How to write good description: Be a show off

This advice is very dear to my heart, for as an editor I find myself suggesting it to nearly every writer I meet. It is age-old wisdom, handed down from teacher to student since the dawn of time (or thereabouts).

“Show, don’t tell.”

The essence of this advice is that, wherever possible, you should focus on creating illuminating description (show) rather than flat-out explaining things (tell). The main reason behind it is that it helps the writer to engage with the story in such a way that encourages realistic moments and characters and a consistent perspective; these cradle the reader inside the story world so that they feel like an essential part of it—almost as if they are living the story.

“Tell” can occur through use of a single word or a series of sentences.

For example:

“‘What are you doing here?’ she asked jealously.”

and

“The saw buzzed angrily, and Stan blanched. He had been deathly afraid of saws since he was a child, when his brother had slipped and lost his hand to one…and shortly after, his brother’s life had been lost as well. Stan shut his eyes against the memory of the sight—the ground splashed with his brother’s blood.”

The sentences are technically correct, but they inform the reader in a way that imposes on the reader’s experience of the story world because they tell the reader what to think (and nobody enjoys that). They take the reader out of the main flow of the story, for if you think about it, who has determined that the girl is jealous? How does that person know the girl is jealous? Who is looking into Stan’s head and snatching out pieces of his history?

This is not how we experience life, and it shouldn’t be how we experience books.

In order to “show” these concepts, one could do the following:

“‘What are you doing here?’ she asked, glaring until my cheeks turned pink.”

This gives us a sentence that more closely approximates the experience of being confronted by someone who is jealous—strong body language, a guilty reaction, the sense that something is wrong and that the girl is angry, but you’re not entirely sure why.

“The saw buzzed angrily, and Stan blanched. He shut his eyes against a surging memory—the ground splashed with his brother’s blood.”

This keeps us in Stan’s perspective, communicating all the essential information in a way that holds us in the essence of the moment. Instead of being told a bit of gossip about Stan, the reader comes to realize on her own that Stan has a dreadful past—she wants to know more, and so keeps reading.

And that’s the very most important thing after all, in an age where we are constantly surrounded with media content—you have to write so that your reader won’t ever want to set the book down. Not even once.

While this is the goal we all aspire to as writers, nobody is perfect and it is difficult to police yourself in matters of show, don’t tell. That is where an editor can be the most help—to identify areas that your mind slips by, and to find improvement opportunities where you might not have seen any. Check out www.wordsru.com to get your  manuscript edited today.

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