Show, Don’t Tell: Give It To Your Readers In High Definition

How many times are we going to hear this? As many times as it takes to get it through that thick writer skull! Show, show, show me what you want me to see. Telling is for writers that aren’t interested in being published.

This is one of the most important tools in your writer toolbox. The ability to show your readers what is going on. It doesn’t matter if your main character is just picking up a gallon of milk from the grocery store, I want to see the store and if there is a zombie apocalypse breaking out – you better show me.

Remember ‘The Mist’ by Stephen King? Most of the story takes place in a store. An everyday, innocent place becomes a bastion of safety or maybe a tomb for those left behind. The reason we know this, is not because Mr. King tells us. It is because Stephen King is a master of showing. When you read his stories, you see the horror in his character’s motions. Their faces are visible in your mind’s eye. You can taste their fear…delectable fear. If you have not read this story, pick up any of King’s books. Even readers that are not horror fans will be able to see how he pulls readers into his scenes.

Here’s a breakdown of what telling is:

You describe the actions of the character but do not describe the emotions or surroundings to readers. Hm, here I am trying to tell you…that’s no good. I’ll show you instead.

Telling:

Paul stood in the checkout line and watched as the zombie nonchalantly nibbled on the bag boy two lines over.

Okay, do you see the problem here? We know where Paul is and what he sees. Nothing else, though. We have no idea what Paul thinks, feels, or if he is so whacked out on drugs that this is all just a hallucination.

Let’s take a look at what the same scene looks like if we show the reader what is going on.

Showing:

That evening’s dinner fell to the tiled floor, forgotten. A stench of old death assaulted Paul’s nostrils when the automated doors slid open and the fresh air stirred the zombie’s rotting clothes. The casual way it chewed on the screaming bag boy’s arm reminded Paul of last night’s chicken legs.

Not a perfect example, but I’m sure you can see the difference. In the first example, while it gets the job done, there is no flavor. Mmm, flavor.

In the second example we can see what is happening. Paul is shocked enough to drop his groceries, can smell the fetid zombie, and has a weird connection in his mind with his former dinner. Nasty, but effective in communicating the absurd horror of the grocery store zombie.

I am fond of telling writers to paint a picture with words. This is exactly what show, don’t tell means. We are sharing our worlds with readers, instead of giving them the bland slide-show, let’s take the time to record a high definition DvD. Put that sucker into the reader’s plasma screen mind and give them the grand tour of your world.

Season To Season: Writing Is Influenced By Your Environment

The start of September brings with it a change of season, in the northern hemisphere leaves begin to fall from the trees and the scorching summer gives way to the cooler bluster of autumn winds. In Australia (and the rest of the southern hemisphere) we’re starting to see the sunshine again with rains easing and cloudy skies giving way to blue as spring begins. The cool weather will linger a few more weeks but already the dawn approaches more swiftly and the sunset lingers later on the horizon. Seasons change, and our writing changes with them.

The Seasonal Change Of Our Writer’s Voice

Seasons: SpringHave you ever noticed your writer’s voice change with the seasons? We spend a great deal of time at the page but the weather outside our office door influences more than the thermostat and wetgear. It influences our mood and motivation.

When the days of spring and summer bloom our mind wanders out of doors. Our bodies want to spend more time away from the keyboard and we venture out into the sunlight more often. Thankfully, the days are long and we feel we have more time to get things done, so taking an extra long lunch is a refreshing break before returning to the grind.

Sunlight also tends to lift depression. After moping through dismal days of cloud and rain many writers find new inspiration and motivation in the changing winds. Sometimes this is influenced by the fact that we are out in the world more and are therefore having new experiences and meeting new people. Perhaps the Muse ventures out more frequently when her wings won’t glaze with frost. Perhaps the warmer weather has melted the iced waters of The Idea Waterfall. For whatever reason, we’re bursting with new passion and eager to start new projects or complete old ones.

The winter brings its own advantages and disadvantages for writers. We spend more time indoors, snuggled in the warmth, and sitting still. This is conducive to writing, a pastime that is very challenging if one is in perpetual motion. Our thoughts tend to slow down, inviting deeper introspection. It’s a good time to follow set plans, to work on organization, and keep on top of tasks that require regular maintenance. The colder weather invites us to spend more time reading which is a great way to fill the well between writing and editing.

Do you find the weather influencing your moods like this or do the seasons affect you differently?

The Change Of Seasons In Story

Seasons: Autumn/FallThe seasons influence us as writers but they also influence the mood and motivation of our characters. Seasons have a strong impact on story and can play a significant role in your stories plot. Have you considered which season your current work is set in? How might the season, and the natural elements and environment that go with it, influence your story?

