Show, don’t tell. Write in scenes. Writers hear these pieces of advice again and again. Yet we often forget why the advice is rock solid.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways that writing scenes that show don’t tell can help you tell a story?
Glorious CSD (Concrete Sensory Detail)
When you “tell” instead of showing in your scenes, you limit your readers’ ability to employ the senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch help readers feel as if they are in the middle of the action. Concrete Sensory Detail also helps readers identify with the character, so they experience emotions along with the character. Sensory input is one of the best ways to connect your readers with the emotions. It gives readers cues on how those emotions are processed. CSD takes a black and white scene into living color—color that acts out rather than narrates a scene.
Manager in Chief
Another way that show, don’t tell helps in scene writing is by allowing you, the writer, to better direct your readers. You are the manager of your readers. You show them what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what to remember, what is not important. You accomplish these managerial tasks through your word choices, CSD, and what you heighten with tension, foreshadow or emphasize.
Every scene needs info from you to show readers what will help them continue and participate as the story unfolds. Writers who confuse or annoy readers with trivial details written in great detail are actually mismanaging by directing readers’ attention to stuff that doesn’t matter to the story. If your character goes into a restaurant, for example, and you write out every detail of a meal, from order to check, readers can’t grasp what is important in the scene.
But be careful not to micro-manage. Tellers are often trying to force readers to interpret story events in a narrow way. By showing in your scenes, you can allow readers more room to interpret story events in different ways.
And be sure to show the good stuff. When new writers learn about show don’t tell, they often mistakenly think every item, word and action must be explained. Show only the parts which are vital to the story—you can tell (narrate, summarize or omit) the rest.
The goal for scenes in modern fiction is for the most complete experience for readers. Readers demand to be immersed in the story world. Readers also want to experience emotion alongside the story hero. Cinematic techniques can help you show these things. Pay attention to where the camera is. I recommend C.S. Lakin’s Shoot Your Novel as a resource.
A long shot usually contains fewer details and less emphasis on an individual. As the camera comes closer, character emotion becomes more prominent. Time takes on a different effect depending on where the camera is too.
You can speed or slow time perception by using quick cut-aways or long, languid vista pans. More sensory details and emotional input cues readers that a scene is very tense by slowing down time and creating a tight close-up shot. These are just a few ways a scene will show, not tell—and your readers will thank you.
For writers in the Eugene-Springfield area, I’ll be teaching this topic next Monday evening, February 11, 5:30-7PM at Springfield Public Library. Join me–it’s a free class!