She plucked a couple of cat hairs from her cuffs. "The murderer wore an orange coat." She could barely keep from dancing. "I'm the eye witness. That's how the police wrote me down."
Do you see how, in this story, a full-blown murder-discovery scene at the beginning would undercut the essence of the story? Ellen's triumph is not really in witnessing a murder but in being able to puff herself up later as an "eye witness." A scene that shows Ellen walking into town, stopping for furniture polish, stopping for bread, stopping to chat with her friend, entering the butcher shop, calling out for service, walking around the counter, discovering the body, catching sight of the orange coat, calling the police, and so on might be compelling in and of itself, but the story is not set up to support such a scene. That initial action is the not the important action; that's not where the story is. The story begins after the discovery of the murder: Ellen's smugness and glee over the butcher's unfortunate demise give the story its tension and drama, and expose the dullness of her life and marriage. The way she smiles slyly and plucks cat hairs off her sweater while trying to keep from dancing is the important action. A scene is entirely called for here: this is the location of the "real" story.
Most experienced writers develop a sixth sense about when a scene is called for to interrupt the narrative. A little voice appears at the back of their consciousness, saying "This is boring," or "The pace is slowing down." The only way to develop this sixth sense is to write a lot (dozens and dozens of stories) and learn by trial and error. In the meantime, though, keep asking yourself where the story is, and place your scenes there.
As another example, let's try a story about a wife who has an affair with her husband's boss. Is the dramatic tension of this story contained in the husband-wife relationship, or in the emotional tug-of-war between the wife and the lover? Try the story both ways. You might find that the story interests you most when the husband and wife are having an ostensibly normal dinner at home. The phone rings. She answers. It's the boss (her lover), wanting some information from the husband about an important account. He can't come to the phone because he's in the happy process of feeding their small son, whom he adores, so she relays messages back and forth, having her own illicit conversation with her lover at the same time. Good scene. Great descriptive possibilities, loaded with nuance. This is where a scene belongs, where the real story (the husband-wife relationship) occurs. The wife-lover part of the story, which is less important, can be delivered through narrative—
She saw him twice a week, at the same hotel. For two hours she would pretend to be a character from a movie, charming and irresistible and living a life far from the cereal-stained countertops of their too-small apartment.
A full-blown scene showing the wife-lover liaison and what they say to each other and how they conduct their hello and goodbye would feel like extra weight in the story, a sluggish spot in need of cutting, because the affair is almost irrelevant to the real story.
On the other hand (in fiction there is always another hand), the wife-lover relationship may be the part that interests you most. Suppose the woman meets the lover in the hotel at the usual time, but because she can't find a babysitter she brings the boy along. The lover is miffed; the woman is hurt that after all this time the lover isn't content to "just talk" for a few hours, and also that he doesn't seem interested at all in her adored little boy. The scene could follow their desultory conversation, the arrival of room service (which the rambunctious boy accidentally knocks over) and an argument which the woman comes to realize is their breaking up. On the way home she is surprised to realize that she's looking forward to seeing her husband because of the way his face lights up whenever he sees the boy. In this version of the story, wife-lover is more important than wife-husband: the story is about a woman leaving her lover, not about whom she is leaving him for. The child is the key to the breakup, not the husband. In this case it's the husband-wife part that can be dispatched through narrative:
Mark was the dependable sort, always on time. He was the one who remembered to send birthday cards to the various members of the family. And he was more mother than she was. He was the one who liked to read bedtime stories and wrap their son's peach-colored body in a thick towel after a bath.
This narrative serves the proper purpose of describing the wife more than the husband. We get a sense of what she isn't (maternal, dependable) by reading a description of what he is. You don't need a scene to show the father's devotion, because that's not where the story is.
One more story. This one is about a man named Ethan who, deserted six months ago by his wife, is struggling to forge a relationship with his seven-year-old son:
In July, six months after Jackie had left him and his son to fend for themselves, Ethan decided to give the boy a party. He was seven, a difficult age, Ethan thought, always whining about something. The party would be something new, a fresh start for both of them. A celebration.
The children arrived in several clusters, according to what street they lived on. Ethan forced his son to stand at the door and hand out a pointy hat to each child that entered the house. The afternoon was a disaster, ending with a couple of bloody noses and a wedge of cake stuffed through the wire bars of the bird cage. One little boy was taken with cramps so severe Ethan began to wonder if he'd paid enough attention to what he'd mixed into the cake. Gamely he'd hosted a round of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" and then a treasure hunt, only to discover that most seven-year-olds were jaded old men, even the girls, unaffected by the wide-eyed wonder he remembered from his own youth. The giddy celebration of life that Ethan had anticipated had not come to pass, and he sat amongst the wreckage of damp streamers and crazy glue wondering why.
