Guest Post: Showing and Telling in genre fiction

A guest post by author and scholar Jeremy Weate discusses the difference between the writing techniques of "Showing" and "Telling," and more importantly, when to use them to their best effect.

One of the staples of creative writing courses is to introduce writers to the distinction between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’. Depending on the teacher and the exercises, this distinction can add considerable firepower to your writing, especially if your focus is on writing popular fiction. However, much of the material available online doesn’t really convey what the distinction between showing and telling is really about, and precisely how it can turbo-charge your writing.

In this post, I’m going to take the example of a master of showing, the British historical thriller writer Robert Harris. I love Harris’ books, because he blends historical detail with a compelling writing style. The way Harris’ prose style shows rather than tells is one of the secrets of his trade.

Let’s jump straight in and read two passages from his novel about Britain’s code-breaking efforts during the Second World War: Enigma. These passages were selected at speed by dipping into the book for a few minutes.  You’ll find lots of other similar passages in Enigma and in all Harris’ other novels.

First passage

“Thirty seconds later he was out on the pavement, picking his way carefully in the darkness towards the guard post, thinking about Shark.

He could hear the click click of a woman’s heels hurrying about twenty paces in front of him. There was no one else around. It was between sittings: everyone was either working or eating. The rapid footsteps stopped at the barrier and a moment later the sentry shone his torch directly in the woman’s face. She glanced away with a murmur of annoyance, and Jericho saw her then, for an instant, spot-lit in the blackout, looking straight in his direction.”

The first sentence is pure telling: a simple description of what the protagonist does.  It’s very much an objective, outside-in telling of what happens.  It works at this stage because it sets the scene. At this stage, it wouldn’t work to start this mini-scene with showing, it might confuse the reader about the context.

However, the second sentence, “He could hear the click click…” is a classic example of showing.  Rather than write, “A woman hurried twenty paces in front of him”, Harris lets us inside the mind of the protagonist, via a sensory reference to the sound of heels on pavement. The reader has an immediate feel for the scene – we can all too easily replay the sound of heels on a hard surface in our minds. So, the leap from the first to the second sentence is a leap from an external perspective to an internal view of the events.

This is the trick of writing action-based writing: you have to persuade the reader to suspend disbelief and feel like they are witnessing events first hand, if not standing in the shoes of the protagonist.

The next three sentences return to a more straightforward telling style, to advance the scene in a clear and concise way. Then, we have another classic example of showing, where Jericho sees the woman’s face ahead of him “spot-lit in the blackout.” Here, Harris gives us another powerful sensory reference, but this time it’s visual rather than auditory. We can easily conjure up an image of a woman’s face lit up by a torch, surrounded by darkness. The image adds both visual simplicity and drama to the scene.

Hopefully by now you are starting to see the power of showing to induce a sense of being-in-the-story, especially when set against the scene-setting power of telling.  It’s never simply that showing is better than telling, but rather knowing when to switch between these two different modes of description.

Let’s now take a look at the second passage.

Second passage

“Tom Jericho sat on the edge of the bed for a couple of minutes after listening to her footsteps descending the stairs. Then he took off his jacket and shirt and examined his throbbing forearm. He had a pair of bruises just below the elbow as neat and black as damsons, and he remembered now whom Skynner had always reminded him of: a prefect at school called Fane, the son of a bishop, who liked to cane the new boys in his study at teatime, and make them all say ‘thank you, Fane’ afterwards.

It was cold in the room and he started to shiver, his skin puckering into rashes of gooseflesh.”

As with the first passage, the scene setting relies on straightforward description – telling – but this time, for the first two sentences. It’s only in the third sentence that Harris delivers a strong visual image, in this case describing the two bruises as neat black damsons (a dark-coloured fruit found in England). Again, the image of these dark fruit pop effortlessly into the reader’s head.

As this sentence progresses, Harris compares Skynner to Fane, a bullying prefect from Jericho’s childhood. Here, Harris uses showing to add depth to characterisation.  Rather than just say in flat terms, “Skynner was a bully”, Harris creates a mini-narrative from childhood. It’s not hard for us all to recall a bullying character at school, and again find ourselves effortlessly drawn into Jericho’s world.

The final sentence of the second passage directly contrasts telling and showing.  By combining a bald statement of fact: “It was cold in the room,” with a reference to skin “puckering into rashes of gooseflesh,” the reader is again drawn deeper into the story, bringing to mind an image of shivery cold and bumpy flesh without expending any mental energy.

As we have seen, Harris cleverly weaves showing and telling techniques to tell his stories in a way that combines concise description with a powerful suite of sensory references. The reader’s mind is saturated with images and sounds, as if the book becomes a film playing inside the reader’s head.

Harris is a master storyteller; his books are bestsellers.  I have read every one of them and I’m always excited when a new novel comes out.  However, there’s no magic to his writing style. His use of showing and telling is just one of the ways in which his writing sparkles and absorbs the reader.

As an exercise, why not go over something you have written recently and see if you can emulate the way in which Harris blends showing and telling.


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