Show, Don’t Tell (Descriptive Writing)

In my previous posts, I gave tips on how to develop strong characters and how to write an epic short story by highlighting the various methods writers use to create memorable stories. Today, however, we will focus on another style of writing that will amp up your skills to the next level: descriptive writing, more specifically how to ‘show’, not ‘tell’.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is “a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition” (Reedsy Blog). By ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’, you are allowing your readers to feel like they’re in the story. It might be a difficult technique to follow when you start, but it becomes easier over time.

Let’s go into more detail about what ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ each represents:

Showing allows readers to live the experience of the characters as if they were in the story. Such stories can engage the reader’s senses. It’s as if the story has “come to life”. ‘Showing’ also illustrates what you want to convey. You can express and the actions, relationships, and feelings of the characters, which creates a deeper connection for the reader. 

Telling covers what’s going on in the story, especially what is happening in the background. By ‘telling’, the author gives readers information by summarizing what is going on. Normally, stories in which the author uses this perspective start with introductions like “Once upon a time …” or “There was a girl who lived in a castle …” Sometimes, such introductions help develop the story before the real magic happens. With this in mind, remember: “If there’s no value to the plot/tension/conflict/characters, then telling is preferable” (Reedsy Blog).

Since you now know a bit more about what ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ is , we’re going to focus more on ‘showing’ to strengthen your descriptive writing.

Create a setting

It’s easy to explain where someone is and what they’re doing. To really give a sense of the characters’ surroundings, try to weave in sensory details to allow readers to immerse themselves in that very setting. 

Example: You could tell autumn was upon us with the leaves crunching under my feet as I walked deeper into the forest.

The example paints a vivid picture for the audience, which allows them to see and hear the characters’ movements in their minds.

Make your characters speak

The way a character speaks or interacts with other characters will tell the reader a lot about them. Their internal or external dialogue provides a sense of closeness and intimacy as if you were right there in the story with them. If a character is an authoritative figure, you might notice that the way they speak is more formal. However, a character speaking to their friends in the school yard might speak in a more informal tone, which goes hand-in-hand with the setting they’re in. Finally, dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character is feeling or what motivates them to do certain things.

Use sensory details

As mentioned before, highlighting a character’s senses gives readers an inside look into what they’re seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing. Doing this will add more depth to your writing, and, as we touched upon in the first tip, these details will make the reader feel like they’re a part of the story.

Examples:

  • Sight: After the rain, the trees glistened with shimmery raindrops.
  • Sound: The walls vibrated like it stood near a stampede of animals in a gorge.
  • Smell: The cupcakes in the oven filled the whole house with the aroma of strawberry and vanilla.
  • Touch: The puppy’s nose was wet like a melted ice cube on the table.
  • Taste: The pork stir-fry had a sweet and sour flavour.

These examples are great at not only showing the author’s creativity and skills in using literary elements like imagery, similes, or metaphors, it also allows the reader to interpret their own senses as if they were a character in the story.

Use strong verb words

Verbs are particularly important in descriptive writing if you want to create a clear image in the reader’s mind. Writing with concise and powerful verbs will strengthen your writing and make your story more believable. If you are writing and your verb-usage seems passive, try replacing them with strong verbs like advance, illuminate, or lead. You can also check out more strong verbs in the following list.

Describe specific emotions

If your descriptions are specific to your character, plot, or setting, it will be easier to ‘show’ what is happening in your story. Describing specific emotions “will give the reader an image. If you want to say the character has a dog, show its happiness when his owner gets home” (Brits, 2018). For instance, to show a character being angry, describe the actual feeling: “his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table” (Jenkins). As a result, the author is ‘showing’ us how the character is feeling by evoking that emotion.

Describe specific actions

If you were to describe every scene that your characters go through, you wouldn’t have time to carry out the plot. As a result, it’s important to describe the setting through action. Look at this excerpt from Fight Club

“Seven minutes. Up on top of the Parker-Morris Building with Tyler’s gun in my mouth. While desks and filing cabinets and computers meteor down on the crowd around the building and smoke funnels up from the broken windows and three blocks down the street the demolition team watches the clock, I know all of this: the gun, the anarchy, the explosion is really about Marla Singer. Six minutes’ (Jordan).

In this example, you can see and hear everything in the scene, which heightens the action taking place. Describing action propels your story to move forward more quickly instead of spending unnecessary time on the characters’ development or setting. Creating dramatic events with cause and effect allows you to show your reader what is happening.

As you can see, readers would rather use their imagination, experiences, and at times, their own personality to live through a story. As a result, the reader becomes a part of that story. This is the goal of ‘show, don’t tell’ writing: to allow readers to lose themselves in the story, discover new things, and make their own conclusions to the story. Give this style of descriptive writing a try and see your stories come to life with powerful emotions, engaging actions, and more meaning connections. 

REFERENCES

Brits, Leona (July 27, 2018). My Golden Rules to ‘Show Don’t Tell’. The Writing Cooperative. Accessed on April 13th, 2021 via https://writingcooperative.com/my-golden-rules-to-show-dont-tell-f4d030eca8c9 

Jenkins, Jerry. 249 Strong Verbs That’ll Spice Up Your Writing. Jerry Jenkins. Accessed on April 12th, 2021 via https://jerryjenkins.com/powerful-verbs/ 

Jordan. Writing an action story: 8 tips for strong pacing. Now Novel. Accessed on April 13th, 2021 via https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-action-story-good-pacing/

Reedsy Blog. Show, Don’t Tell: Tips and Examples of The Golden Rule. Reedsy Blog. Accessed on April 12th, 2021 via https://blog.reedsy.com/show-dont-tell/

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The Literary Tutor

We are English tutors helping students ignite their imagination through reading and discover their unique voice through writing.

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