In my Writer’s Craft class in my senior year of high school, I had to write about a vacation I had taken. I know that sounds very third-grade, but my instructor told me that if I were to write about a vacation, I really had to make it my own, make it unique — it couldn’t just be a week-long vacay to the Caribbean where I did nothing but sit on the beach.
“What made this vacation special?” my teacher asked me.
“It didn’t always feel like a vacation,” I joked. “It was me, my two grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my two cousins, plus our luggage crammed into a nine-seat van. We drove all over Italy like that.”
He smiled at me. “You just made it your own.”
Now I had to do it justice, which was no easy feat, especially when I only had a couple pages to work with. My piece got good reception from the class and my teacher for the most part. But one line I wrote was that my family and I took “cheesy tourist pictures.” When my classmates raised their hands to give their critiques, one girl said to me, “Cheesy tourist pictures… I don’t really know what that means.” At first, I thought Pffft. Everyone knows what a cheesy tourist picture is.
That’s not entirely true, though, is it?
Because “cheesy tourist picture” is a broad, general term. Sure, most people probably get the concept of a cheesy tourist picture, but not the exact image. And the exact image, or damn near close to it, is crucial in creative writing. A cheesy tourist picture could mean zillions of different things. There are so many different combinations of monuments, tourists, meme poses, and so on.
So what was my particular cheesy tourist picture? Well, my family and I were at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and we saw dozens of people posing as if they were holding up the tower, keeping it from toppling over. My uncle had the idea for my two cousins and I to line up before the tower in order of height. I was the tallest, so I was closest to the tower. He told me to put my hands up and push toward the tower like it was about to collapse on me, then told my cousin to push against my back like he was helping me, and then told my youngest cousin to push against his back to help him. The result was that, from the correct angle, the three of us looked like we were struggling to hold the tower up together. And I should have described that when I wrote this Writer’s Craft assignment. I should have made it my own.
Of course, I was working with a word limit at the time, which makes it difficult to describe an entire vacation in detail. But in real life, we don’t use such strict word limits in our creative writing. Chances are that our work will be longer than the two single-spaced pages I was allowed for the assignment.
So don’t gloss over important details with “telling” statements. Show the reader what’s going on. Make it play out in their mind like they’re watching it on the big screen or, better yet, in person.
How can you do this?
By using the five senses and concrete nouns in your descriptions.
A concrete noun is something you can process with at least one of your five senses. An abstract noun, on the other hand, is just something you understand intellectually. Examples include emotions like sadness and happiness.
But we don’t just understand happiness and sadness, you might say. We feel them.
Yes, indeed we do. We feel the physical sensations that go with them. We feel the effects that they have on our bodies and minds. That’s where the meat is. For example, if you want to portray that someone is nervous, don’t just write “Character X felt nervous.” Write the churning of their stomach. Write their cold, numb, tingly skin. Write their shortness of breath or their feelings of lightheadedness. This is how you make a reader feel alongside your character. Emotions may be almost universally understood, but that doesn’t mean that when people read the words “sad,” “happy,” or “nervous,” they’ll automatically feel those things. It’s easy to become detached from commonplace words, so our job as writers is to bring what those words represent to life for our readers.
It is so, so tricky to write emotion in a way that shows rather than tells, especially because writing emotions vividly can bring us to some pretty dark places. It’s something that we, as writers, might always have to struggle with.
However, there are some other things that are easier to show, such as appearance and action.
Writers often love to describe the way someone or something looks, so chances are you’re already in pretty good shape for this. Just in case, though, I’ll tell you that you need specifics. For example, don’t just write “Character Y looked awful.” Awful how? Like they’ve been up all night tossing and turning? Describe their baggy, bloodshot eyes. Have they just gotten into a fight? Give a brief rundown of their bruises and cuts. Was it just a really bad makeover? That’s hilarious. Describe what makes that makeover horrible.
In terms of action, I’ll give you another true-to-life example. Someone I had a creative writing class with (this person will remain anonymous) tried to describe a two-person fall through the wooden planks of a porch. But that’s basically all the detail they gave about it. That and “This character got the brunt of it.”
“What do you mean by ‘got the brunt of it’?” I asked this person in class. What part of the body, how badly? It could have meant that the character was knocked unconscious, broke a limb, or got a huge cut lined with splinters and bruises. Or it could simply have meant that Character One got the worst of the fall because Character Two fell on top of them — Character Two gets a nice, soft human body to land on, but Character One hits all the wood and solid ground underneath and has to deal with the bones and weight of Character Two landing on them. The story in question had great dialogue but was also a slapstick comedy, so showing techniques really needed to be present.
Here’s a good exercise to practice showing instead of telling: Any time you’re tempted to write a general or abstract statement, instead brainstorm ten ways you could make this statement visual, tangible, auditory or otherwise concrete. What, specifically, does happiness (for instance) feel like for the five senses and in terms of internal bodily sensations? What does someone say or do when they feel happy? Feel free to make these actions and quirks specific to your character.
Be careful not to overdo it, though. Describing something in too much detail is as much of a turnoff as describing it in too little detail. A reader should not have to plow through more description than is truly necessary to get the image and feeling of scene into their mind. It will pull them out of the story just as surely as plain telling text that is dead on the page. Keep descriptions concise.
Let’s go back to the “Character Y looked awful” example. If you specifically want to convey that this person looks like they’ve been up all night, you could just say, “ Character Y’s eyes were baggy and bloodshot, her hair tangled like brambles around her head.” Don’t go writing, “ Character Y’s eyes had multiple little rivers of red snaking through their whites, and they were puffy underneath like hot air balloons. One lock of her hair fell in a scraggly curl down her face, another lock was tucked back, barely held in place by her ear, while yet another stuck out from the side of her head like a protruding tongue, etc., etc.” That is WAY too much. It’s okay to leave some of the image up to the imagination. That’s part of the fun of reading after all. The challenge of writing is finding that perfect middle ground — not dull, but not dialed up to eleven either.
One final note: It doesn’t matter which point of view you’re writing from, from first-person to third-person omniscient (meaning the narrator knows all). Showing just the right amount is always important. If you don’t immerse your reader in the story to the point where they feel like they’re experiencing it themselves, you may lose their attention, and you’d have a hard time getting it back.