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The Legacy of Androva Series

Showing Versus Telling

“Show the reader what’s happening. Don’t just tell them.”

Sound familiar? If you’re a reader and/or a writer, you’ll probably be well aware of the showing versus telling debate. Showing tends to be considered superior – the argument being that no reader wants the entire story handed to them on a plate.

However, it’s normally the case that showing uses a lot more words. This is not always a good thing. As with most things in life, balance is key. I have a theory that showing, using dialogue, is one of the most helpful ways a writer can move their story forward without resorting to out-and-out telling. They can simply have their characters reveal the backstory, or the current setting, or their emotions, or anything else the reader needs to know.

Here are three examples to show (sorry!) what I mean:

Example 1: From the first book in the amazing Partials series, by Dan Wells

“Do you have a name?”
The Partial eyed her carefully, that slow, studying look that made her feel like he was calculating everything about her. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because I’m tired of calling you ‘Partial.’”
He studied her a moment longer, then smiled, slowly and warily. “Samm.”
“Samm,” said Kira. “I have to admit, I was expecting something more unusual.”
“It has two Ms.”
“Why two Ms?”
“Because that’s what it said on my rucksack,” said Samm. “‘Sam M.’ I didn’t realize the M was for a last name: I was two days old; I’d never met anyone with a last name. I was just . . . Samm. I spelled it that way on a report, and it stuck.”

Over the course of this short conversation, Samm, the part-human cyborg, becomes real – even endearing – as the reader’s opinion of him, like Kira’s, is challenged and begins to change. The reference to his life at two days old is an intriguing piece of backstory and the fact that Kira decides to ask his name in the first place confirms what the reader might already have suspected about her character.

Example Two: From the awesome Noah Can’t Even, by Simon James Green

“Naomi Grimes – get your bony little arse down here – NOW!” Ms O’Malley bellowed.
“My name’s Noah!” he shouted down indignantly. “She knows damn well my name’s Noah!” he hissed at Harry.
“I think it’s clear she’s taking the piss.”

This exchange tells us a lot about the teacher, Ms O’Malley, the two friends, Noah and Harry, and also the way they perceive each other. There is the fact that Ms O’Malley calls Noah by a girl’s name, for example. And Noah doesn’t realize she’s being sarcastic, while Harry does, yet he’s matter-of-fact (not mocking) in how he corrects Noah. I’m also a fan of adverbs after dialogue tags (in this case “indignantly”) as they’re immediate and effective. This one tells the reader Noah is completely oblivious.

Example Three: From the incomparable Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

“He’s not a child!” said Sirius impatiently.
“He’s not an adult either!” said Mrs. Weasley, the color rising in her cheeks. “He’s not James, Sirius!”
“I’m perfectly clear who he is, thanks, Molly,” said Sirius coldly.
“I’m not sure you are!” said Mrs. Weasley. “Sometimes, the way you talk about him, it’s as though you think you’ve got your best friend back!”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Harry.
“What’s wrong, Harry, is that you are not your father, however much you might look like him!” said Mrs. Weasley, her eyes still boring into Sirius. “You are still at school and adults responsible for you should not forget it!”
“Meaning I’m an irresponsible godfather?” demanded Sirius, his voice rising.
“Meaning you have been known to act rashly, Sirius, which is why Dumbledore keeps reminding you to stay at home and —”

This section from The Order of the Phoenix is not particularly exciting or memorable in terms of its place in the story, but it’s great because it demonstrates how J.K. Rowling uses a simple conversation to convey a lot of information in a very efficient way. It reminds the reader of backstory they may have forgotten, and it tells Harry about things he would not otherwise know. It also illustrates the relationship between the adult characters and gives the reader an insight into their particular flaws and strengths.

That’s the last of my three examples. I don’t know if I’ve managed to prove my theory, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. The great thing about reading and writing is that there’s an endless variety of styles and genres available to us. No matter what your preference for showing versus telling, there’s something for everyone. What’s your view? Do you prefer one or the other, or a mixture of both? Thank you for visiting my blog today!

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