As writers we’ve all heard the golden rule: Show, don’t tell. Everywhere you look for writing advice you see it again and again. Show, don’t tell! I get nauseous every time I read those words. SHOW, don’t tell! I’m not going to lie. It’s a good piece of advice for beginners who aren’t sure how to write a impactful scene. We all tell them the same thing. SHOW, DON’T TELL! I’m here give me personal opinion on the matter and hopefully set some writers free. (If I write that one more time I might vomit.)
When we give the advice-that-shall-not-be-named, we do so out of good intentions. We want beginners to realize that to write a scene with punch you need to set the scene, give description, and present important details. These are all things that beginners need to learn, but why the hell don’t we just say that? Because it’s easier to say three words, plus everyone knows what you mean when you say them. Right?
Well beginners might not know and that’s when you need to educate them. The best way to educate them is to give examples from other pieces of writing. We can’t just sit them down and tell them what to do, we need to show them. (Urk.) Get them to read some classics, and them some cultural literature. Canadian Literature happened to be one of my favourite classes in college.
Now, here’s something important I learned in college as well. You need to find balance in your writing. Just like in art, you need to emphasize some things and diminish others. This will draw more attention to what you’re emphasizing. This has to happen in our writing too. You should only add description where it’s needed. Only show the reader what’s important for them to know.
If little Timmy’s dog died you’ll want to describe how his eyes filled with tears, how his face contorted, and how his nose dripped as he cried. You don’t want to just say he was devastated. An important scene like this needs the emphasis, because it’s a major event in little Timmy’s life.
However, if little Timmy was at school and was talking to his friends about his dead dog, you’re not going to put much detail into the conversation. (Unless something important is revealed in the scene.) You’ll probably simply write “Little Timmy talked to his friends about the latest tragedy and they consoled him with hugs.”
How does one know when a scene is important enough for great description? This is tricky question to answer, because it depends on the story and plot. If you’ve made an outline- which I suggest you do- all of your plot points are important to the story and will need description. If your scene reveals: character traits, theme, plot development, character development, or important information. Basically, you will want to show your readers anything that drives the story forward.
WARNING: too much description and too many details will bore your readers.
If you’re describing an important object, like a diary, you’ll probably only want two, maybe three, sentences describing how it physically looks. You might want a sentence or two describing its sentimental value to the character. That’s only if it’s pivotal to the plot and story development. When you get into long descriptions of something, the easier it is to get the reader lost and confused with the details. You want to explain it as simply as possible, then add some flair and details to make it pop.
It’s always difficult to know when to add descriptive prose and how much detail you’ll need to add. I still have troubles with it. Some things I over-emphasize, and others I don’t emphasize enough. This where Critique Partners, Writing Buddies, and Beta-Readers come in handy. Fresh eyes and avid readers will be able to pick out where you have too much or too little description.
TIP 1: When there is something important you want to reveal try revealing it through dialogue!
Dialogue is a useful tool to use when there is something important that needs to be revealed, but is difficult to put into prose. Dialogue can also be paired with your prose to bring simplicity and impact to your scene.
For example: you have a few characters walking into a abandoned house. You’ll want to write some description about the environment. (TIP 2: use the five senses to add impactful description.) You can also use dialogue to aid in this description, like so:
“Hey Timmy,” Joe whispered, “Do you smell that?”
“Smell what?” Timmy asked.
“It smells like rotten eggs,” Joe crinkled his nose.
“Are you sure you didn’t just let one rip?” Timmy chuckled, “Be careful not to shit yourself.”
Now we know that there is particular smell in the house that might be concerning and we didn’t need to write it in the prose. Dialogue a lot of the time adds extra emphasis to a detail that is extremely important.
Showing has a place in writing, but so does telling. As writers we need to find that balance between showing and telling. This is something that takes time and practice. Just follow your instincts. You can always go back and fix it. Take online advice with a grain of salt and believe in your abilities. As you keep writing, you keep improving.
Thank you for reading,