Showing and telling is an enormous subject that covers a lot of different issues. Boiled down to its essence, telling is about giving the readers answers to questions they haven’t yet asked, whereas showing asks the reader to work out the details themselves. This submission touches on a few of the more common “telling” issues.
Title: GIDEON’S CREED
Genre: thriller with horror elements
Language: British English
Synopsis: “Amnesia is the gift of never needing to forgive.” Gideon is the senior investigating officer, found standing over the corpse of the main suspect in the strange case of missing Five-year-old Ruby Rose. He fights to save her life and his sanity from Hell.
Detective Constable Jason James picked up the paperwork on missing five-year-old Ruby Rose Edwards and placed it in his briefcase. She had been missing four months and the case had become messy, like his bosses uncharacteristic behaviour. He shoved his briefcase under his arm and grabbed the travel mug full of sweet black coffee from the kitchen countertop.
Setting the alarm on his apartment he headed out of the front door of his plush apartment in Media City Manchester. The door banged shut, echoing along the corridor. He glanced out of the bright glass façade. The waterfront of the Salford quays below looked uninviting, cold. It was the end of April but still felt like February. It was late spring only someone forgot to tell the weather.
Gideon was sat on the floor next to the lift. With the grey hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight around his head. He moaned and hung his head in his hands.
“Heck Gideon. You okay?”
Gideon tilted his head peeking through split fingers, “I will be when the pain-killers kick in. Is that my coffee?”
Jason handed him the mug, “You look like a tramp from down the arches. I take it you’ve played out all night?”
Gideon shrugged, he hadn’t touched a drop, but no point in saying so. He sipped the coffee. His head was heavy and his back raged with heat.
Jason nodded towards the lift, “I have wipes in my car. You need to clean yourself up.”
Gideon grinned, “You taking me in officer?”
“Yes, but only because I have to, Boss.” Jason kicked at Gideon’s leather biker jacket heaped on the floor. “I take it this is yours? Phew! It stinks. You stink. Have you pissed yourself? And what’s that?” Jason pointed to Gideon’s chest.
Detective Sergeant Gideon Snow gave Jason the two-finger salute. Then glanced the down. “Oh!” A large dark yellow stain covered the front of his jumper with a brown worm-like thing dangling. On closer inspection, Gideon realised it was a fried egg noodle. He vaguely remembered being in the back alley behind the Chinese takeaway on Waterman street. He got to his feet, grabbed the bottom of his hoodie and whipped it off.
“Whoa! Gideon. There’s blood on the back of your tee shirt. What have you been up to?”
“What?” Gideon looked over his right shoulder. “I’m bleeding.”
Jason downed his briefcase and pulled Gideon’s tee shirt up. “It’s stopped bleeding, but…”
“What?” Gideon pulled off the tee shirt, turning his back to look in the glass panel on the lift. “Jesus! A fucking tatt. What the hell?” It was sore to touch. “When did this happen? Who did this? Jason?” Gideon’s face reddened.
Jason threw his hands in the air, “How the heck would I know? Come on you must remember getting a tattoo done. I mean it must have hurt. Ha! Ha! Gideon you mad head.”
“This isn’t funny…Shit!” her claws. “What is it? What did she do to me?” Gideon asked.
“She? Who is, she?
Gideon shook his head, he couldn’t tell Jason, he couldn’t tell anyone. “Dunno. Can’t remember.”
“Oh you can’t, or you won’t?” Jason tutted, “For Goodness sake, let me see. Stand still. It says amnesia is the gilt… no. I got it. Amnesia is the gift of never needing to forgive. Oh, Mate. Love the humour. It looks like someone gouged it out with a six-inch nail. You are an idiot. And, if she, was a freebie from under the arches you might consider an HIV test?”
“You’re a twat,” He put his tee shirt back on.
“Hey! All I’ve done is give you coffee and made light of the situation. The only swear word here is a scatter-brained potty-mouth. You have really surpassed yourself. You need to go see a doctor you are losing the plot. ”
Gideon squared up to him. Say anything to anyone and I’ll have your nuts, you got me?”
Gideon towered a good eight inches above Jason’s five foot eleven. Jason nodded. He picked up his briefcase and pressed the lift button. The doors opened. They stepped inside.
The glass lift traversed down the outside of the apartment block with its silent occupants.
On reaching the reception floor Gideon pressed the close button. Keeping the doors closed.“I’m sorry for acting like a tosser.”
“Really I am. And you will be pleased to know I’m already booked in with a quack, and I’ve had a mindful session.”
“You have had a what?”
“A meditation class, you know, a chill-you-out thingy.”
Jason hid his snigger looking down at his briefcase.
“Ha! Ha! Okay, shut your face. Yeah, it was funny. I was chucked out for laughing. Somebody farted I swear. Apparently, I’m not suitable for group sessions. Hey, but the teacher was hot. So, we are keeping all this shit between mates?”
Jason grinned. “Yes, but the demons you were raving about last night. You were taking the piss, right?”
“What? I told you about the demons?”
“Yes. Right before you stormed off. You did have me worried, but it looks like you had a fine time.”
