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How to Show (Not Tell): A Writing Lesson from John Le Carre

how to show-not tell

Can you show (not tell)?

I’m sure you agree that whether you write fiction or faction, stories are a great way to convey your message.

Even in fact-focused blog posts, a good story can engage and inspire readers.

As all storytellers know, a good story conveys mood, touches emotions, and holds the reader captive. A skillful storyteller sets the scene by showing – not telling. As a writer, you need to reach for one of your most important writing tools: description.

Show (not tell) – how to do it?

You can find the slogan ‘show – not tell’ in every writing book. But how do you do it? How to make a story come to life?

A few days ago, I chose Smiley’s People by John LeCarré as my bed-time book.

It was a mistake.

Just as the story slid from harmless to menacing in the space of a couple of pages, the lights went out.

I fumbled for a torch, but couldn’t find it. The growling wind, the sheets of lightning – everything seemed to spell danger. I couldn’t sleep.

How did Le Carré do it?

How did he weave his story so well that its mood colored my experience? Well, Le Carré knows how to show. His descriptions get under the skin.

People: how to describe what lies beneath the skin

Describing people can be tricky because it’s easy to slip into clichés.

So often we read stuff like this: “She was tall. Her dark hair …”
Jabber, jabber, jabber. Such descriptions don’t show what’s beneath the skin.

In contrast, here are some examples from Smiley’s People:

Barley looked at Clive, who had one of those English faces that seemed to have been embalmed while he was still a boy king, at his hard clever eyes with nothing behind them, at the ash beneath his skin.

And here’s how Le Carré introduces a new character:

There was a knock at the door and Wintle came in, an eternal student of fifty-seven. He was tall but crooked, with a curly grey head that shot off at an angle, and an air of brilliance almost extinguished… He sat with his knees together and held his sherry glass away from him like a chemical retort he wasn’t sure of.

You can see and feel Wintle, can’t you? One of the interesting things here – apart from the brilliant characterization – is that we get a sense not only of the character, but also of the observer’s experience.

But what about mood? That’s when landscape becomes a major player.

How to use landscape to create mood

Le Carré is a maestro of menace. Here is how he describes the landscape of an interrogation facility:

The gates opened electronically and beyond them lay mounds of clipped grass like mass graves grown over.  Olive downs stretched towards the sunset. A mushroom-shaped cloud would have looked entirely natural.

 

Bleak. As a reader you know right away that there are no happy voices here.

A description gives the reader a moment to reflect, to feel, to intuit. It’s like a pause in the forward momentum of a piece.

 

What you need to know about pace

 

A description slows down the pace. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As the great Sol Stein says in Stein on Writing:

The best of good books have purposeful slowdowns in pace from time to time because the author knows that readers, like athletes, must catch their breath.

But you need to crank the pace up again. Here is how LeCarre changes the pace  in a dialogue between Barley and Ned. In the story, Barley has just heard a strange message on the phone.

‘It isn’t a joke, I’m afraid,’ Ned said. ‘It’s actually very serious.’
Lost once more in his own contemplations, Barley slowly replaced the receiver. ‘The line between actually very serious and actually very funny is actually very thin,’ he remarked.
‘Well, let’s cross it, shall we?’ said Ned.

 

Notice how the long sentence with its hypnotic repetitions slows the pace, and the crisp remark that follows picks it up again.

 

How descriptions solve the talking heads problem

 

If you describe a conversation, you are in danger of the ‘talking heads’ syndrome.  This means that the reader only gets a floating interchange of ideas – without the grounded context of flesh, bones, feelings, and ambience.

This is where a good description can save the day. As you can see in the examples by LeCarré, descriptions can set the scene, convey the inexpressible, and turn the reader into a witness, instead of remaining a mere bystander.

Please share  interesting descriptions (good or bad) in the comments. You may want to add your thoughts on why a particular description works – or why it doesn’t.

Mary Jaksch is Editor-in-Chief at WritetoDone.com and Creator of A-List Blogging. After creating two super-successful blogs of her own, Mary has dedicated herself to teaching students to grow profitable blogs that attract attention. Take her fun quiz to see how much you know about what makes a blog successful.Ultimate Guide to Better Writing! Just enter your name and email in the form at the top of the sidebar for immediate download.

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25 thoughts on “How to Show (Not Tell): A Writing Lesson from John Le Carre

  • Elizabeth Young

    Showing (not telling) is an art which takes a long time to hone. Much skill is required along with patience. Thank you for sharing this timely article, I enjoyed it a great deal.

  • Mac

    Mary, thank you.

    Terrific descriptions, as examples, to sharply illustrate your point.

    You asked for some more examples of description, so here goes:

    “The room temperature was rising.

    The air conditioning wasn’t working effectively. And, although I wasn’t aware of it, neither was I.

    I’d been sitting in a plush modern boardroom about half an hour, alongside one of my consultancy colleagues.

    For nearly fifteen minutes i’d been explaining in great detail to our prospect, two senior executives from a large supermarket chain, how we had previously dealt with issues similar to theirs.

    I was on top form. Waxing lyrical. Laying it all out for them.

    The carefully researched strategy. The innovative plan of action. The creative use of resources. The dangerous pitfalls to avoid. Timelines. Inputs. Processes. Key performance indicators. Everything.

    In my boldness, cleverness and certainty, I had been unaware of my colleague’s hand nudging my leg underneath the boardroom table, until he finally dug me sharply on the thigh.

    Furtively, he secreted a folded piece of yellow legal notepaper into my hand, out of sight of the executives. Whilst my colleague said something to the them I carefully opened it out, trying not to make a rustling sound. Without shifting the angle of my head, I slowly lowered my eyes to see what was written. It said, simply:

    Shut Up!..”

