The Secret of How to Show Not Tell (or How to Paint a Picture With Words)

Updated on April 18, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I teach creative writing to adults and I love helping my students improve their writing skills.

Peyreleau, Aveyron, France. A well written scene adds depth and interest to your story.
Peyreleau, Aveyron, France. A well written scene adds depth and interest to your story. | Source

How to Create a Memorable Scene in Your Novel

When writing a scene in your novel, aim to create a mood and an emotional connection with your reader. To help you do this, take a moment and carry out the following exercise.

Imagine you are taking a photo. Point your camera at your subject and then zoom in. Can you see the difference between just looking at the subject and then moving into close focus? The following two pictures illustrate what happens when a photographer does this.

The photo below shows a panoramic view of a city walkway with steps leading away from the viewer (or reader of your written scene). You can see the tall buildings on either side and there is a sense of being overpowered by the grim desolation of the place. But do you feel any emotional connection with this picture? Is your mood affected by what you see? To me this is a bland, flat scene that does not hold my attention. It does not inspire me to think about where those steps may lead.

Now take a look at the next picture.

Harbor Steps, Seattle, Washington, U.S
Harbor Steps, Seattle, Washington, U.S | Source

Zoom in to Engage Your Reader

The next picture shows a similar scene to the one you have just studied. It is shot in a cityscape with an escalator leading to an unseen destination, but there the similarities end. In this photo the photographer has gone for a closer view, he has zoomed in on the scene.

The stairs are now the center of the action. The sight of a man disappearing at the top of the flight of steps draws your attention and makes you wonder who he is and where he is going. The buildings in this shot are just as tall and overbearing as in the previous photo, but the size of the skyscraper is emphasized by juxtaposing it with a person.

Think about the five senses and how they create an emotional engagement with this scene.

Stairway to heaven, Ile-de-France, Paris.
Stairway to heaven, Ile-de-France, Paris. | Source

Keep Your Writing Style Clear and Simple

Your writing skills will be improved by reading both fiction and non-fiction books. Uses simple sentence structures and don't use long complex words where a short one would do. Make your writing accessible to all, not just those with a college degree.

Attending practical writing courses and workshops can help you improve the structure and presentation of your work. If you do not have the time or the money to attend one of these I recommend “Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School” by Gotham Writers’ Workshop. This course is written by a group of successful authors who have encountered and overcome the same problems you may experience in your writing endeavors. Their advice is helpful and real.

Show not tell the sweet taste of success.
Show not tell the sweet taste of success. | Source

The Five Senses: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch

When you are creating a scene for your novel, your aim is to create a vivid picture of your world in your reader’s imagination. Don’t just rely on the sense of sight in your description. Think about the other four too. If you were standing in your scene what would you hear and smell? Think about the feel of things if you could reach out and touch them. Taste does not just relate to food, but can give an idea of pollution or lack of it (for example, the taste of wood smoke or salty sea air).

Using the five senses in your writing, not only creates a better mental picture of the action’s physical location, but can also place the action in a specific historical time period.

In the video below, the writer Nalo Hopkinson gives great advice on how to make your writing more descriptive. Done well you will create a magic that holds your readers spell-bound.

How To Write Descriptively

Study How Other Writers Set the Scene

If you are struggling toshow not tell”, read other writers and analyze how they have brought a scene to life. Here is an example of scene setting from “The Followers” by Welsh writer Dylan Thomas.

Water from a chute dripped on to his sacking. He waited in his own pool of rain.

A flat, long girl drifted, sniveling into her hanky, out of a jeweler’s shop, and slowly pulled the steel shutters down with a hooked pole. She looked, in the grey rain, as though she were crying from top to toe.

A silent man and woman, dressed in black, carried the wreaths away from the front of their flower shop into the deadly darkness behind the window lights. Then the lights went out.

A man with a balloon tied to his cap pushed a shrouded barrow up a dead end.

A baby with an ancient face sat in its pram outside the wine vaults, quiet, very wet, peering cautiously all round it.

It was the saddest evening I had ever known.

Some of the phrases in this passage that elicit the five senses are as follows.

Sense
Descriptive Phrase
Sight
His own pool of rain
Hearing
Sniveling into her hanky
Taste
As though she were crying (salt tears).
Smell
(Water) dripped on to his sacking
Touch
Pulled the steel shutters down with a hooked pole.
Once upon a rainy day. There are stories waiting to be written about the everyday.
Once upon a rainy day. There are stories waiting to be written about the everyday. | Source

Evoke a Sense of Place with Your Writing

You have lived, breathed and thought about your story for months. In your mind’s eye, you can see clearly where the action takes place. You see every scratch on the sidewalk, you feel each individual snowflake as it forms into drifts. You think it must be obvious to your readers where the story is set, but often it’s not. Novice writers make the mistake of thinking that making bland statements about location is sufficient. You need to set the scene by “showing not telling”.

Show Don't Tell: Four Writers Explain How

Join a Writing Group

Sometimes it is difficult to be self-critical. Reading your script aloud in a writer’s group can be very helpful. Constructive feedback from other authors may guide you to improvement. Don’t worry of you lack self-confidence in your ability to read aloud. Others in the group will feel the same way and a supportive group will help you overcome your fears.

Join a writing group where you feel comfortable and supported. If there isn’t one like that nearby then start one of your own. It’s a great way to network with other writers.

Each writer can take a turn of reading a page or two from their work in progress. The rest of the group should then discuss the passage they have heard. The discussion should focus on what made the story interesting and memorable. You will be amazed at the issues others notice. Treat it as a learning experience and be willing to explain why you wrote the scene the way you did. If you are able to accept constructive criticism your novel writing skills will improve.

Read widely to learn the techniques of established authors. See how they unobtrusively show not tell the details of their characters and plot.
Read widely to learn the techniques of established authors. See how they unobtrusively show not tell the details of their characters and plot.

Writing For Money

Few authors achieve financial security purely through the sales of their novels. Most will supplement their income in other ways, for example through teaching or facilitating creative writing workshops. Publishers can pick and choose the one manuscript they wish to promote from hundreds of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts they receive every year. If you are hoping to live off the proceeds of selling fiction, then think again. You may be successful, but it is far more likely you will need to write for love rather than money.

If you are having fun as you write, that will show in your writing. There is a fluency of language that only comes when you really understand the topic you are writing about. If you have a particular hobby or interest, your enthusiasm will be infectious. People will want to read what you write as they know you are speaking from experience.

Every writer starts out as a beginner. Those that achieve success do so through persistence and hard work. Being a writer can be tough, you need an inner resilience and self-confidence to succeed. You also need to be able to deal with rejection and false praise. Be prepared to listen to other writers and to learn from them.

Comments

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  • quildon profile image

    Angela Joseph 14 months ago from Florida

    Very helpful article, Beth. I love the graphic at the top. It's so easy to take the lazy way out and tell instead of show but if we have someone else look at our work we would be able to see where we need to shape up. Thanks for sharing that video.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 14 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Great information and advice. My writing experienced a major shift when a publisher told me not to start my novel by describing the scene, but with action or conversation. Put the reader in the midst of the story and let the setting reveal itself. Best advice I ever got.

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