Writers are always taught to show, not tell. A good example of this is at the beginning of The Night Circus, the wonderful debut novel by Erin Morgenstern.
Early in the book, Prospero the Enchanter is called into his theater manager’s office, because a five-year old girl has been left for him, brought in by a lawyer along with her mother’s suicide note. Other than being told that her eyes are a smaller, wider version of Prospero’s, we know little about the girl. She is left alone with a cup of tea, awaiting the magician. An odd situation to be sure, and one that makes the reader want to learn more.
The scene is set. Prospero sees the girl, reads the letter and realizes she’s the daughter he never knew. A lesser writer may have given us details about each of their reactions—he winced, she shed tears or snarled at him etc. But this author shows us so much more about their relationship with a simple cup of tea.
“The girl looks up at him again. Dark eyes narrow beneath her curls.
The teacup on the desk begins to shake. Ripples disrupt the calm surface as cracks tremble across the glaze, and then it collapses in shards of flowered porcelain. Cold tea pools in the saucer and drips onto the floor, leaving sticky trails along the polished wood.
The magician’s smile vanishes. He glances back at the desk with a frown, and the spilled tea begins seeping back up from the floor. The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air.
The girl stares at the teacup, her eyes wide.”
Character established. Relationship defined. Mission accomplished.