If you’re a writer you’ve probably heard the phrase “show don’t tell” or add more details? But, what the heck does that mean, why is it important, and how do you do it without turning your writing into a long annoying, flowery piece?
Let’s start with the first question. Show don’t tell means that you need to expand your descriptions so your reader can see the action, characters, or setting. You want to “show” the scene to them, not just tell them about it.
Telling writing lacks descriptive detail. For example, you might have a scene where your main character is meeting her friends at a pizza parlor. When the pizza arrives, you might write:
“The waiter set the pizza on the table, and everyone grabbed a piece. Sarah took a big bite of the pizza. It was delicious.”
This is telling writing.
Each of your readers will imagine something different happening. Some might imagine a fancy restaurant with a white table cloth and a gourmet vegetarian pizza. Another might imagine a loud pizza place with a cheesy, pepperoni pizza. Your job is to “show” your readers the scene so they each imagine it in a similar fashion.
That’s why “showing” is important. You want your readers to clearly picture and understand what you are writing about. This applies whether you’re writing fiction, memoir, or even non-fiction.
How to identify where you’re “telling” rather than showing.
In order to add more description to your writing, you first need to identify where you’re “telling.” In the sample pizza passage above, there are four of telling statements:
- The waiter set the pizza on the table.
- Everyone grabbed a piece.
- Sally took a big bite of the pizza.
- It was delicious.
These are telling because they don’t include any details as to HOW the action took place. There are also no sensory details describing the smells, sights, sounds, or feelings.
One trick is to look for “to be” verbs like is or was. Those are red-flags for “telling.”
Once you’ve identified the telling parts, it’s time to revise and add some details. They do not need to be long revisions. You just need to add some descriptive detail that “shows” your reader what is happening.
Let’s go back to our pizza example.
- “The waiter set the pizza on the table” becomes:
- “The waiter approached the table, an extra-large pizza balanced on his fingertips. Sarah leaned back in her chair so he could set the steaming pizza in the middle of the scratched wooden table.”
- “They all grabbed a piece” becomes:
- “Everyone reached for a piece, sliding the giant floppy slices onto flimsy paper plates.”
- “Sally took a big bite of the pizza. It was delicious” becomes:
- “Sally’s piece sagged in the middle with the weight of the gooey cheese, pepperoni, and olives that dotted the top. She took a little breath and blew on it to cool it a bit before opening her mouth wide and taking a bite. Tomato sauce dripped down her chin as the flavors exploded in her mouth. She closed her eyes and let out a little moan as she chewed. No one spoke. They just ate, savoring the pizza’s flavor.”
In each of the examples, I added small details as to what the characters see, smell, do, taste, and feel.
Now, you don’t need to show EVERY detail. That would lead to an overly descriptive boring piece of writing. You want to show where it’s important, where it helps develop the characters, the setting, the emotion, or the action.
Examples of Showing Writing with Specific Sensory Details
One of the best ways to show is to weave sensory details throughout your narrative. You don’t necessarily want big boring blocks of description where nothing happens. Those are the parts we all skim through, right?
Sensory details use all five senses to describe your setting, characters, and action and make it truly come alive. Using the senses also allows your character to interact with the setting and what’s happening to them.
You want to think about smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound. Obviously, not all scenes will have a taste element or a touch element, but your characters should be able to at least see and hear what’s happening in the scene. These details will make your setting and action that much more real and believable to your readers.
The best way to understand sensory details is to read some great examples of authors who effectively tie the senses into their descriptions.
This is the most basic of the senses when writing a description. In The Maze Runner, James Dashner describes exactly what Thomas, the main character, sees when he gets his first glimpse of the maze:
“A maze? In front of him, through the East Door, he could make out passage leading to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. And the walls of the corridors were similar to those that surrounded the Glade, the ground made of the same massive stone blocks as in the courtyard. The ivy seemed even thicker out there. In the distance, more breaks in the walls led to other paths, and farther down, maybe a hundred yards or so away, the straight passage came to a dead end” (26).
We get a clear sense of the setting and also of Thomas’ confusion. Because this whole novel revolves around the maze, Dashner describes it in great detail throughout the story and devotes entire passages to what the setting looks like.
In Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen weaves details of what the setting looks like throughout the character’s action and dialogue. She doesn’t write extended chunks of setting like the previous Maze Runner passage.
“When we went upstairs to get ready, I flopped on the edge of her bed, which was covered in clothes and magazines and mismatched blankets and sheets…Through the window over Scarlett’s bed, I could see my own mother sitting in the swing on our front porch, drinking coffee and reading the paper” (29).
The details she chooses to focus on in the setting emphasize Halley’s emotional distance from her mother and her closeness to her best friend Scarlett.
