Show Me Don’t Tell Me*

Depicting MurdersOne of the questions I’m facing as I work on my new manuscript is whether or not to depict the murder featured in the story. On the one hand, including the murder, especially at the beginning of a story, can be a powerful way to draw the reader in. It really can be a solid ‘hook.’ Showing the murder can also give a novel a solid core around which a plot can be built, and it doesn’t require a gory description.

On the other hand, depicting the murder can be tricky. It requires thought to do it without identifying the murderer. For the whodunit author, for instance, that requires finesse. And even authors who write different kinds of crime fiction (i.e. not whodunits) need to handle the depiction carefully. Otherwise, the writer runs the risk of being melodramatic.

There are really arguments on both sides of this question. And of course, there are plenty of crime novels that are examples of each approach. And as I think you’ll see, it can work either way.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community picnic where her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is scheduled to make a speech. He’s an up-and-coming politician who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party, so this is an important speech for him. He’s just gotten started when he suddenly collapses on stage and quickly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bowen doesn’t provide all of the details of his death, but the murder is depicted. As a way of coping with her grief at the loss of her friend, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she learns more about him, she also learns that his life was more complicated than she’d thought. And the closer she gets to an understanding of that life, the closer she gets to the truth about the murder.

In one of the main plot threads of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, Aberdeen-based oil worker Allan Mitchison is having some drinks with some companions. Mitchison’s drinking buddies take him back to their place, where they murder him. This killing is portrayed clearly. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a motive for the murder. Mitchison didn’t have obvious enemies, and he wasn’t important enough, if I can put it that way, to make a difference. As Inspector John Rebus discovers, though, he’d found out some secrets that it wasn’t safe for him to know.

Martin Edward’s The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. He’s on the job one afternoon when he is murdered with his own scythe. This murder isn’t depicted in all of its detail. But readers are witnesses to what happens. At the time of the murder, everyone thinks Howe’s wife Tina is guilty, and she has plenty of motive. Howe is an abusive, unfaithful husband, and those are his good qualities. But the police can’t find enough evidence to pursue the case. Ten years later, anonymous tips suggest that Tina really was guilty. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. When she and her team do so, they find that this case is more complicated, and has deeper roots, than it seems. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on a mystery of his own. He’s recently taken a cottage with an unusual garden, laid out in a cryptic shape. It turns out that the mystery of the garden is connected to the mystery of who killed Warren Howe, and why.

In all of these novels, the authors show the murders, but they do so in ways that don’t reveal the killers’ identities. What’s more, none of the authors revels in a gore-fest. So the murders aren’t depicted for ‘shock value.’

Still, there are plenty of authors who choose not to depict the murders at the core of their novels. And many readers prefer this style of mystery, as they don’t care much for a lot of violence. For those authors and readers, the ‘hook’ may be the discovery of a body. Or it may be something else.

For instance, in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri Paiboun and his team face a strange case. Comrade Nitnoy, the wife of Senior Comrade Kham, suddenly collapsed and died during an important luncheon. This is 1970s Laos, where the Party is firmly in control, and where everyone knows better than to go against the wishes of a highly-placed Party member. In fact, Party instructions are the reason for which Dr. Siri has become Laos’ medical examiner in the first place. So when he is told that Comrade Nitnoy died of accidental poisoning by parasites in some raw food, he is expected to go along with that explanation, submit a cursory report and be done with the matter. But a few pieces of evidence suggest that something else caused the victim’s death. Now, Dr. Siri has to decide whether and how much to go against his superiors’ wishes to find out what actually happened. In this case, readers don’t see the murder committed. Rather, we learn about the death when Comrade Nitnoy’s body is wheeled into the mortuary. Readers find out more of the details as Dr. Siri talks to people who were at the luncheon, and as he does his own tests to find out how Comrade Nitnoy died.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In that novel, she’s recently opened for business, and is eager to build a clientele. So when she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, she’s hoping she’ll be able to help this new client. As Arvisais tells the story, she had been planning to marry Gordon Hanes. Their engagement ended, though, and Arvisais claimed she’d moved on. Hanes was shot on the day that was supposed to have been their wedding day, and plenty of people blame his ex-fiancée.  Arvisais is spoiled, rude, and malicious. But she claims to be innocent, and a fee is a fee, so Jackson takes the case. As she starts to look into the matter, she finds that more than one person could have had a good motive for murder. The murder of Gordon Hanes isn’t depicted. Rather, Jackson learns what happened as she asks questions and does research.

There are many authors who choose to have a character discover a body, rather than show the murder. That’s what happens in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. Cambridge academic Cassandra James goes to the home of Margaret Joplin, who heads the English Literature Department at James’ college. She’s stopped by the house to collect some exam paper. Instead, she finds her boss’ body in the pool, and the papers scattered everywhere. At first, the death looks like a terrible accident. But soon enough, little clues suggest otherwise. As James looks into the death, she finds that the victim had a more complicated life than it seemed.

