Novelists often talk about the importance of “showing, not telling” in their writing, which means something like, as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) put it: “Don't tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” But this isn’t just advice for general writing: it’s important when developing characters, too. Within the text itself, “showing not telling” matters, because sometimes we cannot rely on outward appearances to tell what a person is like or how he feels. Romance as a genre is sometimes criticized for “purple prose” and flowery declarations of love, but in fact, one of its great strengths is its focus on the deep significance of action.
For example, in the very beginning of Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day (HQN, 2007), the heroine is pondering how she managed to fall in love with her totally unavailable Episcopal priest and ends up getting stuck an icy rainstorm, miles from home. She takes a bit of a spill as she tries to bicycle home. Here’s what happens:
Feeling very sorry for myself, I hauled my bike up the bank at the exact moment a car went by. 'Help! Stop!' I yelled, but whoever it was didn’t hear me. Or heard me and was afraid, as I resembled an escaped lunatic at that moment. I watched the taillights of the blue Honda disappear in the distance, noting that the sky was suddenly much darker.
Well, I didn’t have a choice. I started walking, gimping along on my cut knee, until a pickup pulled over. Before I could even tell who it was, the driver grabbed my bike and popped it in the bed of the truck. Squinting through the rain, I saw it was Malone, a silent, slightly scary lobsterman who moored next to my brother. He may have spoken―the words 'Get in' ring a bell―and so I gingerly crawled into the cab of his truck.
The blue Honda driver is the Episcopal priest. And Malone is . . . hero material. This is a bit of foreshadowing on Higgins’ part. She shows us each man’s true character as it is revealed in what he does, not in what he says. Newbies to the romance genre will look back on this scene with new understanding as each man’s character develops, while seasoned romance readers will know immediately what the author is doing. But both will derive a lot of pleasure from traveling with the heroine on her journey of learning to see what the author is showing the reader.
The idea that a good, loving man is hiding underneath the surface of a slightly scary one is very common in certain subgenres of romance: romantic suspense and paranormal romance come to mind. Think of how Roarke is presented in the first couple of books in J.D. Robb’s In Death series—a sketchy, arrogant, rule-breaking millionaire who may be a murderer. But look at what Roarke does; there are so many examples of his attunement with Eve. For example, when he makes her real coffee, the significance of it isn't just in the fact that it’s an expensive gift in the futuristic world Robb has created, but that he's noticed Eve loves coffee and so rarely does anything for herself.
Then there are all those vampires, shifters, and other creatures of the paranormal night. Both the heroine and the reader may have been told awful things about those guys. But when it comes to behavior towards the heroine, the hero is pure gold. The question is at what point they each recognize it.
Sometimes writers use behavior to reveal the feelings of the hero for the heroine, feelings neither of them is willing or able to admit. Jane Austen, considered by many to be the foremother of the romance genre, does this kind of signaling in Persuasion. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth had been in love eight years prior to the action of the story, but Anne was persuaded by her family that it was not a good match. They meet again, with Anne still in love, but Wentworth —now a successful naval officer—apparently having forgotten her. Worse, he is actively courting other ladies in Anne’s circle!
But appearances are not what they seem, and Austen writes two scenes that make this clear, if not to Anne, then to the reader. In an early scene, Anne is having a heck of a time trying to keep her two-year-old nephew, Walter, from climbing all over her as she attempts to nurse his injured older sibling: “She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain.” There are two men in the room, Walter’s uncle Charles and Captain Wentworth. Charles offers an ineffectual remonstrance, but here is what Wentworth does:
In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released . . . [Walter’s] sturdy little hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew Captain Wentworth had done it.
Later, on a group walk, Anne fatigues. Luckily, someone shows up with a carriage, but there is room for only one extra passenger. Anne demurs, but Captain Wentworth, having noticed her fatigue, ensures that she is the one who gets the last carriage seat: “Captain Wentworth, without saying a word turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage.” It is events like these that show the reader, and, to some extent, Anne, that Captain Wentworth is still in love with her, despite what he might explicitly say (in this case, the cutting remark that Anne was “so altered he should not have known her again," implying he finds her unattractive to the extreme).
My examples so far have focused on early scenes in stories. But sometimes the most important moment of showing versus telling is at the end. In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Match Me If You Can, the hero, Heath, is an ambitious sports agent, kind of like Jerry Maguire. He is never without at least one cell phone, and seems to be “on” 24/7. The heroine, Annabelle, finally despairs of getting Heath to put his personal relationships first, and runs off to a secluded cottage for some alone time. Heath tracks her down, and in an emotional scene, he pours his heart out, telling her exactly how he feels about her. But Annabelle isn’t convinced by words. Deeply sad, but resolute, she walks away.
Later, Annabelle returns to Heath, who is still outside, soaked and shivering in the cold and rain (of course!) and asks him (1) where his cell phone is, and (2) why he hasn’t returned phone calls from a talented young QB he has been desperate to sign. His answers are (1) he doesn’t know, and (2) the QB can wait. Phillips writes, “Her legs gave out from under her, and she sank down on the nearest rock. ‘Oh, my God. You really do love me.'”
Romance writers have the gift of understanding the significance of behavior to characters who may not even know what motivates them, or who need signs when words are not enough. And readers return to romance again and again for the thrill of the realization by those characters, and sometimes by us, of what seemingly trivial actions really mean.
Jessica Tripler, who lives in Maine with her family, runs the book blog Read React Review.