Show, Don’t Tell

A mentor of mine once told me that when writing a story, it’s essential to show, and not tell. This means presenting the information or action in a story such that the reader sees what you mean, rather than describing what happens in a detached manner. This brings the reader deeper into the story.

A straightforward concept, but sometimes easier said than done. While doing an edit of the first chapter of my fantasy novel, I noticed that I used a flashback to describe an event that, while minor at the time of drafting, has proved to be more important in terms of character development. I took the handful of sentences and expanded them into a full mini-scene, while at the same time using the opportunity to craft some fun dialogue. I’ll share it below:

“So you want out, after only one night?” Raimonds leaned back in his chair, studying Andrejs over steepled fingers.

Andrejs swallowed, but his throat remained dry. “I…I don’t think this kind of work is right for me.”

Raimonds smiled tightly. “You leave me in a bit of a tight spot, Andrejs. Daina spoke so highly of you, and I expected much. Keeping the neighbourhood safe is dangerous work, and I can use all the help I can get. You’re from the country; you ought to know all about community spirit. But now,” he paused with loud sigh, “I may have to move Daina back to lookout duty,” he turned to Daina, who was glaring at Andrejs in disgust, “I know how much you hated that job, especially since your little incident, but as you can see our friend Andrejs leaves me with little choice.”

He turned back to Andrejs and narrowed his eyes. “You know, boy, you’re quite lucky that I like Daina. If you had been recommended by anyone else, there’s a good chance your body would be floating in the river about now. But I trust her, and if she says someone is worthwhile then they must be good for something.

“So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let you walk out of here with your life, your night’s wages, and the memory of the great opportunity you refused. Keep that in mind as you toil away for nothing, or more likely return to your hovel in despair.” Raimonds snickered loudly, and was joined by the other people in the room.

Andrejs wrestled with fear and anger. They’re making a big show of letting me live and they’re rubbing my face in it, he thought. “Keep your money,” he growled through gritted teeth, “I’ll make my own way!”

“Don’t think so, kid,” said Guntis, lounging by the fireplace. “I think you’ll come crawling back here in a week, begging Raimonds to take you back. I know your kind.”

“You don’t know anything about me or where I’m from. I’ll never walk or crawl back here. Never.”

Guntis smirked and folded his arms across his broad chest. “I’ve pounded people bigger than you into the dirt for much less, kid, but you’ve got guts to say that here. Either you’re real mad, real crazy, or brave. Whatever you are, you’re funny, so instead of beating you up I’ll play a game with you,” he pulled a shiny gold coin out of his pouch and flipped it into the air. His hand darted out and caught it, and he held it out for Andrejs to see. “I’ll bet you a gold lats – you know what gold is, don’t you? – that you’ll be back here in less than a month. I’ll even stake your wager, if you want.” He snickered and wiped his nose with the back of a meaty hand.

Andrejs stared at the gold coin. He’d never seen a lats before – none of the regular folk in Paraskas had that kind of money, or if they did they were really quiet about it. He should walk away, forget this day ever happened, and start over tomorrow. He turned towards the door to leave, but was startled by a chorus of loud giggling. Raimonds was laughing, as was Guntis and a handful of other men. Andrejs hurried towards the door, and Guntis called out to him. “Afraid? Go back home – maybe your father can teach you how to be a real man.”

Andrejs bristled at the mention of his father and glared at Guntis through narrowed eyes. “You take that back.”

“Make me.”

“Alright. I accept your wager. I won’t come back, and I won’t need anyone’s help. Come see me in a month, and then I’ll take that gold from you!” Andrejs held out his hand, which Guntis sauntered over and shook. His grip was like iron.

“It’s a deal. See you in a month. You’d better be living well.”

So, after an hour’s work, I’ve not only provided a clear reason for Andrejs’ anxiety in chapter 2; I’ve also deepened the antagonism between Andrejs and Raimonds and his cronies, and given Andrejs a character flaw (overcompensation for the loss of his father, which forced him to be a surrogate father to his siblings at a relatively young age). This will clarify some aspects of the conflicts in future chapters, as well.

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