What do you think? Do you have a preference when it comes to the way authors present murders in the crime fiction you read? If you’re a writer, do you depict the murder, or allude to it? Why?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Show Don’t Tell.


Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards

39 responses to “Show Me Don’t Tell Me*

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve enjoyed some books where the reader knows (or thinks they know) whidunnit all along, and this has surprised me because I usually like trying to work out who the killer is. I guess I like a bit of variety 🙂

    • That makes sense, Tracey. I think we all like a bit of change once in a while. And there are plenty of richly enjoyable books where the murder is shown clearly, and some where we know who the killer is. I’m with you, though: it’s also engaging when the reader is invited to try to work out whodunit.

  2. Tim

    And isn’t the root of the issue a decision about narrator? With all the variables available, your have so many choices about depiction. I tend to prefer the “depiction” related after the fact within the solution, which seems to have been Christie’s choice so often in the Poirot stories and novels.

    • You’re absolutely right, Tim. The decision of when and how to introduce a murder into a story depends critically on the narrator. And that leaves open myriad possibilities, as you say. Christie certainly did that quite well with her Poirot mysteries.

  3. Of course there are those instances where the author seems to like a little too much description of the murder… or else very unusual murder methods. I think death is death and is upsetting, no matter how many times you encounter it, so no need to dress it up quite so much for jaded readers. But I have to admit I do have a weakness for those apparently ‘open and shut’ cases where the reader is a witness to the scene of death – but then things turn out somewhat differently.

    • I can understand why you do, Marina Sofia. Those sorts of cases invite the reader to exercise the brain. And they draw the reader in, as things turn out to be not the way they seem. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance, that makes the reader want to make sense of it all.

      You make a well-taken point about descriptions of murders, too. As you say, death is death. There are tools the author can use to invite the reader to get involved without choosing overly weird murder methods or extended description. We can use our own imaginations…

  4. Intriguing, Margot. I often wonder about this. M C Beaton, at a Q & A session I attended a few years back, also discussed the use of multiple murders to create hooks when you couldn’t think what to write next. She dismissed it as lazy and as always it’s not what you do it’s how you’d do. This post echoes those thoughts. Besides, people like a good serial killer. I had a similar problem in writing some of the chapters in the latest Blake as *spoiler alert* someone close to him dies. Blake’s not the sort of man to wallow but he would feel grief. Trying to strike that balance with being ‘melodramatic’ as you so accurately stated, is very difficult. You want to describe the emotions and put the reader there with the character but you don’t want to depress them or in the case of murders (cosies), make the afraid to close their eyes at night, or do you? Is that not the role of the author? That does seem to be the preferred novel these days, the gory psychological thriller. Not my cup of tea but very popular currently.

    • Thanks, D.S. I find it a really interesting question. And you’ve raised some fascinating questions, too. How do you keep the interest in a story without resorting to adding in an extra murder (and description) just to keep the pace going? And how do you decide when and how to reveal that murder (or those murders)? I think M.C. Beaton makes a good point (and lucky you to have met her!): just putting in more murders does come off as lazy. On the other hand, sometimes killers do kill more than once. And as you point out, that sort of book is popular.

      In my opinion, the key is to really work out what serves the story best. If it serves the story, and falls out naturally from the plot, depicting the murder makes sense. If it’s done to cover a plothole, then it doesn’t. This, to me, is where writers really have to consider what their stories are really about, if I can put it that way.

      You also make a good point about depicting grief. That’s another tricky issue. How do you show a grieving character without being molodramatic? I usually go for understatement, but does that really do justice? Not everyone thinks it does. Oh, and about Blake? Folks, if you haven’t tried D.S.’ Blake Heatherington mysteries, you’re missing out. They’re well-plotted stories, featuring interesting characters and solid mysteries.

      • Thanks Margot, although they do involve multiple murders 😉 You have made some really interesting points here, something I shall mull over for a while. The first draft is about getting the thing down after all and the second can introduce nuances and cut out the unnecessary. We’d see how Blake fairs in the final cut. As for your latest, I can’t wait to read it 🙂

        • PS Reading back I perhaps wasn’t clear. Beaton wasn’t against the odd multiple murder in novels just that it’s important that is serves the plot or it can be seen as lazy, which I think is what you were saying too 🙂

        • Thanks, D.S. That’s what I got from your other comment. I think we are really saying the same thing. 🙂

        • That’s awfully kind, D.S – Thank you! As you say, the first draft is the guts of the story. Other drafts are for really telling the story. Looking forward to the final outcome!

