An unexpected problem with ‘show, don’t tell’

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice‌—‌show what’s going on (both physically and in characters’ minds), don’t tell the reader what’s happening.

It’s good advice. Readers want to experience the story, through the characters actions and emotions, rather than being told the story by a third party. It’s similar to the difference between hearing the plot of a film and watching the film yourself.

But there are times when telling is fine. I wrote about James Patterson’s use of simple descriptions a few months ago (you can read that post here). It’s something of a trope in thrillers, especially with hard, calculating protagonists‌—‌we get short, simple descriptions that mirror the protagonist’s clinical outlook.

I recently read Mark Dawson’s seventh John Milton book, Headhunters. I prefer his Beatrix Rose series, but the Milton stories are always enjoyable‌—‌fast-paced, lots of action, and great escapism. Dawson knows what he’s doing as a writer, and gives his readers what they want and expect.

Headhunters was no exception‌—‌it kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. But there was one moment that tripped me up.

Fairly early in the book, we’re introduced to Matty. We get a brief description, through Milton’s eyes, and it includes a reference to her swearing like a trooper.

Swearing in fiction can be tricky. Some (many?) readers have no issue with swearing, but others will close a book at the first f-bomb. There are many one-star reviews where the reader praised the story, but complains about the language. Some readers will accept graphic violence, even graphic sexual content, before they accept ‘bad language’.

Yet people swear in real life. Even those normally careful with their language might let the occasional ‘bad word’ slip in times of stress. And characters in books, especially thrillers, are under stress. They fight for their lives, against powerful enemies. They race against time. In situations like this, to believe that nobody would swear seems incredibly unrealistic.

Dawson doesn’t shy away from using swearing in his books, but it’s rarely in the mouths of his ‘good’ characters. Some of the supporting characters use swearing as a colour, and there are occasional harsh words from the baddies. He doesn’t use cursing all over the place, though‌—‌like all words, especially strong ones, he uses them for effect, when they are most appropriate.

After reading the description of the female character, I anticipated some choice language from her. She’s in scenes where she’s joking with ‘the boys’ (tough sheep farmers in Australia, where I imagine swearing would usually be as common as punctuation.) She’s also, as the story progresses, in great danger.

Yet throughout the whole book, she only swore once. She fought for her life, and she got into arguments, both playful and deadly serious. We’d been told she swore a great deal. And yet, she only uttered one solitary curse-word over the whole book.

I’ll admit, this bothered me more than it should have done. It was the mismatch between expectations and reality that bugged me. As a reader, I’d been told one thing but shown something contradictory.

I’m sure the majority of readers would gloss over this, most likely not even notice. And I’ll repeat that I enjoyed the book. I have a great deal of respect for Dawson and his work.

It got me thinking‌—‌what would I have done to avoid this apparent contradiction?

I came up with a few solutions.

She could have used swear-words throughout her dialogue. But I can understand how this would have the potential to alienate the book’s target audience, including long-time readers of the series. When swearing has only been used on occasions, changing things up can cause problems. It’s not a smart commercial move.

Another possibility‌—‌the line about swearing could have been removed from the original description. However, it gives us an insight into her character‌—‌she’s grown up in a ‘man’s world’, and she faces her male colleagues on equal terms, does what she can to be their equal. She has found her place in an ‘un-feminine’ culture. Those few words tell us a great deal more than simply how she speaks.

I needed a third possible solution. And, after some thought, I think I have one, with the addition of a few words to that original description.

If the line had read something like ‘When the mood took her, she could swear like a trooper’, we have a get-out. Yes, she can turn the air blue, most likely be so crude that she makes the men blush. But only when she chooses. This line implies that she can control her language, so we’re not unsurprised when she doesn’t swear too often. And when she does curse, in a moment of high stress (when such language can heighten the tension), we can’t complain that we haven’t been forewarned. As far as promises to the readers go, being told that she can swear a lot becomes a warning rather than an expectation.

As I said before, it’s only a small thing. I still enjoyed Headhunters, and would recommend Dawson’s books to anyone who liked thrillers. But I’m still (constantly) learning. I’m constantly on the look-out for lessons that can improve my own writing. And Headhunters has taught me that I need to be careful not to tell the reader one thing only to have the characters show something contradictory.

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