Remember Show and Tell? I do. The night before the big day, I’d rifle through all my stuff trying to decide which toy was worthy of such an honor. After vascillating between a Cabbage Patch doll and Kid Sister–ok, so I didn’t “vascillate”, I played eenie meenie minie mo–a made my choice and barely slept through the anticipation.
At school the next day, I held up my Kid Sister doll and told my friends all about her. Nevermind that they couldn’t hear a word I said, their brains too focused on sharing their own treasured toy. I talked louder, smiled and used more than the allotted two minutes to relay our many adventures.
If you’re not still trying to wrap your head around a Cabbage Patch Kid or Kid Sister–cue the visuals:
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with writing.
If we think back to those glory days of taking toys to school, we’ll see that show and tell is a useful tool because it taught us how to describe every day objects in engaging ways.
Think about it. Most of the toys we brought in were ones that we’d played with numerous times. Ones tied to some of our best memories and stories. Sure, you can argue that because the toy was in front of the audience, we didn’t have much to tell, but that would be false! We didn’t stand there and give them a description of the doll. We told them how the doll made us feel. We told them about the time we stuck gum in her hair just to see what would happen…or was that just me??? We told them stories that brought our toys to life and made them more than just colorful plastic. The children with the best tales were always able to keep their audience more captive than those who just held the toy up and said, “Look at my Legos!”.
If you want to captivate your readers, you have to do the same. Give them descriptions that do more than just state the obvious. For instance, have you ever written or come across a description like this:
Hi, my name is Tory. I’m 5’6 with brown hair and brown eyes. My hair is long and wavy. I live in Dayton, Ohio and attend Dayton Ohio High School. I’m in the 10th grade and my Science teacher is so annoying. My school is a brick building with tons of windows, three doors and a big parking lot, etc.
While most of the information above may be vital to the story in some way, there are two issues with the delivery: 1) there’s no need to give all this information at once and, 2) there’s a better way to give this information than just “saying” it. By now, we’ve all been told to “show” how angry Johnny was instead of just telling the reader that Johnny was angry. The question is, how do you do it? How can you show a character’s heartbreak without just saying his heart was broken? Why is that even important?
It’s possible to write a good story without showing. In fact, it might even be necessary at times. If you want readers to connect with your characters on a deeper level, you have to go beyond the tell. In this series, I’ll teach you four ways to do just that!
1. USE YOUR SENSES
One of the easiest ways to breathe life into your descriptions is by tapping into your senses. Day to day we go through life without always connecting to the things around us. To be able to use this concept in your writing, you have to deliberately focus on your world and the character’s. What do they see? Hear? Smell? Is there anything around that they can reach out and touch?
Let’s try it with the setting from the opening example, a high school– more specifically, a classroom.
Sound: a bell ringing; teacher yelling; kids talking, laughing, and shouting; chairs scraping the floor; announcements over the intercom.
Smell: permanent marker; dust; fruity perfume worn by girls; sweat;
Touch: texture of pencil/pens in hand; carvings on a desk; book bag; a friend’s hand; cold steel on the legs of chair
Sight: teacher at the blackboard; posters; students hunched over desks; globe; windows; kids throwing things; kids on their phone
Taste: stale gum/sweet candy; salty chips (obviously, you can’t “taste” a classroom, so these would relate more to what the character “tastes” in the scene).
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it shows you where to look for description inspiration. Narrowing the school setting (or any setting) down to the specific place your character happens to be–the gym, a classroom, the principal’s office–helps add specific encounters with the senses. This principle also works for describing people!
Now that we’ve observed the classroom via our senses, it’s time to determine what’s important in the scene. At times, our first instinct is to list everything in the room. Resist that urge! Descriptions must either contribute to the plot or reveal information about the character(s). If the globe in the classroom has nothing to do with character/plot, it shouldn’t make it into the description. Deciding what’s important about the scene will help narrow the focus of description.
Want to give it a try?
Using the setting above–a classroom–write a quick description of Tory’s surroundings or put your own character into the mix. You can choose from the examples listed, or create your own. When you’ve scribbled out your masterpiece, share it in the comments.
If you’re having trouble describing a setting or person in your WIP, focus on the senses experienced by your character and use those that stand out the most. You could stop here and still have a pretty good description, but if you want to add more layers, stay tuned for the next installment, Lights, Camera, ACTION!
Are you great with descriptions, but need help with small grammatical details like comma placement, hyphens and dashes? Click the link below to sign up for my FREE online course, The Write Moves: Grammar!