  5. What a good question, I admire an author who depicts the murder for the reader but I wouldn’t like all the crime fiction I read to be like that, if that makes sense. I have to admit I like good misdirection though; if I think I know what’s happened and then it’s revealed to be something else it’s very impressive.

    • Thanks, Cleo. I agree completely that an author who’s good at misdirection is talented, indeed. And it’s even better when you don’t even suspect you’re being misdirected until the author’s ready to let you see it. You make a well-taken point, too, that it’s good to have some variety in crime fiction, so that not all stories are the same. And a good murder story can be effective, whether the murder is depicted or it isn’t. It’s the plot, characters and writing that matter.

  6. I don’t really have a preference in books, so long as the murder isn’t described too gruesomely, especially gratuitously. But your comment about it being quite hard for writers to show a murder while hiding the identity of the murderer reminded me of the TV show Taggart, where many times all that could be seen of the murderer was a gloved hand wielding the knife, gun or other murder implement. When they did a documentary on the show, it was revealed that the gloved hand never belonged to the actor playing the murder – the members of the production staff used to take it in turns to be the hand!

    • Really? I didn’t know that, FictionFan! How interesting! And that’s basically what authors do, too, when they depict a murder. There has to be something to keep the reader wanting more, or at least, being engaged. If we see the murder, then something else has to keep interest, such as the murderer’s identity. Or a cat/mouse plot, etc. As you say, it can work in several different ways, so long as it isn’t a gore-fest.

  7. Great analysis, Margot, on the Show Don’t Tell principle as it applies to crime fiction, and the delicate balance required to get it right. An oversimplification, but it would seem that in the Golden Age mystery there’s more telling, and in the classic tough American mystery more showing.
    And for some reason I think of the TV series Columbo, which is almost all showing – the planning, execution & solving of the crime – but done very well.
    In my own writings the murder[s] usually occur offstage (telling) while the sleuth pieces together all the details to solve the case (telling and, mostly, showing).

    • Thanks, Bryan. And I’m very glad you brought up Columbo. As you say, when it comes to the murders portrayed in that show, there’s a lot more showing than telling. We see that in Columbo’s interactions with the killer, too. Facial expressions and other non-verbals give the audience very clear messages without a lot of verbiage. In fact, Columbo’s words are frequently a distraction to the criminal (as they’re meant to be).

      You make an interesting point about GA mysteries and tough American mysteries, too. There are definitely differences in the way the murders themselves are woven in, and I can see your argument. That’s one reason it makes sense to me that your Kay Francis mysteries would include more off-stage murders; it’s consistent with the era and the tone you set. I appreciate your insights on this.

  8. kathyd

    Maybe it’s my Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason training, and then Guido Brunetti reading, but I like murders off the page, and not seeing gore and blood. A good book can turn me off with a bloody murder scene or seeing a killing take place. I do not need this.
    Suspect by L.R. Wright starts off with a murder which we don’t see. But the suspect is clear, just not the why. I was fine with that method of writing.
    But a body can be found early on, then the detective finds out who it is and why it was done. Brunetti finds out who done it and the murders aren’t seen. I’m reading an Ann Cleeves now, a first, and two dead bodies are found. Now it’s up to Vera Stanhope and her team to first find out who were the victims, then why and who did it.
    I like the investigations and character development, not gore and not sadism.

    • You offer some really effective examples, Kathy, of novels and series that keep the reader engaged without depicting the murder – or at least, not in detail. As you say, it’s perfectly possible to convey the urgency of a fictional investigation without all of the gory detail. And in fact, too much detail really can pull the reader right out of a story.

  9. I like the idea of a character discovering the body and perhaps that they KNOW there has been a murder (as opposed to finding a clean dead person, if you know what I mean), leaving the reader guessing about the gruesomeness for a while at least. That leaves room for the details to be released bit by bit as the story unfolds and puts us squarely in the character’s shoes on how they deal with it.

    So glad you asked 😉

    • And I’m glad you answered, Lesley 🙂 – I know exactly what you mean about having a character discover a body and know it’s murder, without gruesome description. In my opinion, it’s not necessary to include all of the details of a murder in order to give a story some ‘punch.’ It’s actually much more effective, I think, to leave things to the reader’s imagination. Doing so invites the reader to engage in the story even more, and care about the outcome.

  10. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Don’t miss mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg’s latest post, Show Me Don’t Tell Me!

  11. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Margot! As a writer I’ve murdered people during a scene with others around, and have pre- murdered them before the story opens, and also in-between scenes as the plot progresses. After all, “variety is the spice of life (and death!).” 🙂

    • It is, indeed, Michael. And varying the ways in which you reveal the murder makes sense in terms of credibility, too. In real life, sometimes people are witnesses to a murder; sometimes they find a body. Thanks very much for the kind words.

