Showing vs. Telling: A Case Study
Today I’m going to return to the old writing principle of showing, not telling. I’ve previously expressed skepticism about the necessity of always showing. Telling can and does play an important role, allowing the author to describe events that took place over a long period of time or that are of minimal importance without taking the focus off the central story. However, when you’re writing a scene that takes place all at once and that’s dramatic, visually interesting, or important to the main story, showing is the better option. It lends a vividness and immediacy to the scene that telling would dampen.
I recently made use of this principle in my new novel. Early in the story, the heroes arrive at Moscow during the panic of October 1941. Valya recounts the scene in a letter. Here is the first version of the scene she describes:
I could see Iskra pale and her eyes widen when she saw what had become of her beautiful hometown. We could hardly go a block without passing a cordoned-off factory or apartment building reduced to rubble by the bombings. Other city blocks were intact but eerily abandoned, their inhabitants fled or herded into empty apartments in other buildings to save on heating costs. Bulbous barrage balloons rested in every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales. The main streets are crisscrossed with sandbag barricades and tank stoppers and everywhere is choked with traffic. We were constantly weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city.
There’s no organization, no plan. People are smashing windows and looting shops and the soldiers and police stand by and do nothing. And really, what could they do? Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies. The industrial workers are a hair trigger away from a full-blown riot anyway: They were promised a month’s pay to keep them going during the evacuation and most of them didn’t get it. Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like. They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.
This paragraph is 100% telling: Valya doesn’t mention any specific blocks, streets, or open spaces; those are just general things she saw. As a result, despite the dramatic things that are happening, it’s difficult to care very much about Moscow or its inhabitants. It’s a serviceable way to set the location, but it doesn’t add much to the story.
When I wanted to add some additional details, I seized the opportunity to rewrite this scene and incorporate more showing. Here is the result, omitting the paragraphs of additional detail that I added.
We stood at the corner waiting for a bus, but a passerby pulling a hand cart shook her head and told us, “You’ll be waiting there until you’re as old as me. The buses aren’t running.” So we walked, weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city…
We wound our way through streets that have become a maze of tank traps and checkpoints. Even Iskra’s reliable sense of direction was at a loss here. We had to stop and ask for directions from a sturdy woman in a headscarf who was helping to construct a wall of sandbags. Despite the throng in the streets, the apartments buildings in this part of town were eerily dark and empty, no light shining from windows blown out by air raids. Notices posted on the chained front gates announced “ATTENTION: THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN CONSERVED TO SAVE ENERGY.” We picked our way around the pale, bulbous form of a grounded barrage balloon. They occupy every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales.
Iskra stopped in front of a cordoned-off block of apartments that had been reduced to concrete rubble in a bombing. She turned pale and her eyes widened. She said, “This was where we lived.”
I fumbled for something to say, but all I could come up with was, “At least it was empty. So no one got hurt.”
“Yeah,” she said vaguely. “It’s not as if I had a home here to come back to anyway.”
As we neared the city center, the chaos grew. A mob had formed outside one factory. Workers were hitting the chained steel gates with sledgehammers and trying to scale the walls. The panicky factory director stood a safe distance away inside the gates, unsuccessfully trying to calm the crowd down. A burly man armed with a crowbar demanded, “You promised us a month’s pay to keep us going during the evacuation!”
“The banks don’t have any money,” the director protested weakly, and ducked as someone threw a rock through the gate. Across the street, a couple of militiamen stood by and did nothing. And really, what could they do? Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies. Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like. They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.
There’s still some telling and even some of the same sentences, but we’re moving away from generic situations. They now stand in front of a specific bombed building and see a specific angry mob of workers. Notice that we don’t necessarily need more detailed descriptions of the objects in question (although it never hurts): Just mentioning that it’s an individual thing makes us feel closer and more connected to the action. The only part that remains completely unaltered from the original is the bit at the end about the shopkeepers; I could have expanded on it, but by this point I feel I have enough anecdotes.
There are times when you just want to get from the airport to the university and you don’t care what lies in between. For those times, telling is fine; there’s no need to drag us through a detailed description of something that doesn’t matter. But in situations like this, the journey is just as important — or at least as interesting — as the destination, and showing us what’s going on makes the story come to life.