In a story called “German Inn-Keepers,” published in The Toronto Daily Star in 1922, Ernest Hemingway gives a traveler’s account of hunting for lodging in the Black Forest. Tired and hungry, he and a friend happen upon an isolated inn in the forest and find the owners at a table eating soup. A few lines of the desperate dialogue that ensued:
“Please can we get two double rooms?” Bill asked.
The proprietor’s wife started to answer and the proprietor glared at her while onion soup dribbled through his mustache.
“You can’t get any rooms here today or tomorrow or any other time, Auslaenders,” he snarled.
“Herr Trinckler in Triberg recommended us to come here for the fishing,” Bill said trying to mollify him.
“Trinckler?” His lower lip reached up and swept a ration of onion soup out of his mustache. “Trinckler, eh? Trinckler is not the man who runs this place.” He went back to the soup.
As a journalist, Hemingway was a master of “show, don’t tell” writing. At no point in the excerpt above does he tell us that the proprietor was a crotchety type, a curmudgeon; angry, stubborn or overbearing. And yet we know it. We get it all from a seemingly simple description of this guy’s relationship with his soup. Hemingway shows us the action, and as a result reveals his scene through such careful detail that we, the readers, feel as though we were right there in the room.
But that soup scene isn’t as simple as it looks. Let’s focus on one point in particular: the action. Hemingway chooses powerful verbs—glare, dribbled, snarled, swept—that say more than a handful of adjectives might convey. That’s an important lesson for all writers.
When writing—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—rather than tell your readers how a character felt or appeared (e.g. “Andrea seemed stunned at the news”), show your readers and let them draw the conclusion on their own (e.g. “Andrea blinked once, slowly, and the tumbler of bourbon wobbled in her hand.”) Writing by “show, don’t tell” will always enhance your storytelling, give your reader a nut to crunch on and keep them reaching for more.