  12. kathyd

    In Nero Wolfe’s world, sometimes people are killed, such as during a formal dinner or a large party. True. But there’s no gore or bloody descriptions. And the investigations proceed. I think the murders in these books happen so Wolfe and company can do a thorough and fun (to readers) investigation.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, about the Nero Wolfe stories. The murders in those novels are generally not brutal, and not described in gruesome detail. The focus is more on the puzzle of who killed the victim (sometimes how) and why.

  13. It can be a great hook as you mentioned – knowing or thinking you know the murderer at the onset Margot. Just thinking of my recent Anne Holt read, Punishment, Lisa Gardner’s Find Her starts in a similar way – whilst not a murder story – in the beginning the main character speaks too us from a box she is locked in…“These are the things I didn’t know:
    When you first wake up in a dark wooden box, you’ll tell yourself this isn’t happening. You’ll push against the lid, of course. No surprises there. You’ll beat at the sides with your fists, pummel your heels against the bottom…And you’ll scream. You will scream and scream and scream.” chilling reading..

    • Oh, that is chilling, Carol. And in those cases, you’re quite right; it can be a really effective hook to depict the murder, and even to lead the reader to think s/he knows who the killer is. That part of it has to be done carefully, but there’s no doubt it can work well. So can those scenes like the one you shared, where there’s a character in peril.

  14. Interesting question, Margot. I prefer not to describe a murder in my books, and I don’t like to read the gory details in a mystery or thriller. Some things can be left to the imagination (and mine is already vivid enough).

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Pat. It’s often more effective to invite readers to use their imaginations when bringing a murder into a story. Even when the murder is ‘onstage,’ I prefer to read (and write) hints, allusions to it, rather than describe each detail.

  15. I do both. In Marred I showed the crime scene, not the murder. In Wings of Mayhem I showed the murder because the killer is a point of view character. The mystery isn’t a whodunnit. Rather, it’s a cat-and-mouse type of thriller with the underlying mystery being the Why? behind the murders. But in both books, as well as their sequels I’m writing, I do give an honest peek behind the crime scene tape. Because that’s what I like to read. It’s a call we all have to make, and it’s not an easy one. My books probably wouldn’t appeal to the average cozy mystery reader, and that’s okay with me. I made my choice and I’ve stuck to it. So far, I’ve had no complaints. 🙂 But I do tell readers that I’m not sugar-coating crime. Maybe that’s the trade-off. If you show the details or aftermath of murder, the author should warn a potential reader.

    • Now, that’s a really well-taken point, Sue! Each author has to make the choice of what to do about the murder scene. Sometimes that choice is based on what the author prefers. Other times it’s based on other things. Either way, certain things fall out from the author’s decision. As you say so well, if the choice is to depict a murder scene in detail, there are going to be readers who don’t care for that. There’ll be others who like it. In either case, I see the sense in making it clear to potential readers what’s in the story. That way, readers can decide for themselves. And thanks for sharing your own thoughts and insights on this.

  16. kathyd

    Well, I just was initiated into Ann Cleeves’ world of Vera Stanhope in “The Moth Catcher.” I duly noted that the murders take place off the page and except for one very brief scene near the end, there are no brutal scenes, blood and gore. I so appreciated it.
    And the book just pulled me right in and there went my last few days.
    The only slight quibble I have is that the reader isn’t given enough clues — and I was looking for them — to figure out the perpetrator or the reasons for the murders. Vera explains it all at the end.
    But I think the reader has to be able to figure the resolution out somewhat. I know that Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot also pull rabbits out of hats at the end of the story without the reader being privvy to the information the detectives have, but in this book, a few more clues should have been shown to readers. That said, I’ll read more of Cleeves’ books. I just had a 2 1/2-day vacation in England without spending any money, standing in lines or getting on a plane.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed your first experience with Ann Cleeves’ work, Kathy. I agree with you that her books tend not to show all the details of a murder, and that makes the novels all the better, in my opinion. And I do like the sense of atmosphere in her work.

  17. Col

    I quite like knowing who the murderer is. You often get a dual narrative which can work well – both perspectives get presented – the investigator and the guilty.

  18. tracybham

    That is a really interesting question, Margot. In fact I read this post a while ago and had to think about it before answering. I am sure it varies based on situation, but I guess I prefer the murders off the page, like Kathy D. Some readers really like the murder to occur very early in the book, even on the first page. I am not in that camp. I like a buildup. (and you have probably already done a post on that one.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tracy. And you’re not alone about your preference. A lot of people prefer to get to know fictional characters before there’s a murder. And there are plenty of people who’d rather not have every detail of a murder described. I think that less description can even build the tension up, because it lets readers use their imaginations.

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