Show Don’t Tell By Cherie Claire
It’s so easy (and a writer’s first inclination) to tell readers what’s happening in the story, to lay out the action and the character’s thoughts in simple terms. But the best stories written don’t tell the reader what’s happening, they show them.
For instance, when Frodo faces the horrid land of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, he must travel across a harsh landscape, one full of danger. Author J.R.R. Tolkien could have simply said as much but instead he wrote:
“The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light. Frodo was horrified by the landscape – every rock formation reminded him of gravestones and there were foul smells and eerie sights at every turn.”
The reader’s now standing in that disgusting terrain (the vomit imagery alone will do it!), feeling the terror that’s taken over Frodo’s heart as he contemplates his next move.
Jerry Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series, uses the following examples to explain how showing is more a more powerful way of writing.
Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun
reflecting off the street.
Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.
See the difference?
Put your reader in the action. Instead of saying your character is tall, how about something like this description from Nora Roberts’ Face the Fire: “He had a long stride, and it ate up the sidewalk quickly.”
Instead of explaining the inside of a prison, how about letting us feel it, such as in Sara Gran’s Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead: “The waiting room off Orleans Parish Prison, famously known as OPP, smelled like fear and disinfectant.”
Instead of mentioning that the town is another New England village, Stephen King describes Chester’s Mill in Under the Dome this way: “From two thousand feet, where Claudette Sanders was taking a flying lesson, the town of Chester’s Mill gleamed in the morning light like something freshly made and just set down. Cars trundled along Main Street, flashing up winks of sun. The steeple of the Congo Church looked sharp enough to pierce the unblemished sky. The sun raced along the surface of Prestile Stream as the Seneca V overflew it, both plane and water cutting the town on the same diagonal course.”
Need some help?
Think of what you want to say in your story using the five senses. Close your eyes and think of the scene. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you smelling, tasting, feeling?
Then rewrite your sentences using those senses.
When I teach my creative writing classes, I ask my students to pick a holiday. Any holiday. Usually, holidays invoke sensory memories.
Thick of a specific memory, such as walking to the Christmas tree on Christmas morning and seeing the presents or sitting down with family at the Thanksgiving meal or Passover Seder. Then write a scene utilizing the five senses.
Think to yourself:
What is happening in this scene?
What do you smell?
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you taste?
How do you feel?
You will be amazed at how, by utilizing those senses, your scene will come alive. Your readers will now be opening presents with you, smelling the turkey cooking or tasting the sweet Manischewitz wine while listening to someone read the Haggadah.
Cherie Claire is the author of the Viola Valentine paranormal mystery series. Her latest in the series, Ghost Lights, arrives Sept. 15, 2023, at all online bookstores. Learn more and sign up for her newsletter at www.CherieClaire.net.