As a reader, the season is sometimes so seamless and integral a feature that we aren’t aware of it as an entity in a story or novel. Some stories contain so little influence from the weather that they could happen at any time of year. In temperate locations the seasonal changes might be so minute that they don’t even register with the characters or affect their actions and but even these temperate climes have environmental influences that affect mood and mayhem.

Have you ever noticed yourself naturally writing your characters into weather that mirrors your own? When it’s blustery and wet our characters huddle in their jackets and curl up in front of the fire. It feels easier, more natural, to have our characters share our environment. We live with them for days, weeks, even months at a time and when the season in our real life changes it can be difficult to continue writing about the drudgery of winter when the summer sun invites us outside into the light.

How have the seasons and the natural environment and weather influenced stories you’ve written and the characters who live within them?

Fascinated by the change in seasons? Read more from fellow writers in September’s Blog Chain at Absolute Write.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Laffar-Smith
Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg

Minutiae – Adding Everyday, Basic Necessities To Your Story

Story Minutiae and Plot Details: The day to day living of life.In our daily lives, we have to make room for the minutiae of life. We eat, drink, take showers, and run errands. Our lives would fall apart without taking care of the basic necessities of living.

Our characters don’t often have the luxury of taking care of life’s minutiae when they are busy pursuing their goals. In the television series “24”, the hero Jack Bower must save the day, without taking any time for himself. He sets aside his personal needs when he pursues the enemy and protects the President. He doesn’t even have time to sleep!

Your characters may be in the middle of a similarly high-paced action story, or they may have a little more leeway. It is up to you to decide how much realism needs to be incorporated into your novel. Too much, and your readers could become bored. Too little, and your characters appear superhuman, unaffected by the basic requirements of living a healthy life.

Adding More Details to Your Story

When your writing is flowing freely, it is too easy to forget that your characters need a break. They may jump from one scene to another, overcoming foes and discovering new obstacles at every turn. While this makes for an exciting story, your characters can’t go on forever without some down time.

Sleep is one of the most important things that characters seem to forget to do. Allow them to set up camp for the night, or they may collapse from exhaustion in the middle of an important scene. Chapter breaks are great places to let your characters sleep on the past events, and prepare them to face a new day in pursuit of their goals.

Eating and drinking are also necessary if you want your characters to keep forging ahead. They may only have time to grab an apple and a swig of water, but that small detail will remind readers that your characters are realistic and susceptible to human concerns. Larger meals can be included to provide a respite from a speedy plot line, and to give your characters time to ruminate over their game plan.

Removing Minutiae From Your Story

Your story can become bogged down by too much detail. If every chapter ends with your heroine curling up in her cozy bed, her plight can sound trivial and mundane. Readers like stories that provide an escape from their everyday lives. Too many mundane activities can add up to a boring story.

If your characters have to get from point A to point B, they can do so either very quickly or very slowly in terms of your story. Noting that they arrived at their destination after three days of uneventful travel is perfectly fine. You don’t have to show every stop, every meal, and every conversation that doesn’t add to your story. Only include minutiae if it enhances your characterization or your plot line. When in doubt, throw it out.

It is very easy to add a mundane scene, just to act as filler while you’re thinking of what happens next in the story. If you need to keep the writing flowing, go ahead and write that scene at a roadside diner. It may provide important details to lead your characters in the right direction. If it doesn’t, you can always remove it later, and your story will keep up the pace.

Do you tend to write lean stories, without many human details? Or do you enjoy writing long descriptive passages about every meal? How do you strike a balance of real world concerns and exciting plot points?

Photo Credit: 07-07-08 © manley099

Sensory Description Connects With Readers

Stormy Skies and Lightening in Perth evoke Sensory Description.On Monday night, Perth got a bit wet. Actually, we had what could be the nastiest storm that the city has experienced in twenty years. After days of muggy summer heat, smothered by gray clouds and drowning in heavy, humid air, the clouds were split apart with lightning.

With my son and daughter snuggled against me, we peered from the warmth and safety of my bedroom window into the street outside. Wind thrashed the trees. The blur of rain softened the edges of the fences across the street. Waterfalls trickled from overflowing hanging pots.

As we watched, the sky turned an emerald green like the city of Oz. The greyness disappeared beneath a filter of emeralds and the rain glittered like splintering crystal as it shattered against every surface. Spikes of lightening sparked white into the green for blinding seconds before washing away in the rain. Our chests echoed with each pounding crack and rumble of thunder.

