I’ve heard the phrase “show don’t tell” at least a million times in my writing career. And, mostly, that’s good advice—though there are times when “telling” is more economical and gets the job done.
But in most scenes, and especially when I want to draw my reader into deep point of view, I try to show as much as possible. I draw on the senses instead of my character’s intellect.
In other words, I want my readers to experience the event with my character instead of my character filtering the experience for them.
Below are a few “before” and “after” sentences from my current manuscript: Read more
In a post I read a few years ago by Marg McAlister, “Verisimilitude: Description that Puts the Reader in the Scene,” I copied and saved one of the excerpts she used because I thought it was a good example of how sensory description can work well in a scene.
I was reminded of this last night as I lay in bed reading an urban fantasy novel (to remain nameless except to say it is a popular series by a well-known author in the genre) and my pet-peeve radar was activated.
But let me ask first–why do we read? I read for many reasons: to learn about the world, to learn about the craft of writing, to activate my imagination, to take a break from work. But the main reason I read fiction is to enter other worlds, to lose myself in another place and time, to feel what the characters feel, to experience something different.
So, my biggest pet peeve when reading is when an author pulls me from that world.
And pulling me from that world with an info dump of inactive setting or character description is the worst offender. Pure, unadulterated, torturous Hell. Or, what I imagine Hell might be like for a writer or avid reader. Read more
It happens to all of us.
You’re working on your manuscript and you get stuck. The writing feels clunky. Something isn’t working. This is when you must duck and cover.
“Duck and cover” is the term author Pam Lewis coined to describe her process of jumpstarting her writing when she’s become stuck.
“I open a blank page on my computer and ask myself, ‘What’s going on in the scene?’ I close my eyes and watch the characters and hear them.”
In her current manuscript, Lewis said she used the technique to figure out what a character was doing in a particular scene. But she realized the technique helped her see what mattered to the character and the character’s emotional state. With her eyes closed, Lewis saw that the character’s hands were trembling, she was sweaty, and didn’t smell good.
Duck and cover can be a way of accessing the sensory details of your scenes.
Lewis is the author of A Young Wife, Perfect Family, and Speak Softly, She Can Hear.
Watch the scenes of your novel as though they were a movie, Lewis says. Start by writing the action or what the character is thinking or feeling. Sometimes Lewis writes random dialogue to get the sentences flowing again. “It almost always offers something useful, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m writing about at the moment.”
“Even more important than what the characters say sometimes is what they do and their facial gestures,” Lewis says.
For more ideas to break through writing resistance, read Four tips to defeat your writing funk.
I was reminded the other day that writing short pieces is great practice for writing longer pieces. I had just finished my creative nonfiction submission for the Surrey International Writers’ Conference Writing Contest and was editing it one last time when I realized I hadn’t grounded my reader in the location of the initial scene. Yes, I placed it in a mobile home but where was that home in the world? I could have left it as is and it would have still been fine, but I decided that showing where the home was located would better serve the piece as a whole.
But how to include those details in a manner that served the story while keeping the piece under the 1,500-word limit of the contest? Read more
Last week, I was sitting in my cube at work when I heard the squeak and clatter of a cart being wheeled down the aisle near my desk. Since it was on the other side of the wall, I couldn’t see it, but I could hear the man who was pushing the cart sing as he rolled along.
He stopped on the other side of the cube wall near the water machine. I heard the thunk of a big jug of water as he replaced an empty one with the new, then the gurgle of water as it settled in. During all this, the man sang the Michael Jackson song, “The Way You Make Me Feel.” (He had a great voice too.)
As this was happening, I heard the sound of two men talking as they walked towards us down the hall discussing lunch and if the weather might be nice and if they should go out for lunch. The man pushing the cart stopped singing long enough to tell them, “It’s a lovely day.” He resumed singing, and I heard the ding of the elevator bell as he wheeled and bumped his cart into the elevator.
As I reflected on what I’d just heard, I realized that I had a picture in my mind of the scene on the other side of the wall, even though I didn’t see any of the “characters.” It also occurred to me that I probably picked up more sensory details that were auditory due to not being able to see, but only hear, the action around me.
I imagine if I’d been able to watch the action take place, I might have relied more on what I saw than heard, and I might have missed some of the auditory details. Read more