I begin this post with a bit of bragging: last night I finished revisions for my agent. I so rule. But because I do all my writing and revising longhand, I now have to type up all my changes, which will be several hellish hours of my life I'll never get back. There are worse fates, I'm sure. But I digress from the digression with which I began.
While I was revising, I noticed there are at least a couple of cases in which the old rule of Show, Don't Tell does not apply. I found myself actually deleting passages where I had dramatized the action (showing) and replacing them with summary (telling). So this is sort of a "rules? schmules?" post. Sort of.
The action of my novel comes in three strands, which unravel and intertwine as the book progresses. That's a fancy way of saying that I have a couple of major subplots as well as the main plot, and they more or less all tie together at the end. I also have a first-person narrator, who is involved in all three plots. What this means is that either:
a) my narrator has to be present for every scene in order to know what's going on (and relate it to the reader), or
b) someone has to tell my narrator whenever anything important happens off-screen.
The first option could result in some highly improbable situations, as my protagonist doesn't have access to everything everyone does. The second option could result in lots and lots of conversations like this:
"So, Feng says Amleth is dangerous."
"Yeah, he thinks he's going to attack Horvendil soon. They had a bitter argument last night, while you were talking to Corambis."
"What did they fight about?"
"Amleth claims Horvendil is a fraud. Feng told him he's wrong, but Amleth swears to find the truth."
"Yep. Say, what did you and Corambis talk about?"
"Well, let me tell you..."
And stuff. As it happens, I found that I did have a lot of that sort of conversation in my book, where A and B have a scene and then A and C discuss that scene out of earshot of B. It made me dizzy in a couple of places, and was entirely unneccesary. What I did instead was, as I say, cut the repetitious dialogue and replaced it with summary:
I met with Fernando and told him of my conversation with Corambis. We agreed that something would have to be done about Horvendil soon.
This is much briefer, far less ridiculous to read, and also gives you a chance to interpret the earlier scenes for the reader if you're into that sort of editorializing from a narrator.
The point of all this, aside from demonstrating how unfocused I am when I've not had any coffee, is that where you find this sort of repetition in your narrative, especially if you find dialogue that repeats previous dialogue or discusses previous action, it might be a good time to tell rather than show. Yes, you have to make sure the right characters all know the requisite facts to move the plot along, but if your reader already knows those facts, don't repeat them all over again.
So my rule is: Show, don't tell, unless you have to.