The cool air breezed through doors, windows, and roof-tiles. Raindrops chased the gusts only to be dashed against the windows, splattered into rivulets against the glass. The air smelled of earth and new grass. Dust from a long, hot summer settled leaving a fresh clean scent as if the world had been reborn.

When was the last time you watched a storm? Have you ever walked through the rain?

What did it feel like on your skin? Did is caress your arms with sun-warmed drops or did you shiver with chill as it tricked down your collar, your neck, and back? Did your feet squelch in wet shoes and socks? Did the rain flick off your rain jacket, the mud puddles sludgy around the ankles of your rain boots?

What did it taste like on your lips? Was it cool and refreshing? Did it taste like new spring, warming after a long cold winter? Did it have the coppery burn of a hot, dry summer, sooty ash after bush fires, an acrid tang from city smog?

What did it sound like as it beat upon the pavement or splashed in puddles beneath your feet? Could you hear it pinging from tin rooftops? Did it ebb and flow like ocean waves? Was it accompanied by rumbling thunder and howling winds?

What did it look like as it sheeted down, twisting everything around you into a blurry haze? Did it cast a strange green tint against the late afternoon sky? Was the world snuggled into the muted pale ghosts of overcast skies? Did objects seem to move and shift as if they were trying to dart between raindrops to stay dry?

What did it smell like as you inhaled the changing air? Could you smell the earthiness of freshly wet dirt, the damp of a wet dog, or the fresh, crisp, newness of soaked grasses? Could you smell a sense of clean washing into the world as dust and grime rinsed down the drains?

Have you ever experienced a moment with every sense of your body? Take a moment now to tune into your surroundings. Hear, Taste, Touch, See, Smell. Absorb every sight, sound, texture, tang, and scent.

The best way to bring a reader into your story is with rich, sensory description. Our memories are triggered by our senses and invoking sensory descriptions in your writing creates new memories and brings forth old memories in your reader.

Sensory description has a lot to do with the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” When you show your reader, you use language that describes. Telling conveys simple facts. The sentence, “It was raining.”, tells a reader that drops of water fell from the sky. But HOW do the drops fall? Without careful details that connect to the five senses, the reader cannot be in the rain with your characters.

Want to practice right now? Share in the comments any scene from the last twenty-four hours of your life. Connect with all of your senses as you remember. How did it feel, taste, smell, look, and sound?

Photo Credit: © March 22, 2010 Mateusz Nowacki

How to Use Sensory Description to Bring Your Story to Life

As writers, we bring readers inside our stories by crafting artful and sensory sentences. If I simply stated, for example, that my father molested me, of course you’d think that’s sad, but you might not feel the sadness.

Or, if I simply told you that I once struggled with a sexual addiction, you’d probably think “that’s unfortunate.” But you wouldn’t feel my words, emotionally.

Here, for example, by using sensory language (from Love Sick) to describe a seedy motel room where I met a dangerous man, I try to fully reveal the darkness of the addiction: “I feel a damp chill between my shoulder blades. How can love be two bodies wrapped in a sheet that’s singed by careless cigarettes, here, in a room with plastic curtains, tin ashtrays, stained carpet, and artificial air.”

The words we seek are those that artistically re-create and illuminate our worlds, internal and external, on the page, by evoking how those worlds feel, taste, sound, smell, look. As much as possible, avoid abstract words and rely, instead, on the five senses.

Rather than write, for example, “I was in love with a cute guy,” you could write, “John’s hands, the color of cinnamon, stroked my bare shoulders.”

Do you see how the first sentence sounds flat and informational? In the second, however, you can smell cinnamon, and feel that cute guy stroking your shoulders.

Let’s try a brief writing exercise. In one sentence, describe your favorite item of clothing from elementary school. In the description, try to slant the external details in such a way that they evoke an interior feeling.

Here is what I mean: Let’s say, for example, my favorite item of clothing was a yellow dress. If I felt happy on the day I wore it, I would write: “When I wore my yellow dress, I felt as if buttercup petals sprinkled from the hem as I skipped to school.”

If, on the other hand, I felt sad on the day I wore it, I would write: “The dress cast a pall on my skin, sickly and yellow.”

We write memoir to better understand ourselves, as well as to bring a reader with us on our journeys. To ensure the reader feels the fullness of your story, focus each scene around sensory imagery.

FEARLESS CONFESSIONS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO MEMOIR
University of Georgia Press, paperback

www.suewilliamsilverman.com

Watch Fearless Confessions’ book trailer video on YouTube

Everyone has a story to tell. “Fearless Confessions“ is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper or in a website or e-book. Enhanced with illustrative examples from many different writers as well as writing exercises, this guide helps writers navigate a range of issues from craft to ethics to marketing and will be useful to both beginners and more accomplished writers.

