Writers often are told that they need to show rather than tell. There are times, however, when the writer must tell, that is they must use exposition. A scene that is dramatic (which means it shows) but that also uses exposition, is called a half-scene.
Various genres – such as science fiction, romance and mysteries – often employ half-scenes when the author needs to do a little summarizing, which is telling, lest the work become too long to read.
An example of a half-scene would be:
Caught in the net, I shrank from them. I wanted to scream at myself for that; there was no reason to act like an animal. They appeared more or less human in Chara’s dim light, so that gave me some hope. Still, you never knew how the native might react, and experience had taught me that self-interest had evolved to be everyone’s primary motivator.
As one of the natives pulled a sharp object from a leather pouch, I figured I’d reach the end of the line. My body and expression hardened as watching him approach; if death was coming, at least I would meet it with dignity.
As the white sun rose, the heat off the scablands filled the shaded area, or perhaps it was my own fear that left my skin coated with sweat. From orbit I’d spotted an incredible thousand-meter waterfall coming off the highlands into the expanse of scarred bedrock, thought it would be worth a look; it’s not often that you run across a planet with perfectly breathable air, after all. Who thought in the one small area of the waterfall where some trees could grow that the natives would bother to set a snare trap that I had no laser cutter to break free of?
Never mind that oversight, I told myself, if I somehow survive this, reaching my shuttle would be primary.
In the above scene, is an example of summarizing and telling is: From orbit I’d spotted an incredible thousand-meter waterfall coming off the highlands into the expanse of scarred bedrock, thought it would be worth a look; it’s not often that you run across a planet with perfectly breathable air, after all. Who thought in the one small area of the waterfall where some trees could grow that the natives would bother to set a snare trap that I had no laser cutter to break free of? The rest of the scene is showing, or action-oriented, as it happens in the moment. Rather than write a whole dramatic scene about spotting the waterfall and flying down to the planet and walking – none of which are fraught with conflict or suspense and so don’t make much of a story – compressing time or summarizing is a good alternative, especially in a short story.
Arguably, the better written the half-scene, the greater it leans toward action rather than summary, meaning that it shows more than tells.
If looking for a more great examples to better understand dramatic scenes (showing), summarizing or narration (telling), and the blend of them that is the half-scene, check out John Updike. He’s a modern master of the half-scene. Ernest Hemingway tended to go to the extreme of writing purely dramatic scenes. Narration was far common in literary works prior to Hemingway; many of Charles Dickens’ writings are an excellent example.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.