Showing vs. Telling: How to Guide a Reader Evoking the Five Senses

Hello, everyone. First, I would like to apologize for taking so long to make a new post. I have been working hard on the draft of my debut novel and therefore creating new content for my blog has not taken as much precedence. However, I am working on rearranging my priorities and will endeavor to stay more regular with this in the future.

That said, without further ado, let’s dive into today’s topic.

If you’ve been writing long enough, surely you have heard about showing vs. telling, and why in many cases showing is better.

In this blog, I am going to outline some of the key advantages of showing as opposed to telling to help strengthen your writing.

If you’re anything like me, then sometimes those descriptions can be a pain to write without getting repetitive or boring. Therefore, my hope is that by giving some tips regarding this crucial writing device, the process will become less painful for all of us. We’ll begin by addressing the basic question:

WHY IS SHOWING SO IMPORTANT?

Showing allows writers to give descriptions of people, places, and/or situations in ways that help immerse readers in what is happening so they can relate better to whatever writers are trying to convey. Showing taps into one’s senses and as a result, it helps create a deeper connection between readers and the story they’re reading.

Allow me to give an example.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. Your main character is a young and somewhat inexperienced homicide detective. He is following an anonymous tip that could potentially lead to the perpetrator of the murder and a subsequent arrest. The scene starts with the character deep in the woods trying to find something.

Here’s such a scene as conveyed through telling:

John walked through the fog-ridden trees, shining his flashlight around so he could see better. The tip said that the person he was looking for lived in a cabin deep in these woods. If he could find it, he might finally have someone to put behind bars after six months of painstaking investigative work. 

He walked around for hours until his feet grew sore. Still, he saw no sign of a cabin anywhere. Plus, it was getting colder by the minute, and he had no coat. His hand shook as he tried to keep his flashlight still, and the thick mud in the area made it much harder for him to walk. 

As he stumbled about, John began to worry that maybe he had gotten lost, and he wouldn’t last much longer in his condition. Dozens of people had gone missing in these woods over the past twenty years, and the last thing he needed right now was to be next. Plus, with a potential killer lurking around these parts, he worried he might become the next victim. 

Then he saw something out of the corner of his eye and turned. Someone was running after him with a giant ax in his hands. John turned and tried to run, but stumbled in a pit of mud and fell to the ground, his flashlight flying out of his hands. There had been recent rains in the area and the forest floor was still damp. John tried to wriggle his foot out of the mud, but he was stuck. And that man was still coming. 

Is that interesting enough for you to read? Maybe so; I won’t assume your preferences. But how does it compare to this?

John walked into the trees, his flashlight poised in his hand. His uniform clung to his skin from the thick sheet of water lingering in the air. Chills went throughout his body, causing him to shiver. John blinked several times against imposing darkness of the forest, coupled with the thousands of dancing water particles in his small beam of light. Tip or no tip, how on earth was he supposed to find a cabin in these conditions? 

Still, John lingered on. The aching pain shooting up through his calves and thighs indicated to him that perhaps he had gone at least a couple of hours too long. There was still no sign of a cabin–just more floating water particles. Every step weighed heavier on him as he tugged on the thick layer of mud coating the ground. He trembled as he tried to fight the iciness traveling through his veins, and his flashlight’s beam started bobbing erratically. Why hadn’t he brought a coat with him? 

Beyond that, was he lost? He couldn’t contemplate that possibility. Becoming just another one of dozens of people who went into these woods and never came out wasn’t going to help. No, he would get out. He wouldn’t become just another victim of whoever might be lurking in these woods preying on innocent people. He was a police officer now; he would catch him, no matter what it took. 

Movement in John’s periphery caught his attention. As he focused his flashlight towards the source, his heart slammed in his chest. A large man with an ax ran for him, his footsteps pounding even in all the mud. 

All the achiness from hours of walking suddenly disappeared as adrenaline shot through his system. New chills traveled up his spine as he turned to run, but the mud under his feet pulled at him and sent him tumbling to the ground. His hand released his flashlight upon impact with the ground, and his world became plunged in darkness once more. 

The hairs on John’s neck stood on end as he heard the heavy breaths of his pursuer behind him, and tears escaped his eyes as he closed them and prepared to meet his end. 

Did it take more room to write that? Sure. Is there still some telling in this example? A little.

But does it pull you into the story more? Can you not feel the weight of the mud as John tries to pull his shoes out of it?

Does your skin not develop goosebumps as you read about ice traveling through his veins?

Do your muscles not ache as it’s made clear John is struggling after trudging through a damp forest for hours?

Does your heartbeat not quicken a little as John comes face-to-face with imminent danger and you wonder if he’s going to make it out of this alive?

These are the kinds of sensations you want to evoke in your readers. In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, the authors write, “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details–these are the life of fiction. Details…are the stuff of persuasiveness” (Burroway, Stuckey-French, and Stuckey-French 22).

They continue, “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses'” (22).

Did the above example not do just that?

And this, my friends, is where the true power of “showing” lies.

Are there times when telling is better? Certainly, and I plan to go over that in future blogs.

However, as a general rule when it comes to writing compelling descriptions, showing almost always wins out.

Can you think of any scenes from some of your favorite books or stories that really pulled you in? Go back and read them over again. Odds are the author utilized the techniques of “showing” versus “telling” to make them so powerful.

Unlock your senses. Give details. Captivate. Above all, have fun.

Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.

Work Cited

Burroway, Janet, Stuckey-French, Elizabeth, and Stuckey-French, Ned. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 9th ed. Pearson, 2015.

 

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