Remember that special day during the lower grades of elementary school when you were allowed to bring a special treasure from home? When it was your turn, you stood in front of the class with your item and told your classmates why or where you got it, what it did (if it wasn't obvious), from whom you got it, and so on. Maybe you even passed it around so your friends could hold it, feel it, hear it, etc....
As a writer, your special items are your characters and your settings. And in the process of weaving your story, you want to use words or combinations of words that will paint a picture in your reader's mind's eye. You want to show your story, not just tell it.
Although, technically, it's all really telling. Let just say that up front. You are telling the reader a story. But it's the manner in which you tell it that transforms it into showing. The simple, though by no means easy, goal is to elicit a visual, physiological, and emotional reaction in the reader.
What the heck's a visual reaction? Okay, bad phraseology on my part, but it flowed nice. The visual reaction is when the reader is able to see the character or the day or the ramshackle old house with broken and peeling shutters that are hanging by one rusted hinge. The writer needs to paint word pictures for the reader, and this comes in the form of descriptions.
Describing setting includes not only what the POV character sees, but also what she feels (cold vs. hot), or what he smells (fresh mown grass or a decaying body), or what she hears (train whistles, dog barks, etc....). Use all the senses, although you don't have to cover them all the time, every time. Many writers forget the sense of smell, but smells can evoke visceral responses, not only in the character, but also in the reader. Like how the smell of original Palmolive® always reminds me of bubble baths at Oma’s house and brings back pleasant feelings and memories. (And that’s why I use Palmolive® dish soap to this day.)
So how do we show rather than tell setting...?
Let's jump right in with some examples....
Telling: It was hot.
Showing: The sun beat down and the heat reflected back from the concrete of the parking lot. Sweat beaded on Jared's brow as soon as he stepped from his full-size pickup truck.
Nowhere in that example was the word hot used, but you certainly got the idea.
And we've sorta got a two-fer. We've mentioned the type of vehicle Jared drives--a pickup truck. And not just any pickup truck, but a full sized one. This gives the reader just a tiny bit of insight into his character. The reader would develop a different feeling about him if, say, he drove a sports car or a gas/electric hybrid.
But back to setting. Let’s fill ours out just a bit more....
The scent of mown grass drifted over from the golf course across the street, the rumble of the large mowers still audible over the sound of screaming and splashing from the base pool at the other end of the lot.
So what kind of picture did you get? The one I intended, I hope!
Let's try another....
Telling: It was freezing.
Showing: The icy air was biting and fresh. Robin's nose tingled and his lungs burned with each inhalation. The snow crunched under the horse’s hooves as it plodded along.
There’s no mention of just how cold it is, but anyone who lives or has spent time outside in really cold temps instantly knows what I'm describing. And if the reader isn't an Eskimo, he or she should know what tingling or burning feels like and can still feel the cold.
Shall we add a bit more to the scene?
The full moon hung high in the velvet sky, its bright white glow glistening on the snow. The surface of the snow pristine save the trail of the horse.
All right, what do you think? Are you seeing the scene in your mind…can you hear the crunch, feel the bite, see the silvery moonlight?
Moving on to characters...
Showing character is not only about hair and eye color or height, but includes things like nervous habits, emotion, and body language. And we don’t dump everything about our character on our reader all at once. This is called an info dump and is a no-no.
Mostly, an author should sprinkle in bits and pieces at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way. The heroine standing in front of a mirror and taking stock of herself is, 999 times out of 1000, *not* the way to do it.
In my short story time travel, we learn the heroine’s hair color in an interesting way:
The faint scent of burnt hide, cow manure, and smoke carried on the hot breeze. It ruffled the errant strands of hair that escaped her long plait. She picked up the end tied with dark blue ribbon.
When had she dyed her hair this lovely shade of mahogany?
Most of the time, we learn of our characters through the observations of others. In that same time travel, this is what the reader learns about our hero from our heroine’s point of view as she meets him for the first time (well, sorta...it is time travel, after all.):
Who was this handsome stranger and why did she feel perturbed and thrilled to her toes at the same time? The thrill she could understand, he was gorgeous. Short strawberry blonde hair was spiked at the front in a charming fashion, and dark lashes ringed his gray eyes. Faded denim hugged long lean legs.
There are still things to be learned about both of these characters, but I, the author, didn’t give you a laundry list of features. That would be boring. And not only did we get some physical descriptions, we got some of those aforementioned emotional/physiological reactions from the heroine.
Another thing about describing character...you can keep the reader reading by your descriptions...
Say, our hero is six-foot-two, but if he walks with his shoulders hunched and his head down and an ‘air of dejection surrounding him,’ the reader will want to know why. What’s affecting our hero? In order to find out, they must turn the page.
But back to showing--slumping shoulders is a visual, so you can actually picture our hero, but an ‘air of dejection’ gives us insight into how he’s feeling. And why is he feeling this way? The reader will, hopefully, want to keep reading to find out.
Speaking of feeling--emotional feeling, that is--when a character feels something, the author should strive to have the reader feel it, too. When, you're angry, how does your body feel and react?
Don't just tell us John was mad as heck. Show us how mad he was.
John's jaw clenched and redness suffused the hard planes of his face. His eyes turned to steel--just as hard, just as gray. “Get out of here and don't ever come back,” he said, his tone as cold and sharp as a double-edged sword.
This is obviously from someone else's point of view. At least, it better be, because John can't see his eyes turn hard and gray like steel, he can't see the redness of his face, and he's probably not hearing the cold sharpness of his voice. If he's that mad, he's experiencing other things. And probably thinking a few choice things, as well.
John's lunch turned to stone in his gut. His stomach churned, and he swallowed back the bile. His pulse pounding in his ears blocked the sound of her high-pitched voice, probably pleading for a second chance.
Like hell! If he ever saw that cheatin' two-bit floozy again, he'd wring her scrawny neck.
And just as John couldn't see his own eyes turn cold and hear his voice go sharp, no one but John can feel his lunch turn to stone or hear his pulse pounding in his ears.
Don't forget that, ultimately, it is the characters that will be describing the settings. Different characters are going to notice different things and describe them from their perspective, whatever it is. Their age, circumstance, experience, education, profession, etc...are all going to color the way they pass the information on to others, most importantly, to the reader. Many professions also have their own vernacular, which a character will definitely use in his or her dialogue. Professions (and certainly life's experience) may also affect a character's actions. For example, a detective (or a fugitive) may always, consciously or not, peruse a room and find a seat against a wall. He or she may note windows and exits and the like. If you are not familiar with a certain 'world' try to find someone within that world who can share a few things with you to lend some authenticity to your characters and story.
Showing your story, rather than telling it, helps make it remarkable, un-put-downable, and unforgettable—things we all want our stories to be.
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