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’.
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?