Gideon winked. “I was only ragging you. Sorry.” Gideon put his arm around Jason’s shoulder and squeezed.
Jason nudged him away. “Okay! Too much mush Boss. You really are losing it.”
Editorial comment: There’s too much telling and not enough showing for me in this piece, from the very first paragraph. You might think it not a fair comment, and you’d be right, because different agents and publishers, out there in the real world of publishing, will have differing opinions and not all of them will agree with me. What am I grousing about, in particular?
I have a problem with books that start with the protagonist’s name, especially in full, like here. For me, spelling out a character’s name is the equivalent of any other piece of exposition. It’s giving us information that’s not strictly necessary for us to enjoy the story, and it’s giving us this information in a very bland “the name of the main character in this book is …” fashion. Not necessary? What do you mean? Of course you need to know the character’s name. How else do you know who the story is about? Well, it doesn’t really matter what the character’s name is, does it? But we need the name for the reader to identify with the main character. Not really. What information does that name “Detective Constable Jason James” actually give us? It gives us vague clues as to his racial and class background, and possibly age, but those clues could equally well be very misleading. It doesn’t really tell us anything about him at all, apart from that it’s the name that you’re going to refer to him by for the rest of the book. But there are lots of other ways to impart this information organically. Have someone address him. Have him answer the phone.
Is this a terrible insurmountable problem? No, not really—just a bugbear of mine. You don’t need the name. If you choose to use it, that’s up to you. Kafka wrote The Castle without ever naming the protagonist with more than an initial, but then that wasn’t genre fiction.
But in case you think I’m obsessing over a tiny detail, the reason I think “too much telling” is a reasonable criticism of this piece is that it continues with the rest of the sentence. “the paperwork on missing five-year-old Ruby Rose Edwards” tells us exactly what the problem facing Jason is. We’re not given an opportunity to find out. We’re just told, blankly and blandly. You really might as well alter this first sentence slightly to read “The name of the main character in this book is Jason James, he’s a Detective Constable, and he’s researching the case of a missing five-year old called Ruby Rose Edwards”. I’ve not really changed much, but do you get how bland and matter-of-fact this introduction to your story is? It’s very factual and really gets across the main theme of the book, but it’s not exactly immersive, or engaging.
Will we discover through plot and dialogue what is happening in the case? No, we won’t, because you then proceed to tell us exactly what the status of the case is: “She had been missing four months and the case had become messy”. Again, this is pure telling. We’re not given an opportunity to find this out for ourselves, so you are very clearly a distinct and omniscient narrator, telling us a story. But surely a thriller needs our involvement? We need to be thrilled. We’re not going to be thrilled if you just tell us everything that’s going on—we’re just informed.
You carry on with “like his bosses uncharacteristic behaviour”. There’s a technical problem here in that it should be boss’s or bosses’ uncharacteristic behaviour, depending on whether Jason has more than one boss, but leaving that aside, this is an interesting tidbit that intrigues. What uncharacteristic behaviour? Do you see why it’s interesting? It’s interesting because you haven’t answered the question before we’ve even asked it. When you tell us your main character’s name is Jason James and his rank is Detective Constable, you’re telling us information before we’ve asked for it. Similarly for the type of case he’s looking at, and the name and age of the victim. The first point at which my curiousity is piqued in this opening is when Jason mentions his boss’s uncharacteristic behaviour. What behaviour, I immediately want to know? And why is it warranted? This is great. Instead of answering questions I haven’t yet asked (“who’s the book about?”), you’re raising questions that I want to find out the answer to. This is the key to immersive writing, especially in genres like thriller.
And all this is just your first paragraph of 58 words. I could go on, but I’d be largely reiterating similar advice. We are told his apartment is plush, rather than making our own minds up. We are told where he lives, what time of year it is. However, when the dialogue starts the story begins to run much more smoothly and intuitively.
There’s one other problem that kicks in during the conversation between Gideon and Jason, however: that of head-hopping. It’s generally held to be bad writing to jump from one point of view to another within a scene and certainly within a paragraph or sentence. We are in Jason’s PoV the whole opening until this line “Gideon shrugged, he hadn’t touched a drop, but no point in saying so”. That’s obviously in Gideon’s PoV, since we are hearing Gideon’s unexpressed inner thoughts. The trouble with this is that it wrenches us out of the Jason character, and we are suddenly Gideon, thinking about what he’s going to tell Jason (or not), and then for the rest of the scene we’re back to Jason again. This kind of disruption to the narrative PoV is unsettling for the reader. You might not even notice it, or be able to articulate the problem, if you’re a reader, but you will find prose with this kind of issue less immersive and engaging, even though you might not know why.
This needs a bit of work before it’s ready to submit to agents or publishers. I would do some research on “showing and telling”, about which there are a number of posts on my own blog and numerous other sources on the internet (of varying degrees of usefulness). Key to understanding the concept is not giving us answers to which we readers haven’t yet asked the question. What do you want to be doing is provoking questions in the reader, because if they’re asking questions about your characters, they’re engaged with it and interested and will read on to find out more. So rather than tell us who your main protagonist is, let us piece together who he is ourselves from the tidbits of information you dole out within the course of the story.
Thanks for posting!