    Rather than try and post the whole thing here, it may be easier to go to the original post and read there. It’s at

    http://clientonomy.com/improve-listening-skills-to-win-more-clients

    Mac

  • doug_eike

    The weaving process you discuss in this article is beautiful when done properly. Achieving the showing as opposed to the telling requires over-the-top editing (hard work) that most writers are unwilling or unable to do. Thanks for the insights!

  • Lena

    This was very interesting. I’m new to writing for the public. I especially like the character examples they gave a so much deeper description of what the people looked like or what kind of presence they had as apposed to just giving their physical appearance…very interesting.

    • Mary Jaksch Post author

      Every detail of the description needs to express what the person is really like. It takes time to work out which details are telling. It’s great that you’re starting to write for the public. that’s great!

  • Beth @ Boomer Highway (twitter)

    Excellent examples. Word choice is so important and then how one slams one word against another, or sometimes strings them like jewels on a chain. Doug is right–editing is key, rewriting, reading aloud and then rewriting again. Though LeCarre is not available to say, I imagine he went through many versions before he was completely satisfied.

    Thanks, Beth@ Boomer Highway

    • Mary Jaksch Post author

      Le Carre recently came out with a new book recently: “Our Kind of Traitor”
      I think it’s his best book so far. That’s what made me reread one of his older books to see if he’d always been so good. He’s was always great but now he’s totally awesome.

  • Gerry Lynne

    The stark classroom was overflowing with men. Chairs extended well beyond the makeshift desks, blocking the only exit through which the men had filed in. Black, brown, white — old timers: red-faced, crinkly-skinned, bloodshot-eyed — youth: black haired, pure smooth skinned, bright, shy-eyed, innocent — all looked to us with expectancy. Some quietly verbalized thanks. It was “church” on thanksgiving in the men’s central jail.

    I was in the men’s jail as a worship leader this past Thanksgiving.

  • Linda

    Wow! I’m new here & this article just makes me want to read more! Usually I can’t wait to get to the end of an article but not this one for some reason. Thank you!

  • Marci | Liberating Choices

    Great descriptions do make for an engaging read. I can always work on this more. I find it hard to get it all in when writing a blog post. I’m either descriptive and creative in my post and with words/stories. Or, I’m getting to the main point/problem/what to do about it. I love being more creative, but have a hard time doing them both at the same time! Thanks for the ideas.

    • Mary Jaksch Post author

      You raise a good point, Marci. I agree that it’s difficult to write in a brainy way – and be playful and creative at the same time. One way to do that is to stop just before you get to the creative part and take a walk. When you get back to your desk, you’re more likely to be playful and creative.

  • Constant Writer

    Thank you for sharing! I have never read Le Carre but I have heard of his books, and thanks to your examples, I think his writing style is right up my alley.
    Part of the problem with showing versus telling is that it’s so easy to get carried away with either of them. You can write pages and pages of description as you get into deeper and deeper detail about something or someone, or you can have your characters carry on a conversation forever as you get lost in what they’re talking about. A good writer knows how to balance both of them, I think. Thanks again!

  • Mary Jaksch Post author

    Ha, ha – you’re on the button, Constant Writer! Yes, it’s easy to lose oneself in descriptions. I think it’s fine to get lost. That’s what editing is all about. We find our way back.

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  • Rebecca LuElla Miller

    Thank you, Mary, for such a good article — you turned the usual piece of writing instruction into a much more useful tool.

    I couldn’t find the example of description I wanted, so I’ll include something from my fantasy. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it works or not:

    Abonah Lu’us laughed his silvery laugh, and Abonah Treya produced the raddim once more. But instead of flinging the netting heavenward, he put the bundle on the ground and gave a slight push. As the mesh unfurled, a dull glow, like the sheen from moonlight off water, floated up and melded around each of the trees it touched, creating a level covering over the forest floor.

    Jim put his hands on his knees and leaned back to stare at the matting in front of him. No tree roots showed through. No rocks, twigs, pine cones, and no steep slope. Just a smooth covering with periodic trees sticking out like candles in a birthday cake.

  • Kevin

    Am I mistaken? In a recent email from you, this sentence had this typo:

    Enjoy more of Mary’s writing at Goodlife ZEN and in our free WDT book, The (nearly) Ultimate Guide to Better Writing!

    WDT instead of WTD……….

    Kevin

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  • Lane Diamond

    Terrific article!

    Sometimes the key is simple specificity:
    The asshole’s staccato bursts of drunken laughter again pulled me back. The very air I breathed stifled me—gas, oil, burnt rubber and a vague metallic tinge, all mingled with the sour contents of the killer’s stomach poured onto the street. I raised my hands, bathed in crimson and wafting copper, before my face.
    A disembodied voice spoke from the void—my voice. “Where did the blood come from?”

    Sometimes it means focusing on an ACTIVE verb rather than a simple adjective. Why say you’re angry when you can say something like this:
    Rage burned a red sheath over my eyes.

    And sometimes you have to reach out and use metaphor or simile to SHOW in more dramatic terms what you might otherwise TELL in rather dull terms:
    Now mortality, as it did seventeen years ago, lingers above me like the hangman’s noose. Yet it looms more ominous than ever, as if it will drop down around my neck at any moment. After all, I know the true Mitchell Norton. And whom shall I fear if not the devil, the grim torturer who conquered my aspirations and left me without a recognizable world of my own?

    Anyway, I hope those few tidbits from my psychological thriller, FORGIVE ME, ALEX, are illustrative.

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