This is a good example of a first draft that shows a writer in search of a story. The narrative is part summary, part imagery, and jams a lot of action—an entire afternoon's worth, in fact—into a very small space. This paragraph could serve as an outline for a fifteen-page story. We have a setup (father giving party to "start fresh"); a conflict (son won't cooperate except by force); a rising action (the events of the party); a climax (the party goes out of control); and a resolution (father left among wreckage). What we don't have, however, are the subtle descriptions that reveal the "real" story, the subtext: How do Ethan's feelings change over the course of the story? What else is happening in Ethan's life that makes the success of the party so important to him? How does he really feel about his son? In other words, we haven't located the story yet.
How do you "find" the story? Begin by slowing down. Take one moment of the narrative that interests you and expand that moment into a scene to see if you can discover what's going on:
Ethan closed his hands over his son's knobby shoulders. "You're going to stand here and pass out hats if I have to hold you here myself."
"I don't want a party," Billy whined. "I don't like those kids." He whipped around, wrenching his shoulders from Ethan's grasp, and gave him that straight-line mouth that reminded him of Jackie before she left them. He was going to be just like her, the glass half empty, always half empty.
"You're just going to have to learn to get along, Billy," Ethan said. He could hear the soft wheedling he had often used with Jackie. "Parties are nice. It's what nice people do. It's part of the social intercourse." He sighed, listening to himself. "It's a good world out there. No one's out to get you." He smiled extravagantly, pointing out the door. "There's Timmy. You like Timmy. Now, aren't you glad we did this?"
Billy frowned deeply, and Ethan could see the word No forming on the bow-shaped mouth he'd inherited from his mother. The boy took a breath, and before Ethan knew what he was doing he'd slapped the word from Billy's face with the flat of his hand.
Ironically, the scene gives you far more insight into your characters than did the original narrative, which was packed solid with information. When you compare the boy to the mother early in the scene ("that straight-line mouth"), you discover something: everything that happens between Ethan and Billy will echo the relationship between Ethan and Jackie. Ethan's repressed rage will be acted out on Billy. The original narrative—though full of practical information (length of the separation, Ethan's hope for the party, the individual events of the party)—could never give you these insights. Through scene, you "found" the story.
For describing something wildly disappointing or moving or confounding, a scene almost always does the trick better than narrative. The complexities of human behavior are best described by what the characters themselves say and do, rather than through a narrative interpretation of what they say and do. In the above examples, the difference between
Ethan forced his son to stand at the door and hand out a pointy hat to each child that entered the house. The afternoon was a disaster. . . .
Ethan closed his hands over his son's knobby shoulders. "You're going to stand here and pass out hats if I have to hold you here myself."
. . . [Billy] whipped around, wrenching his shoulders from Ethan's grasp, and gave him that straight-line mouth that reminded him of Jackie before she left them.
is about five shades of meaning. The scene offers an instant reading of the father-mother-son triangle. If you find yourself confounded by one human entanglement after another in pages of straight narrative, stop and ask yourself if a scene would help light your way.
Another time when scene can rescue a story is when you are working with a character that could be easily labeled a "type." The following line—"Cindy was a flirt"—can be improved with some showier telling—"Cindy was a green-eyed blond who could spot a Yalie from the distance of, say, a dance floor." But it still doesn't do much but lie on the page. A flirt is a cliche. Green-eyed blonds are the stuff of TV cop shows. A scene does the trick much more effectively:
Cindy racketed into the room, wearing her roommate's tiny spangled dress. "Eldon," she cooed, offering her one bare hand. "Hasn't it been ages?" She slid a finger gingerly along the inside of his lapel and smiled.
Of course, this passage isn't long enough to be technically considered a scene, but it does have scenic properties. It serves a purpose (to show Cindy's flirtatious character); it contains dialogue; it has a beginning (her entrance), a middle (her dialogue) and an end (her gesture); and it moves the story forward (someone has to react to her action).
By showing Cindy's flirtatiousness through scene rather than telling the readers that she's a flirt, you are giving her some individuality and stretching the limitations of stereotype. The sleaze, the goody-goody, the bitter old man, the blushing bride—all these cardboard cutouts can be brought to life through scene. An elderly character described as "a bitter old man" is little more than a cliche. This same old man shown tearing up his address book or disconnecting his phone becomes a unique character that breaks stereotype.