Show Me, Don't Tell Me

How do you "show" and not "tell"? And Sarah talks about Brandon Sanderson and Daniel Abraham. Again. She's out of control.

The chances are good that you have heard the endless cadence of “show, don’t tell” from your writing teachers. It’s an abstract concept and, to be fair, rather difficult to convey fully. I don’t know that I had a clear understanding of the difference, even in college.

What do I mean by “showing” versus “telling”? I can tell you that “Jane hates coffee,” but I’m showing you that Jane hates coffee when she takes a sip, grimaces, and says “yuck.” That’s a simple example, of course. How do you convey necessary information to the reader without simply telling or without giving a large info dump? How do you show other emotions, like fear or tension, or how characters interact with one another?

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has a great segment of his writing class dedicated to this topic, and it really informed the way that I think about this it. (As a side note, this is the old video of his class; as they re-tape the classes, the quality should improve.)

I would encourage you to watch the video; in the meantime, though, I wanted to give you a real-world example that illustrates a great way to “show” your character.

My example comes from the short story “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham. The main character, Olaf, is a cambist, or exchanger of foreign currency, who becomes involved in a high-stakes bet between two noblemen. I really enjoyed this story a lot overall, and it was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2008. Abraham is a great writer for several reasons, but in this instance, he really captures what it means to “show.”

I’ve copied the first paragraph below:

“For as many years as anyone in the city could remember, Olaf Neddelsohn had been the cambist of the Magdalen Gate postal authority. Every morning, he could be seen making the trek from his rooms in the boarding house on State Street, down past the street vendors with their apples and cheese, and into the bowels of the underground railway only to emerge at the station across the wide boulevard from Magdalen Gate. Some mornings he would pause at the tobacconist’s or the newsstand before entering the hallowed hall of the postal authority, but seven o’clock found him without fail at the ticker tape checking for the most recent exchange rates. At half-past, he was invariably updating the slate board with a bit of chalk. And with the last chime of the eight o’clock, he would nod his respect to his small portrait of His Majesty, King Walther IV, pull open the shutters, and greet whatever traveler had need of him.”1

There’s a lot going on here. From the beginning, we know that we are in not-quite-London: we can recognize the name “Magdalen Gate,” but London has never had a King Walther IV. More importantly, we learn everything that we need to know about the main character Olaf.

The first thing that we learn is the repetitive nature of Olaf’s days. He has a routine that has occurred “as many years any anyone in the city could remember,” and he follows this routine every morning. From the words “without fail,” and “invariably,” we know that Olaf is reliable and punctual.

In the second sentence, we learn that he uses the underground railway to merely cross the street, avoiding the street traffic. Olaf, then, dislikes large crowds of busy, bustling people and the resulting chaos; by extension we know that he avoids conflict. From the word “hallowed” to describe the postal authority, we know that he respects the institution that employs him and that he holds his own role in high regard, as further illustrated by his diligence in preparing for the day before he opens his stall.

The fact that he updates his slate board every morning according to the latest exchange rates shows that he cares about accuracy. His nod of respect to the portrait of King Walther IV shows that he recognizes and gives homage to the ruling authority, again highlighting his respect for the establishment and his own role within it. Even the word “greet” in the final sentence serves to set the tone of Olaf’s interactions with his clients: the word has a positive connotation, meaning that he is always happy to help someone in need of his services.

Thus, everything that we need to know about Olaf has been woven into this passage so that we have a picture of him from the very first paragraph. We know he is reliable, accurate, courteous, and will absolutely go out of his way to avoid conflict.

This is important information about Olaf as the plot unfolds. Abraham could have easily written that “Olaf was reliable, accurate, courteous, and dreaded conflict,” but this sounds cold and boring next to the details of Olaf’s day that indirectly reveal his character.

This is showing versus telling. We are shown Olaf's character through his routine, not through the author telling us outright that Olaf is all these things. 

Use this as an example and keep it in mind as you write. What is it about your character’s day, routine, habits, that reveals who they are? There are other ways to tackle this showing versus telling problem, of course, but this is a good way to start.

If you want to read the full story, you can read it at Lightspeed Magazine. (As a side note, I’ve been reading a lot of Daniel Abraham recently, and you can probably count on hearing more about him and his work in the future. Stay tuned.)

Happy writing!

 

Books mentioned in this post:

 

1 Abraham, Daniel. “The Cambist and Lord Iron”. Leviathan Wept and Other Stories. Subterranean Press, 2010.

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