If you accept these generalized definitions you will miss out on opportunities to “show” through exposition.
Dennis Lehane does just that in his literary mystery, Mystic River. This passage is excerpted from a spontaneous block party that erupts after the return of 11-year-old Jimmy Marcus’s kidnapped friend, Dave Boyle. Jimmy doesn’t yet know what happened to Dave, but sees that he is surrounded by police and well wishers that include their fifth grade teacher, Miss Powell. When Miss Powell kisses Dave twice on the cheek Jimmy wants to run right up and tell her he almost got in the car with the kidnappers, too. He watches her in some detail—her crooked upper tooth, the curve of her right calf and ankle as she gets into a car. The following section comes right after Jimmy’s mother comments on the fact that his teacher is cute.
“Real cute,” his mother repeated into a gray ribbon of exhaled smoke.This passage has no elements of scene. It is not continuous in action, there is no dialogue after the opening line, the setting fades to the background, and Lehane relies upon subtle psychological suspense to carry the reader through the passage—he is hoping that by now you care to hear a little bit about Jimmy.
Jimmy still didn’t say anything. Most of the time he didn’t know what to say to his parents. His mother was worn out so much. She stared off at places Jimmy couldn’t see and smoked her cigarettes, and half the time didn’t hear him until he’d repeated himself a couple times. His father was pissed off usually, and even when he wasn’t and could be kind of fun, Jimmy would know that he could turn into a pissed-off drunk guy any second, give Jimmy a whack for saying something he might have laughed at half an hour before. And he knew that no matter how hard he tried to pretend otherwise, he had both his father and his mother inside of him—his mother’s long silences and his father’s sudden fits of rage.
When Jimmy wasn’t wondering what it would be like to be Miss Powell’s boyfriend, he sometimes wondered what it would be like to be her son.
It also refrains from cutting away to a flashback. The cigarette smoking and drinking didn’t happen at any one significant moment that scarred Jimmy for life; they are a constant.
Lehane could have saved some words by “telling” us that Jimmy was always on tenterhooks because his home life was chaotic, but that would not have evoked the paradox that is Jimmy. Instead Lehane quite brilliantly “showed” us Jimmy's psychological genetics. And considering this passage is from page 37, he has foreshadowed some great internal conflict that will continue to devil Jimmy throughout the book.
Think this is show and tell? I’d buy that analysis, too. But in “telling” us about Jimmy’s mom and dad, Lehane is “showing” us Jimmy.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."