Show vs Tell

At the risk of treading already well worn ground here, I thought I’d write about the difference between showing and telling, and why that difference is important. New writers are repeatedly told they need to show instead of tell, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that means you should be drawing a comic or making a TV show instead of writing prose. But showing and telling are about the language we use to build up a picture in the reader’s mind of what is happening, where, and how characters feel about it.

I’m going to use a short sequence created explicitly for the purpose to demonstrate:

It was a cold November morning. Emily was walking to work and wished she’d packed a scarf when she’d moved out of Mum and Dad’s house last month. Preparation wasn’t her strong point. She was more likely to rush off in pursuit of some new project or passion than stop to think and plan, and the same was true in all aspects of her life.

This is all telling. I’ve told you it’s cold, and I’ve told you Emily has, characteristically, failed to plan ahead for winter. I’ve also told you she’s newly moved out of her parents’ house, implying that she’d probably quite young. I’ve also implied that work isn’t far away – within walking distance. But how about this:

Emily walked more slowly to work than normal that morning, cautious of the ice on the pavement. Every few steps her foot slipped, her thin shoes providing insufficient grip. She’d have to go back to Mum and Dad’s at the weekend, she decided, and pick up her good winter boots that had been left behind in last month’s move.

Better? I would hope so. You know it’s cold outside without me ever having said the word “cold”. You know Emily moved recently, and this time I’ve used footwear instead of a scarf because I can show how poor footwear affects Emily better than with a scarf in this scenario. I could have used an icy wind, instead of an icy pavement, and kept the scarf, but I feel this is more of a visual thing, a physical representation of the cold in that it is cold enough to make the pavement slippery, whereas an “icy wind” could be several degrees warmer.

You also still know Emily has moved recently, but now I’ve turned it around from a statement of fact to an action – Emily makes a decision and that just so happens to reveal the information that she’s recently moved out. I’ve not said anything about Emily’s preparation skills, but it is implied by the recentness of the move and the fact that it is winter now and she doesn’t have her winter boots, that she’d not planned even a few weeks ahead when packing.

Later I can build on this implication with other examples of poor preparation – maybe she goes out with friends after work but after arriving at the restaurant, has to borrow money from a friend or leave the restaurant to find a cash point in order to pay for her meal, because she hasn’t planned in advance to get cash, perhaps in spite of being a regular patron of this restaurant. Or maybe I could have Emily get home after the night out to realise she’s missed her favourite TV programme and forgot to set it to record, or gets home at 11pm only to find her cat (normally fed at 6pm, but Emily had decided to go out with friends) meowing for food but no cat food is left – but all the shops are shut now so Emily can’t go out and buy some.

All of these things will demonstrate to the reader exactly what I told them in the first incarnation of the passage about Emily walking to work – that she’s no good at planning ahead.

Here’s another example:

The city was huge, and surrounded by one great impressive wall. It needed it: thanks to the city’s great wealth, it was frequently the target of raiders and marauding armies led by generals seeking the gold, silks and fine painted table wares worked by the craftsmen and women inside.

Okay, so here we’re not looking at a character, but a setting. And that’s the first mistake. The above description is dry, statement following statement, and thus more at home in the notes file under “locations”. As part of the story, though, a paragraph like that could really scupper immersion and pull the reader right back out of the flow. How does the point of view character know this information about the city, especially the history side of things? Or if you’re using an omniscient narrator voice, to whom is the wall impressive? Who is judging it thus?

Try this instead:

The first Jack saw of the city was the curls of smoke rising into the still blue sky; for a moment he panicked, thinking that perhaps it was on fire, but hadn’t Fred told him the city was a place full of craftsmen? The smoke must have been from the chimneys, forges and kilns. As Jack reached the top of the last gentle rise on the road, the city itself became visible. Walls hid most of it, and as Jack drew nearer he could see how immense they were, stretching high above him, dwarfing the few tress and houses he could outside the walls.

Nearing the gate, Jack saw marks all over the stonework. At one point, several metres above the gate itself, ancient damage had been repaired with yellowy bricks, a stark contrast to the massive blocks of sandstone. A whole section of the battlements, Jack could see when he craned his neck, seemed to have been completely rebuilt.

Inside Jack found himself jostled by people hurrying about their work, his ears assaulted by the cries of stallholders selling foods Jack had never seen before, fabrics that shimmered and ceramic pots of all shapes and sizes. A rider passed Jack, and he saw the gleam of golden rings on the rider’s hands and pearls hanging from his ears.

This way, you reveal the information to the reader at the same time as the character discovers it, maintaining flow. Now, this new passage isn’t perfect –here I’ve given Jack very little character for the sake of demonstrating showing the city to the reader rather than telling them what it is like. This city description is much longer, but also much richer than the first. It incorporates action, moving the story forward as the reader follows Jack from miles outside the city, through the gates and along the streets.

