Show…and Tell

In our last blog, we talked about the importance of learning to show Using an example from John Le Carre’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD we attempted to show what it means to show in writing.

Most books in their simplest form are a series of scenes that show the action of the book. Concocting these scenes takes work. The writer has to establish place, ambience, point of view and most importantly, action. The scene has to advance the plot. Novice fiction writers often take for granted that if these things are vivid in their imaginations, the reader will get them by osmosis and all he/she has to do is explain. The novice should probably focus first on learning to show.

But not everything in a book can be shown without dragging it down to a level of boring minutiae. That is where telling comes in. If showing is the foundation of the book – the cake – telling is the icing. We think it can make the difference between an okay book and a great one. Going back to that first chapter of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, here is a paragraph in which Le Carre chooses to tell:

“Pushing up the collar of his jacket, Leamas stepped outside into the icy October wind. He remembered the crowd then. It was something you forgot inside the hut, this group of puzzled faces. The people changed but the expressions remained the same. It was like the helpless crowd that gathers around a traffic accident, no one knowing how it happened, whether you should move the body. Smoke or dust rose between the beams of the arc lamps, a constant shifting pall between the margins of light.”

Okay, it has nowhere near the breathless excitement of the opening graphs we posted earlier. But here, told from Leamus’ point of view, we get a vivid image of the people on the street: the helpless expressions, the sense that something terrible and incomprehensible has happened, the shifting light. Le Carre is adding depth and foreboding to his work in this paragraph. He is also advancing the plot, getting Leamus out of the checkpoint building without showing us the scene, which might involve Leamus talking to one of the people on the street in order to learn that person is anxious and has the sense that something terrible has happened, etc., etc., etc.