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The Golden Rule of Writing

Why you should Show and not Tell.

While working on one of my recent projects, I decided to go back to the roots of writing with one of the golden rules: show, don’t tell. Some of my favorite character introductions use this rule, and no introduction exemplifies how good this rule can be than the first showing of Leo Bonhart in the Witcher series.

Bonhart is a terrifying force of nature. We know this because his first appearance in the books, the massacre of the Rats in the town of Jealousy, is a bloody scene in which the old mercenary methodically dismantles the rowdy gang in a matter of moments. The power of this moment of introduction is incredibly memorable, and is helped by Andrzej Sapkowski’s adherence to the rule of show, don’t tell, and it isn’t the only time in the Witcher series that a character is introduced in such a way. The titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is introduced as he slays a deadly basilisk in the official first book in the series, Blood of Elves. Yennefer of Vengerberg is also shown off in a similar way, trying to capture an elemental as a source of power.

Bonhart needed no other introduction. The deadly sub-antagonist’s skills, cruelty, style, and twisted sense of humor are all portrayed excellently in one short interaction. Hired to hunt down Ciri’s gang, he defeats several infamous and dangerous criminals all on his own and beheads them in front of the girl, immediately showing the reader that this character meant business. By showing Bonhart off like this with very little prior information on the man, Sapkowski instantly imprints how dangerous and evil he is without the need for large amounts of explanatory text detailing his capabilities beforehand. One scene, and the reader knows everything they need to know about Leo Bonhart.

But imagine for a moment if Sapkowski had decided to tell and not show. Would the impact of Bonhart arriving in Jealousy and slaughtering the Rats be as impactful if there had been an explanation of how capable he was beforehand? Would the horror of the mercenary decapitating Ciri’s friends in front of her have been as shocking if two characters had spoken about how he’d done that sort of thing in the past? By leaving Bonhart’s introduction to one scene and speaking of him very little beforehand, the gravity of massacre is multiplied.

By following the simple rule of showing and not telling, Sapkowski turns what should be a simple introduction of a sub-antagonist into one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. Leo Bonhart arriving in Jealousy in a masterclass in character introductions and one of the golden rules of writing.

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