A Dresden Files example of ‘show don’t tell’

Posted: July 2, 2014 in reading, writing
Tags: , , , , ,

It had been my mother’s – my father had passed it down to me.

– Jim Butcher – Storm Front

That quote might seem like a pretty innocuous piece of writing, but it caught my attention as I was listening to the Storm Front audiobook. Why? Because I think it’s a good example of what we mean when we say ‘show don’t tell’.


Not such a new series any more.

As Victoria Grefer has pointed out, there isn’t really a clear divide between show and tell, and there’s some merit to both. But for me, the value of showing lies in replacing exposition with implication. I love fantasy literature, but sometimes when authors try to cram in the backstory of their world or characters it comes across like a thinly disguised exert from a text book. I don’t want that, I want story, and I want it smoothly and efficiently told. I want the world revealed through actions, dialogue and naturally occurring thought, not dumped out in paragraphs that break the flow.

Look at what Butcher’s done in that sentence. He’s shown us, in just thirteen words, that the item under discussion has sentimental value for Harry Dresden, his lead character. He’s shown us that Harry’s mother is dead, probably died too young to pass things down to Harry. That somewhere along the line Harry’s father has been his lone parent. He’s shown us that this is an item of personal value beyond its material or magical worth. And of course he’s told us how Harry got the item.

Any time you show you have to tell something. The showing comes in the other details that are revealed in the cracks between your words.

I’m not holding Storm Front up as some kind of master class for writers, though its popularity shows it’s doing something right. Heck, I haven’t even got to the end yet – my audiobook listening it regularly interrupted by fascinating podcasts. But sometimes you can learn a lot from examining one line.

Do you have a favourite line, one that you’ve written or that you’ve read, that you think carries a valuable lesson or demonstrates what ‘show don’t tell’ means to you? Why not share it below?

  1. Lynda says:

    One of my favourite fantasy novel sets – the Beka Cooper books by Tamora Pierce – are an exercise in exposition-free fantasy writing. Three years-worth of diaries, written as if for someone in that culture, full of slang, religious and political references, and without any explanation of what those mean. You just pick it up as you go along. It’s wonderful. The character narrating does explain stuff of course, but not in a world building way. Just in a here’s how my day went, kind of way.

    I was actually disappointed in the second book (and possibly later editions of the first book) to find a glossary at the end, but I suppose they are written technically for teenagers who might need an extra boost…

    • I really like that approach – immersing you deeply in the world and letting you work it out for yourself. It lets you stretch your brain without disrupting your immersion in the story.

  2. everwalker says:

    ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’ – CS Lewis

    Lewis shows us a huge amount about the personality of this character in this sentence, without telling us anything except his name. I love it.

    • Totally agree. I recently saw that cited as an exampled of telling, and my instant reaction was ‘no, that’s showing so much more’. Which I guess goes to show that the line between the two is not clear.

  3. brennalayne says:

    I’m reading a book called Witchlanders at the moment, and it’s full of showing; the main character’s mother is an addict, but that word is never used. Instead, the reader sees that she is because of the way in which her son reacts to her.

    • That’s an interesting example. Do you think that’s also meant to show us something about the son’s reaction to the addiction, that he doesn’t understand it or doesn’t want to recognise what is going on? Or is it a matter of just showing things more subtly?

      It reminds me of the short-lived TV show Ultraviolet. The characters were hunting vampire, but they never used the word ‘vampire’, and that helped with the suspension of disbelief. The viewer understood what was happening, what the rules of the monsters were, but we didn’t need it shoved in our faces.

      • brennalayne says:

        Good questions; I think in part it’s just good writing–allowing the writer to draw his or her own conclusions. But I also think that, while the main character isn’t exactly in denial about his mother’s problem, he’s certainly misunderstanding them, and the “showing” allows for some mystery, I think.

      • Sue Archer says:

        I loved Ultraviolet’s take on vampires. One of the things I enjoy about a lot of BBC shows (compared to North American ones) is that they are more into showing than telling. They don’t talk down to their audience by having everything explained to them. Of course, being from Canada, I probably get to see only the “best” BBC shows. What do you think, Andrew?

        • I have a whole bunch of opinions on this Sue, probably because I’ve watched too much TV! So…

          I think you’re probably right that you’re only seeing the best stuff. Yes, there’s some great British TV, but there’s a lot of terrible or tedious stuff as well, and popular viewing is dominated by soap operas, although quality dramas do seem to be on the ascendant.

