“I didn’t want to see you.”
“They told me.”
“I was afraid that I’d still love you.”
“I hoped that you would.”
“My fear, your wish—both granted.”
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
They—those writer types who stand at podiums and pontificate and those freshman creative writing professors—they have a refrain, a mantra, a phrase that chastises and prompts and exhorts we who sit at their metaphorically robed feet. They say “Show. Don’t tell.”
Ender’s Game is full of showing. Like the above. In 5 short lines of dialogue, Card shows us that Ender is ambivalent of returning to his home planet and, in particular, reuniting with his sister. We sense, too, his sister’s own ambivalence about this little reunion. And of course, we see the bitterness that has bubbled into Ender’s system while he was at Battle School. This particular chapter happens three quarters through the book and is rife with emotional angst. We learn so much backstory so far into the book, but the payoff is huge. Now we know that Ender isn’t becoming cold, that he does have some kind of affection for his evil older brother. We learn what the larger battle is about and we can decide as readers how we feel about Ender’s feels. (I told myself I would never, ever use that phrase, but I live with teenagers.)
Without saying, “Ender is bitter and ambivalent,” Card shows us through his relationship with his sister that he wants to shuck his emotions but he can’t.
Writers, try this:
How many different ways can you show something without telling? Metaphor, dialogue, set pieces, short scenes that show just one small thing. So, instead of “she was fat,” you might write, “the pleats of her slacks did not lay flat, the button placket on her blouse could not close so that her flesh pressed through the tiny, straining pockets of fabric.”
Readers, try this:
As you read, note any emotionally strong scenes or phrases that teach you something about the characters without describing them that way.