Author Sue William Silverman says: “It’s crucial to cultivate the courage to tell one’s truth in the face of forces – from family members to the media – who would prefer that people with inconvenient pasts remain silent.

Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), is also a Lifetime Television original movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her most recent book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, published with the University of Georgia Press (View the video book trailer.) As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Headline News. For more about Sue, please visit www.suewilliamsilverman.com.

Add Spark To Your Writing

By Jan Hoadley

I think we’ve all done it. We find a book that looks incredible. It’s on a topic we’re keenly interested in – the cover and description are great. We buy the book, get home and settle in to read – and by the fifth chapter we’re bored to tears with the presentation. It’s hard to follow, the information isn’t focused, and it’s difficult to get a grasp as to what the author means and where they’re going.

For example, I could write about my dog. She’s a border collie, three years old, hyper at times and bossy to the other dogs. Doesn’t that sound immensely boring? It gives the facts – but beyond that tells little to nothing. Contrast this:

Her nose pushes out the barely-opened window sniffing for the cats on the other side. She turns, bounds off the couch, runs to the other window, bounces off the wall and returns to thrust the nose out the window as if it might go further this time. As Fly crawls on the sofa to rest she pins her to the ground and stands over her growling. Then a blue merle blur circles the room again before returning to the window in hopes there’s a cat out there NOW.

Which description gives you a better picture in your mind of Abby? Do you, the reader, really care how old she is? Bringing a character alive makes the reader want to see more. It brings up questions – why is she so interested in cats? Does a cat make contact with her and what does she do then? Does Fly avoid her or return to the sofa? How does the scene figure in to the bigger story?

Before getting in to sensory description sharpen the characters in your mind. Write down as much information on them to get it clear in your mind WHO this character is. Know your character well. When you thoroughly understand the character it’s easy to put yourself in their shoes. It’s almost like becoming an actor – the actor might be outgoing but the character he plays is quiet and plays things close to the vest. The character may act different than the actor would in the same situation. In writing – we are the “actor” – we decide what those characters do if it’s fiction. If non-fiction we can research and make the characters interesting enough to teach our audience and entertain them at the same time. Fill out an employment application for your adult characters. Do a background check on them! Interview them and look at the pictures on their desk! Use your imagination! Why does this character do this?

Non-fiction writers doing a profile want to portray their subject accurately – use these same powers of observation and details to breathe life into your character.

Sharpen your writing of directions. Think of something you do on a regular basis and write step by step directions. Use something you do often – brushing teeth or heating a can of soup. This teaches you to pay attention to details in your explanations. We often take for granted things – open the can, put on the stove, pour soup in a bowl and eat. Do that exactly and it’s not very tasty!! It leaves out pouring the soup into a pan, water or other ingredients added, turning on the stove and placing on a burner until heated. With the former one – if followed exactly – you could be eating cold soup concentrate! While this might seem silly – when you think about it, what if it’s directions to something that could be fatal when done incorrectly? Leaving out a step could be bad! When you learn to take and give directions precisely even mapquest and other map sites aren’t accurate in many cases – and when it leaves out a step you can end up a totally different place. On the same principle, your story can end up a totally different place if something is left out. It doesn’t make sense.

Some people have the idea non-fiction writing is boring – it doesn’t have to be. Using similar techniques can breathe creativity into fact. While it’s true that fiction you don’t have facts to box in – facts don’t have to be boring! It can be a little more interesting to make it interesting but it can be done. Books like “Secretariat The Making of a Champion” (William Nack) or “Great Horse Racing Mysteries” (John McEvoy) are all factual information – but read like novels. The influx of true crime and other books may or may not be fact but those based on fact tend to be more believable. When you put the right spin on something you can make the unbelievable believable. Think about it – how many read Steven King’s “Christine” and thought twice about a car coming up behind them? We *KNOW* cars don’t have minds to think and stalk people but there’s just enough there to think “what if”. How many read a scary book and associate bad things with corn fields or sewer grates or other things? The power of a good story gets through.

Use word pictures to sharpen your writing. When your character is in the car is she driving down the road? When looking at the trees is she looking at a tree line in the distance or laying under one watching the branches and leaves over her? They’re both trees but proximity and perspective makes a difference in the story. Good descriptions make scenes come to life. It enables someone who is blindfolded to see the picture you’re looking at. Strong characters, purposeful actions and making writing interesting makes the difference in a story with good information and a story with good information that gets read.

Whether you add creative details to non-fiction or realistic details to fiction, making writing interesting *and* engaging enough to read keeps the reader going.

Sharpen your skills and make your writing sizzle.

How do you add spark to your writing?