If you have ever taken a writing course or read a blog about writing, you are familiar with the expression, “show don’t tell.” There is a reason for that. Showing is often the difference between a vivid, lively narrative and a lecture. Yet, almost every critique we write – fiction and nonfiction – includes an admonition to stop telling and start showing. Most writers tend to explain what their stories are about, rather than getting into the story and showing it.
Here is a telling example: He was determined. He wasn’t going to let himself be talked out of waiting. He knew he had to make contact and not to do so was unthinkable. He accepted a cup of coffee, but did not say anything when the suggestion was made that he should go back and sleep. He felt impatient but he was careful not to reveal it. He could get back to the checkpoint in twenty minutes if he had to. But he decided to wait. It was getting dark outside.
“The American handed Leamus another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.’
Leamus said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
‘You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the polizei contact the agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.’
‘No,’ said Leamus, ‘It’s nearly dark now.’”
Le Carre invites the reader directly into the checkpoint overlooking that empty street. He never tells us readers that Leamus is determined to wait, but we get it and at the same time, we are sucked into the story, wanting to know who he is waiting for and why is he is being so stubborn about it.
So, what did Le Carre do that showed the action, rather than telling it?
1) He used dialogue. Dialogue brings the reader directly into the scene. You have to be there to know what is being said.
2) He set the scene. When Leamus looks out of the window at the empty street, you know where he is and almost feel like you are there too.
3) He used detail. And he used it sparingly. “Another cup of coffee” is an interesting tidbit. Leamus has been drinking a lot of coffee. So you wonder, is he buzzed or bored or very determined to stay awake and at the top of his game? It is only “nearly dark” so not very late at night. Has Leamus been up for a long time? That cup of coffee is a detail that draws readers in but doesn’t drown us with so much information we have nothing left to wonder about. Le Carre has been specific but used a light touch.