A few weeks ago I talked about “show don’t tell,” and how “showing” dramatized a scene I was writing and, in my opinion, made the story richer. In the comments, Diana asked an excellent question: could “show don’t tell” ever make a scene shorter, or does it basically always mean expand? I’ve had a chance to ponder this, and in some of my reading and writing came upon a particular situation in which the answer is yes, showing can make a scene tighter and shorter, at least in terms of word count.
It happens in sections of dialog. Have you ever read a scene where the text surrounding the dialog basically explains the dialog over again? For example (I just made this up off the top of my head):
I was so nervous, my words stammered out, “I-I’m not sure. . .the mashed potatoes. . .I-I left them right there. . .”
The first half of that sentence, “I was so nervous my words stammered out,” is “telling.” It’s unnecessary, because the dialog demonstrates (“showing”) very well that the character is stammering, most likely out of nervousness. So, a better — more dramatic — way to write the sentence is to let the dialog “speak” for itself:
“I-I’m not sure. . .the mashed potatoes. . .I-I left them right there. . .”
If the dialog is written well enough, it expresses the emotion the character is feeling without the narrator having to explain it.
This off-the-cuff example is overly-simplistic, but I’m sure we’ve all run across that sort of thing in our reading. It’s a bit pernicious, because we usually slide right on by sentences like that — both in what we read and what we write — without thinking of it. It’s not wrong exactly, but it’s wordy, and often not as immediate.