Neil Gaiman, in The Graveyard Book, uses the sense of smell to create a deliciously eery scene as a murderer uses this sense to search for a small child.
“The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery – a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck – that the child had been carrying” (9).
The scents Gaiman chooses are sweet baby scents: milk, cookies, baby shampoo, a diaper. Contrasted with the murderous man who sniffs them, the scene becomes that much creepier, and since most every reader has smelled all these “baby” smells, we can relate and get a strong sense of the setting through only the baby’s smell.
Sight, Sound, and Taste
Writers also combine sensory details together to create the setting and develop characters. In Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen uses both sight and sound, and she even alludes to taste to develop the setting’s atmosphere and mood.
“My father was always the one who crept to my doorway after I’d been grounded, sneaking me one of his special Brain Freeze Chocolate Milkshakes, which he believed could solve any problem. After the yelling and slamming of doors, after my mother and I stalked to our separate corners, I could always count on hearing the whirring of the blender in the kitchen, and then him appearing at my doorway presenting me with the thickest, coldest milkshake as a peace offering. But all the milkshakes in the world weren’t going to get me out of this” (13).
The main character has just had a fight with her mother which is highlighted by the sound of the yelling and slamming doors. This is contrasted with the creamy, cold milkshakes that never arrive. Halley’s world changes at this moment, and the sensory details Dessen focuses on in the setting reflect that change.
Smell, Touch, and Sound
In The Maze Runner, James Dashner uses a different combination of sensory details to establish the mood and to give us a strong sense of the character’s confusion. The novel begins with a complete focus on sensory details which creates mystery and suspense.
“He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him…with another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft. Harsh sounds of chains and pulleys, like the workings of an ancient steel factory, echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls with a hollow, tinny whine” (1).
We wonder where the main character is and how he got in this situation. We get no details at all about what he is seeing. We know that it’s dark, so as the passage continues the emphasis on what he can feel, hear, and smell become more predominant.
Emphasizing the light and how it impacts what your characters see can create suspense and help develop the mood in your story. If it’s bright and sunny, the story probably has a more contemporary, upbeat plot. If it’s dark and dreary, with howling wind and dead leaves skipping across the asphalt, the mood might be scary and suspenseful or depressing.
As writers, focusing on sight when it comes to describing the setting is the most obvious choice, but you can add so much depth, suspense, and emotion to your setting by adding sensory details.
Six Tips to Nail Your Details
If you struggle with showing, you’re not alone. Knowing how much detail to add to your writing is a pretty common struggle for both newer and experienced writers.
The following tips will help guide you through the steps to write or revise your pieces to make sure you’ve got some solid sensory and descriptive details but not so much that the story bogs down in them.
1) Before writing, visualize the whole scene in your head, like you’re watching your story play out as a movie scene.
What jumps out at you in your visualization? What items or characters draw your attention?
Those details are what you’ll want to describe in your scene. A visualization like this can help decide what to include and leave out.
2) Look at the purpose of the scene and the pacing you want.
If you are writing an action scene, cut way back on the amount of details you add (I’m talking about descriptive showing details here).
Focus on the characters’ actions and reactions to what’s happening. You want it to move fast.
But, if you’re writing a really suspenseful scene, slow the pace down and add lots of sensory details to ratchet up the tension. This might feel a little counter-intuitive but it works. Trust me. Grab one of your favorite books, find either an action-packed scene or a suspenseful scene and look at the amount of detail that’s included. You’ll quickly see what I mean.
3) As you revise, check each scene for the details.
Make sure it’s clear where your characters are. If they’re floating in space with NO description of setting or the characters, add some.
But, if the action and plot come to a halt because you spent half a page describing a character walking across a room or what the flowers look like in the yard, start cutting back on some of those details. No matter how beautiful or lovely the prose, if it stops the story, cut it.
4) Search for adverbs (-ly words) and replace them with more descriptive details.
This post takes a deeper dive into the “remove adverbs” strategy.
5) Get some writing buddies to read your work and ask them what details are necessary and what you should cut.
Getting this kind of feedback from a writing partner or critique group can be incredibly helpful. You might even ask your writing partners to look specifically for places to add or cut descriptions.
If you don’t have a writing partner but you want to focus on improving this skill, you can book three 1:1 sessions with me and we can work specifically on this and/or other writing skills.
6) Complete one of these exercises to help you add details.
If you need help adding details and expanding your descriptions, the following three practice exercises will help:
Writing great descriptions takes practice, and often, it’s easier to add during the revision process of your writing.
Happily, it’s a skill you can learn and continually improve upon. Pay attention to those things that you notice as you go through your day. Think about how you can incorporate them into your writing.
And, as always, have fun with this.
If you have any other tips for amping up your showing writing, leave them in the comments!