I’m a “tell” kinda gal. I’m better at narrative than dialogue, and after all the experience and practice on “show, don’t tell” writing techniques, my beta (unpaid editor) stills calls me out on my on blunt statements where I should have immersed myself in description. It’s not that I can’t do it or do it well, it’s just that being straight and to the point worked well for me in business and academic writing, and I got used to it. Well, in fiction writing, we must get over that bluntness!
So what does this mean?
Suzan Lauder’s Learning from my Mistakes Lesson #9: Show, don’t tell: Describe the feelings and senses to show your readers what is happening rather than stating them in plain language.
The writer wants to make the reader feel like they’re in the moment, and descriptive phrasing is more engaging. This style issue ties in well to Deep Point of View, which will be discussed in a later post.
I find there are three places which benefit from this rule: in comments about observing senses and feelings, in dialogue instead of boring old dialogue tags, and in scene-setting.
Example 1: Observations about senses and feelings (good for Deep POV).
She smelled it before she saw how embarrassed he was. It must have been him.
Show, don’t tell:
The air became heavy with a distinctive odour. Someone had passed wind, and she’d bet it was the fellow whose face was now crimson to the tips of his ears. His lack of eye contact confirmed it.
Example 2: Basic dialogue with a boring old dialogue tag.
“Oh, I wondered about that,” he said angrily.
Show, don’t tell:
He clenched his fists at his side much the same as he set his jaw. His full lips were turned down in a decided scowl. “Oh, I wondered about that.”
Example 3: Dialogue where you think you’ve been pretty descriptive already is a combination of the two above examples.
She was distraught about the situation. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Show, don’t tell:
Her eyes filled with unshed tears and she swallowed deeply to prevent a sob, moving away before anyone could see her reaction. How could this be happening? “Why would you do such a thing?” Her quiet voice broke at the end.
Although there’s nothing wrong with the original, can you see how much better the revised version is from a reader’s viewpoint? How could you further improve on the paragraph?
Example 4: Scene setting.
The boy seated himself on the grass in the dog park to eat soup from a Styrofoam cup on this sunny afternoon.
He spent little time considering the place where he dropped himself down on the lawns of the dog park, just a short perusal of the ground to make sure there was no shit there. No assessing how close to sit by the path, whether to go nearer to the trees or farther from the street, or considering watching the other kids in the skate park as he ate, even if it was noisy over there. He just plopped down, crossed his legs, peeled back the lid to the fragrant soup, and sipped its hot goodness.
As he adjusted himself in his seat, the parched grass crunched and crackled below him and scratched him through the hole in his jeans. He squinted into the sun.
Notice how the senses are used in the latter example, and more deeply than “he smelled” or “he heard.” Describing these features is “show, don’t tell,” and it’s one of the most powerful tools a writer can use.
As an author, this may not be your problem. Some writers use helpful descriptions with ease, but it’s a theme some of us are constantly working on improving, and it’s another way you can learn from my writing mistakes.
Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!