This example involves the difference between showing and telling, and I hope it demonstrates the how and why of the technique.
It’s early in Abuse of Power, and I’ve got a scene where the protagonist meets the love interest. As a set up, I wanted to portray the POV character as more reserved when it comes to picking up women than his irresponsible friend.
My first instinct was to write:
Auggie didn’t pick up women the way Benj did.
That sentence has its attractions. Mainly, it’s quick and painless to write. “There, now the reader knows the information, and I can move on to the good part where he meets the girl.”
A couple of problems, however: 1) it’s very much telling and not showing and 2) it’s me being lazy instead of trying to produce quality work.*
Upon further reflection, the passage became:
Auggie held open the rickety door to the run down tavern. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
Benj grinned. “Quit your bellyaching. It’s chilly tonight.”
“Benj, no. You need some sleep. We’re riding at first light.”
He stepped past the major into the dim room, his eyes scanning the occupants. “C’mon now, the memory of a nice bed warmer is just what I need to keep me happy on the road.”
With a sigh, Auggie followed. “That’s not how a gentleman behaves, you know.”
“Gentleman?” Benj stopped walking and raised his hand to stroke his chin in an exaggerated gesture of thoughtfulness. “I’m more of a rogue.” His eyes sparkled. “A handsome rogue.”
“You’re incorrigible, that’s what you are.”
This isn’t perfect, and I’ll revise it many times before it goes into the finished product. However, it’s much better. Why you ask? I’m glad you brought it up.
- The reader experiences the action as it happens, which draws them into the story. The telling sentence I started with doesn’t do anything for them.
- It allows me to develop character. The telling statement gave the what, but not the why. Take a deeper look:
The passage clearly shows Auggie reluctant to pick up a girl at the tavern, just as the telling statement. He is shown at first putting up a token argument and then getting to the heart of the matter: he doesn’t think a gentleman should pick up and discard girls, showing the reader why he acts that way. I also develop seeds of the relationship between the two men. Even though he’s the superior officer, Auggie doesn’t try to issue orders to Benj. Instead, he sighs and follows. The idea isn’t to tell everything about the characters and their relationships at once; it’s to lay one more stone of the foundation.
The passage also lets me delve a bit into Benj’s character. Instead of being a cardboard cutout womanizer, it gives a little insight into who he is. When Auggie scolded him, he could have argued or became defensive. Instead, he’s shown as being good natured because he responds by joking.
Now, we’ve got the why down, but not the how.
To accomplish showing, I:
- Put my character in a situation where he can demonstrate the characteristic – I needed to show the contrast between the POV character and his friend regarding women, so I put them in an environment where his friend is hunting for a girl and he’s not.
- I revealed character through action – Instead of saying: Benj looked for girls to pick up, I show him searching the room. Instead of saying: Auggie didn’t want to find a girl, I show him arguing with his friend. Instead of saying: Benj is good natured, I show him joking in response to a scolding rather than arguing or shouting or acting sullen.
I hope this helps someone out there.
*Note that this is the rough draft. I use the first draft, most of the time, as word vomit. My motto is: get it done and move on. “She was hungry” is fine; I’ll fix it to describe her hunger in the 2nd draft. I’ll write stuff like: He rode into ///come up with a town name and describe it a little///. For this story, I’m trying to produce a little better draft at the start, and, really, this telling portion was me being lazy more than anything else.