Writers often hear the advice “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly does that mean? At a basic level, showing is really pretty simple.
Showing uses sense data, information perceivable by one of the five senses. Telling interprets or explains that data. If a character sees or hears something “frightening,” the author is explaining that the character should be frightened. To show, draw on the five senses—what the character can see, hear, smell, feel, or taste—so that we sense the fear too.
Here’s an example from the prologue to Antarctica: Journey to the Pole, a novel by Peter Lerangis:
The call of Antarctica is loud and clear: Go away.
You hear it in the groans of colliding ice floes. In the shriek of 200 mile an hour winds hurtling down the Transantarctic mountains. In the thunder of an ice shelf splitting into the sea. In the hostile silence of the darkness that begins in April and ends in June.
You feel it, too, as the temperature drops to -100°F and your breath forms a mask of solid ice inside your hood. Standing still can kill you, and you fight off the urge to sleep, because you know you may never awaken.
That’s a powerful assault on the senses, especially sound and touch, which are often forgotten in favor of sight. (Notice all the specific verbs and nouns as well, like I mentioned in last week’s post!)
Here’s another example, from The Gray King, by Susan Cooper:
Close to, the fire on the mountain was very much more alarming than it had seemed from a distance. They could smell it now, and hear it; smell the smoke more bitter than a farm bonfire; here the soft, dreadful sound of flames consuming the bracken, like paper crumpled in the hand, and the sudden crackling roar as a bush or a patch of gorse went up. And they could see the flames, leaping high, bright red and yellow at the edges of the fire but ferocious and near-invisible at its heart.
You may notice that she uses quite a few adjectives, including some that might be considered vague, such as alarming and dreadful. But these work in combination with specific details and an appeal to multiple senses to bring the scene to life in a vivid, emotional way.
For more expert writing advice, order Advanced Plotting, with two dozen essays that will help you write better.
Assignment: Look at a descriptive scene from your work in progress. How many senses did you use? Rewrite the scene, describing what your character SEES, HEARS, SMELLS, TASTES, and FEELS. Be specific with your language.
You may not want to use this entire rewritten scene in your manuscript, as it might seem like too much. Pick out the sensory details that do the best job of showing the scene in an emotional way, with an attention to detail appropriate for the importance of the scene.
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