Here lately, I’ve been seeing more and more writers bemoaning ‘show don’t tell.’ When you keep getting hammered over the head with something, there’s always a backlash, no?
But when I get into the weeds of it with writers, the light bulb flicks on. Most of the resistance is due to a misunderstanding of it all, and when we discuss the descriptive writing tips to get you there, ahh! Then it all makes sense.
The number-one complaint I hear is that this bogs down the story. That in today’s publishing world of plot-driven novels, of fast-moving narrative nonfiction, they don’t have the luxury of describing everything and everyone.
True. But that’s not what ‘show don’t tell’ is all about.
The thing is that everything—every word, sentence, paragraph, scene—is in service to the plot or characters, and hopefully, both.
Once my authors grasp this, their entire writing worlds change.
So what are the 5 descriptive writing tips to bring your novel to life?
1). First off, let’s talk about what this isn’t.
I know, an odd way to begin! But getting the main misconception out of the way right off the bat clears the space to know what it is.
So, no—you’re not going to be showing every aspect of your characters, setting, and plot. If you did, the tome would be 1000 words long. And we all know what publishing would think of that now, don’t we. Whether today or fifty years ago! (Michener, notwithstanding 🙂
2). Show the important aspects; tell the rest.
This is about balance.
I know—nebulous, right? And in the beginning, it is difficult indeed to know when to show, and when to tell/convey. You’re finding your sea legs, and the boat feels pretty rocky. But I promise—it gets easier as you go along.
As a book editor, here’s the key I teach my authors: Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement. As things go from good to bad or bad to worse, what does your character learn about himself, and how has he changed?
Example: A daughter risks losing her mother, realizes that she will not always be cared for, and now sees herself as more than just a dependent. Turning point! Now, choose powerful words to end that scene and let the impact resonate across the white space.
3). When done well, showing/describing can be tight as well as evocative.
Even though I said “lavish word count” above, that doesn’t mean ten pages to convey one thought or aspect.
It means using descriptive action, active voice, and rather than telling, say, what something looks like, painting a word picture instead.
Let’s use a simple example, describing a scene:
“The land was green on the road leading up the foothills. Horses were in pens on the left. Wooden fences were on either side. Sun shone on the mountain’s side. Pine trees grew halfway up it. Snow covered the top. The sky was blue. The peak rose to 14,000 feet.”
Yeah, you get the facts. But I haven’t a clue what it looks like. Nor do I get the character’s perception of it. Here’s the same scene, created:
“The narrow road snaked up the mountain, surrounded on either side by lush and verdant green. Spring had brought life-giving rains to the land that only weeks before lay barren and dead. Up ahead, the jagged, purple peak beckoned me, snow trails trickling down it like sugar icing on a cake. Near the road, an old gelding stood trapped in a rickety pen, staring up at the rocky cliffs. Take me too, his eyes seemed to say.”
Ah, now we get emotion—a semblance of life and death, of rebirth, and of the quest for freedom. Look at how much more mileage you get from the latter as opposed to the former. Using exactly a sentence and a half more space.
4). Ditto for Characters.
You know, as a book editor, what I so often see is when a character comes on stage, something like this:
He was about 7 foot tall, with wavy dark hair. Growing up, he was a rebel, and still was today. Etc.
Instead, weave in physical descriptions through action: Bending slightly to get through the doorway, he ran his fingers through his black hair, attempting to tame the unruly waves.’ That way, I can see him and get a feel for his own unruly temperament and a sense of his height, all within one sentence.
Again, about the same number of words, but the reader gets a lot more out of it. And the author saves on word count.
5). As with everything writing, it all boils down to this:
Do I need this word/line/paragraph/etc.?
That’s your litmus test—for every single word you leave in your book.
Is it necessary? Does it add to without being verbose? If I take it out, what will I lose? What will I gain?
Can I say it better? Tighter? Conveying more meaning in fewer words?
Because in the end, descriptive writing tips also must help to keep your word count manageable, within the specs of your genre.
That’s what makes for a saleable book, and a great read!