How to Show, Not Tell, in Your Fiction Writing

It’s been a hard day. You settle into your most comfortable chair with the book you just bought. All you want to do is get lost in a good story for awhile. You open the book and begin to read. Which of the following would let you know you’re really holding a book you can get lost in?

“Jack was nervous as he entered the boardroom.”

Or

“Jack entered the boardroom. He felt the knot in his stomach tighten as thirty five sets of eyes stared at him. A downpour of sweat soaked his armpits and shirt. Trickles of sweat even rolled down his back. He was glad to have on his heavy dark jacket. The chairman cleared his throat disapprovingly. Jack’s mouth went so dry it felt like he hadn’t swallowed in years. When he glanced at the chairman, his stomach rumbled. Jack prayed he wouldn’t need to make a mad dash to the bathroom.”

In the first example, the author expects the reader to do all the work, while in the second, he has done his job as a writer. He has described the scene with enough detail so the reader can feel the man’s discomfort, in all of its nasty aspects.

Telling a scene in a story instead of showing is one of the most common mistakes that new, and not so new, writers make.

There are two techniques I use to insure that I show and don’t tell. First, I imagine that I am explaining something to someone from Mars, who has not experienced anything on Earth. The next thing I do is ask myself what senses are involved. If the reader were in the scene, what would he or she see, hear, smell, taste and feel?

Would they smell bad breath or an orange tree in bloom?

Would they feel the baking heat of the Sahara summer or an ice cube being drawn down their neck?

Would they taste their own blood during a fight or a slice of chocolate cheesecake from a five star restaurant?

Would they hear the deafening roar of a jet engine just yards away or the soft whisper of their lover’s voice in bed next to them?

Would they see the ghastly carnage of war or the face of their newborn child?

You get the picture. Don’t assume that the reader will, or can, fill in the gaps. It’s your job to describe the scene in enough detail so that your reader sees and feels in their mind what you saw and felt in yours, as you wrote the scene. But be careful not to go overboard on detail. This is where the skill of a writer really shows.

So study the world around you, the magnificent and mundane, and convey this in your writing.

Jeff Colburn is a freelance writer who specializes in business writing, articles and genre fiction. His books, The Writer’s Dictionary Of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Mythology and The Youngest Ninja, can be purchased from his site, The Creative Cauldron. The Creative Cauldron is a site filled with information for writers, photographers, artists and other creative people.