To further improve it, I’m going to give Jack some character. See if you can work out why he’s there and what kind of man he is.

Jack knew he was nearing the city when he saw the thin streams of smoke rising through the bright blue sky. Within minutes he’d reached the top of a gentle rise in the road and got his first look at the city itself – or rather, at the wall ringing it. Even from here, over a mile away, the wall dominated the landscape. He paused for a moment, studying the largely flat farmland between his vantage point and the city. There were few trees and not many buildings, the land open and watched.

Nearing the great gate, Jack slowed his pace, looking up at the walls. Splotches of different colours revealed themselves as he drew closer to be repairs in brick or stone, and a whole section of the battlements appeared to have been rebuilt recently in yellowish brick. Jack made a mental note of it and turned his attention to the gatehouse. It towered above him, taller even that the great temple of Mars back home, twice as tall even, and supported with buttresses as wide as Jack’s whole house.

The weak point was the gate itself, though “weak” was hardly how Jack would have described it. As Jack passed through he looked up and saw in the shadows the pointed bottom of an iron portcullis. In the ceiling above the tunnel were a series of square holes in the stonework, the dark recesses blocked from above, Jack assumed, to prevent light coming down and revealing them to all. Then there was the great wooden doors, six inches of layered hardwood braced with iron.

Once inside Jack passed stalls and shops where vendors shouted their prices. Here was the prize: exotic foods Jack had never seen before, fine cloths of all colours traded from half the world away, fine painted pottery wares kept at the back of stalls to protect them from being knocked by passers-by. While many of those around Jack, hurrying about their business, were normal folk dressed in the same sort of unremarkable clothes Jack himself had chosen for his journey, some displayed the wealth of the city in their clothes and jewellery, gold, silver, pearls and rubies all visible on fingers, around necks, dangling from ears or sewn into silks and satins from deep red to vibrant blue.

Then there were those in uniform, carrying short clubs as they moved in twos amongst the crowds, pausing to talk to stallholders or bow to the better dressed. Jack paused in the entrance to an alleyway, watching them carefully. There were always at least two of them in sight, besides the dozen or so he’d seen around the gate, and as Jack watched a cry of “thief” went up and the uniforms sprang into action. The offender was quickly captured as soldiers came from all directions, weaving through the crowd, and as two of them led the thief away Jack counted another six nearby.

This is even longer still, but we have a bit more insight into who Jack is and what he’s doing here. He’s paying a lot of attention to the city’s defences – the walls, the gate, the soldiers in uniform. He thinks of the goods on display at the stalls as the “prize”, and within the same paragraph notices the jewellery and fine clothes of the rich. He’s observant and patient, and he doesn’t yet interact with anyone, standing by silently watching. He’s probably a military man, a scout or spy with experience of attacking fortified settlements, working for a foreign power which is considering attacking the city.

At the same time as learning about Jack, you’re also getting all of the information about the city that I presented before, and then some: impressive walls that have previously been damaged, presumably in war, this time with the gatehouse described in greater detail; wealth as demonstrated by the city’s ability to import exotic and luxury goods. The craftspeople side of things isn’t explored here, but as Jack moves through the city, we can have him pass a massive pottery kiln and workshops.

You’ve also got some action, more than just Jack approaching and entering the city, in the form of the thief. It is a short sequence, but it shows to the reader and to Jack that there are a lot of soldiers (or more accurately police officers, as they’re not carrying weapons of war but rather non-lethal clubs, but with Jack’s apparent military background he thinks of them as soldiers) on the streets, which might imply that the city is heavily militarised or at least heavily policed.

This passage is now a far cry from the first, and cannot be mistaken for the city profile in your notes file. The city is shown through the eyes of the character, and his background and intentions, if not his personality, is shown through what he notices about the city, what he chooses to focus upon. It can certainly be improved upon by describing other aspects of it, like the sounds and smells rather than just the sights, but it’s getting there.

The impression you give the reader about a place is heavily influenced by the way you describe it, and the point of view of the character, and not just by what you describe it as being. If you have a sinister cottage in the woods, don’t tell me there was a sinister cottage in the woods, describe the fog that clings to the ground even on the sunniest days, the eerie animal calls, the bare branches of trees long dead and blackened. Describe the cottage’s broken roof tiles, the dead ivy clinging to one of the walls, the walls once painted white but now stained, the crooked doorway, the broken windows and the crow perched on top of the crumbling chimney.

Describe how your character approaches it cautiously, how they flinch at the animal noises, how they hesitate to approach but rather walk all the way around the cottage – at a distance – looking for signs of habitation. Have your character shiver, or consider going back and looking for somewhere else to ask for help, or finger the hilt of their sword ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.

Don’t tell me the cottage is sinister and expect me to fill in the gaps. Show me what makes it sinister and how your character reacts, and let me draw my own conclusion.

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