          I also think that American TV has got a lot more sophisticated in recent years. Maybe not so much for scifi and fantasy, but I can’t think of a single British TV show that stands up to scrutiny as well as The Wire, Deadwood or Damages. Some European drama is making its way over here too now – I enjoyed watching a couple of seasons of The Killing, and Borgen is a more interesting political drama than The West Wing. But right now, while America may produce the worst dross, I think it also produces most of the best stuff too.

          That said, there is some really good TV coming out of Britain, but it’s mostly not from the BBC. Sure,they’ve got Doctor Who and Sherlock, but while I love those shows and think Moffat can be a sensational writer, both tend to become a bit self-indulgent and puffed up from time to time. For the really good stuff, look out for Channel 4. They produced Ultraviolet back in the day, and they now have a couple of subsidiary channels as well. In the past five years they’ve given us council estate superhero series Misfits, the sadly shortlived The Fades, and comic book conspiracy thriller Utopia, which is coming back for a second season any day now. Their work is more interesting and gritty than the BBC, production values aren’t so high but when they’re good they’re fantastic.

          What about Canadian TV? Is there much worth looking out for?

          • Sue Archer says:

            Ah, Canadian TV. It mostly gets buried because we are all inundated with American TV shows, and the public funding for Canadian TV shows is constantly under threat. I haven’t watched much recently (other than the Rick Mercer Report) because I gave up on cable (it was sucking up too much time, and it’s starting to feel like there’s more ad time than show time). I’ve been sticking to Netflix and DVDs from the library. There is a lot of great buzz about sci-fi show Orphan Black, which sounds like something I would enjoy but haven’t had the time to see yet. We have strengths in lower budget sci-fi shows and comedy. If you like Shakespeare at all, you should really see Slings & Arrows. Lots of fun. One of the actors is from Due South (an old fave, which gently sends up myths about Canadians and mounties) and another is from Kids in the Hall, one of our best comedy shows ever.

            I agree that there is some great television coming from the U.S., but mainly on the specialty networks. The basic cable empires (NBC, ABC, and CBS) as well as a lot of Canadian channels are full of reality TV and formulaic shows.

            Thanks for the tip on the Channel 4 shows – more to add on my to be watched list! It’s interesting that you mentioned Borgen (which I have not seen) – I’ve currently been watching West Wing for the first time, and have been enjoying it, so if Borgen is better it sounds like it would be right up my alley! 🙂

            • I’ve heard good things about Orphan Black too, but I mostly rely on Netflix and haven’t seen it crop up there yet (like you I didn’t want to put up with the adverts or the terrible TV schedules). And I remember loving Kids in the Hall when it turned up in the middle of the night on British TV, so I’ll have to give Slings & Arrows a go.

  4. lektu says:

    In Frank Herbert’s “Children of Dune”, there’s a long scene where Jessica (who’s come alone) is in a huge audience room with her daughter Alia, her (Alia’s) guards, and a few thousand fremen (asking Alia’s favor or justice or whatever).

    For a few pages, Herbert shows how Jessica grows aware of the fact that Alia has been possessed by Baron Harkonnen’s “racial memory” and will try an assassination atempt against her. Tension grows as she ponders possibilities. She’s noticed among the supplicants there are a few fedaykin, the fanatical personal guard of Paul Muad’Dib, who are more likely to be loyal to Jessica (Paul’s mother, after all) than Alia.

    The readers are on the edge of their seats, waiting for a big, big action scene.

    Then Herbert says:

    I’m supposed to remain here helpless in my knowledge, Jessica thought. With the thought, she launched herself onto the path the adab had revealed, shouting: “Fedaykin, follow me!”

    It turned out there were six Fedaykin in the room, and five of them won through behind her.

    That’s all. End of the chapter. The *best* action scene I ever read, because the writer was confident enough to set the thing going, give me the pieces, and let my imagination do the rest.

    Admitedly, Herbert wasn’t a *great* writer, but he was better and more effective than he’s usually given credit for.

    • Nice example. Though I haven’t read all the Dune books the first one is still one of my all time favourite sci-fi novels. Such great ideas, and so evocatively shown.

  5. lektu says:

    In case it isn’t evident, the Herbert quote is two short paragraphs, from “I’m supposed to remain helpless” to “won through behind her”. 🙂

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