The Writing Manual: Description

The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology teaches us that we must remove all back-story, emotion and plot development from the narrative and, instead, present it in a way that engages the reader.

It is essential that the reader is never given back-story/emotion/plot but, instead, discovers it as they read. The first port of call in this process is the dialogue. After all, how better to pass back-story and plot, than from the mouths of your characters. However, emotion presents a new challenge.

You’ll discover that the way the characters react, and how you describe this reaction, will help express emotion to your readers.

Painting a Picture

The famous writer Stephen King provides us with the perfect analogy for writing. In his book, On Writing, he describes writing as…

Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists . . . and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.

So what is King saying?

The best way to think about writing is a process of transferring an image from your mind into the mind of the reader. As a writer, you conjure a mental picture of a scene — a location, populated by characters that say and do things. You can see the characters, the location and the action. It is crystal clear.

Your job is then to take this image and put it into the mind of the reader.

See… telepathy.

The problem you face is in taking the crystal clear image from your mind and transferring it to the reader’s mind. This is where many inexperienced writers come unstuck. The instinctive approach is to describe the picture from your mind’s eye in as much detail as possible. The theory being that the words on the page will conjure the same image in the mind of the reader.

And why not? This makes sense; the more detailed your description the better the image you produce… right?

Actually, this is a bit of a rookie mistake.

The result is that if your main character has blue eyes, the inexperienced writer will make them ‘piercing blue’ or ‘an unusual shade of bright blue’ or ‘a shade of blue that would bring the angels from the heavens’.

The problem is that though the English language is pretty good at describing stuff, it is nowhere near as detailed as the mind of the reader. The reader’s mind is stacked full of detailed images, which go far beyond any written description.

As soon as you try to pin down the description of an object, person or location, you are actually moving in the wrong direction.

The key here is the opposite of what you think.

Less is more.

What experienced writers know is that their job is not to describe an object/person/location in detail but, instead, to give the reader just ENOUGH description to get their mind engaged and working, just enough description to allow the reader to recall a stored image from his or her own mind.

As a writer you are not trying to transfer the exact image in your mind but, instead, get the reader’s mind to build its own picture.

Let’s go back to those blue eyes.

What’s wrong with just saying they are blue?

What happens when you say ‘blue’ is that you leave a gap. The reader’s mind needs more than blue. The result is that the reader’s mind jumps to fill in the gap. It uses its own library of images, all intensely detailed, to conjure a suitable set of blue eyes. This set of blue eyes will go far beyond anything you could have described.

Take this example:

The old man knocked on the door.

I am betting you have already formed a picture in your mind’s eye. It is probably a vivid picture of an old man knocking on a door. The fact that your picture and my picture are different is not important. All that matters is that you have an old man and a door. 

Now, try this:

The old man knocked on the blue door.

Another layer of detail forces you to reassess and reform your picture. Now the door is blue. The shade of blue and the old man will be different for each reader, but who cares?

Now this:

The old man knocked on the battered blue door.

Again, another picture. The door has changed. The words have forced your mind to add in detail that was not there with the previous sentence.

What about this:

The old man knocked on the battered blue door. The ancient paint was peeling in large strips, the bare rotten wood clearly visible beneath.

Once again, you are forced to re-imagine your image of the old man and the door. Your mind will have focused in further, adding more layers.

But which is best?

The answer is it all depends on the scene.

If your scene calls for any old man to be knocking on any door, with neither the man nor the door having any real relevance to the plot, then the first example is the best. It allows the reader to paint a picture without any limitations. You give the reader just enough to paint the picture, but not so much that you are manipulating the image. However, let’s say that the door being old is important. In fact, the age of the door is a key plot point. Perhaps this is a portal to another dimension. The door shows its true age not the age of the building. In this situation you would want to add in more detail. You might find that ‘battered’ is enough, though perhaps the ‘peeling’ paint is inadequate.

The important concept here is that the plot and context will dictate the amount of description that is required.

In short, enough is enough.

Types of Description

Not all description is created equal. The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology dictates that the role of the narrative is simply to paint a picture of the world for the reader. The narrator is not there to pass back-story or move the plot forward. Their job is describing stuff that’s happening. Well, that’s a little white lie, the narrator can also pass the thoughts of characters, but we’ll get to that in a later chapter. In other words, the only thing the narrator will be doing is describing the world in which the characters exist.

This is a really important point, so much so I’ll say it again.

The only thing that should be in your narrative is description. No internal voice (well perhaps a bit of thought), but certainly NO BACK-STORY.

Narration is for description only (and some thoughts).

With that clear, it is important that you are able to clearly define the types of description you are using in your novel.

The four types are:

  1. Location description is the description of places. Remember, you are trying to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. This means that all locations require some level of description. This can vary from the interior of a car, to a simple room to a vast alien landscape.
  2. Character description is simply what characters look like. Not all characters will need detailed descriptions, but you will need to give every character enough description for your reader to form a mental image.
  3. Action description is the words you use to describe what your characters are doing. This might be dialing a number on a phone or flying plane. The context of the action will dictate the level of description required.
  4. Emotion description is probably the only one of the four that raises an eyebrow. In the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology we must avoid telling readers the way a character is feelings. This mean we can’t say, ‘John was sad.’ Instead, we must describe John being sad, hence emotion description. This is the big one!

Location Description

It is essential that as your reader progresses through the world you create, they are able to consistently create a mental image of the scenes you are describing. The reader will be constantly painting a mental picture of the scenes you describe; it is, therefore, essential you provide enough detail for them to paint a clear picture.

This is important. At all times your reader will be creating an image in their mind. They will create this image independent of your input. They will be desperately scrabbling for clues about the world your characters occupy and putting them together to create an image. It is up to you to control this image with your description.

You will need to constantly ‘top up’ the description of your locations and characters, so the reader is able to constantly recreate an accurate picture. This concept produces a simple rule – if the location changes, you need new description.

The problem that arises is often not to do with the timing of the description, but the amount of description that is needed, which will vary from a simple ‘the bare room’ to paragraphs of detailed prose.

OK… this is not as complex as it sounds. To help you understand, here are the two situations in which you will need to add description:

  1. If a character enters a new location.
  2. The location physically changes (it may start raining or a train may pull up to a station platform).

In short, change needs description.

Let’s look at some common examples:

If a character is in a new location then you need to add a description of that location. If a character moves from A to B, you must describe B. If you fail to describe a new location the reader loses the mental picture and quickly becomes confused. For example, if your main character was sitting in a dining room, but then gets up and moves to the kitchen, you would need to add description of the kitchen.

The question is how much description? The answer depends on the importance of the location. This is the key concept to description. The importance of the location dictates the amount of description.

  • If the location is important then you need to include a significant amount of description.
  • If the location is trivial, then the description will be minimal.

This means that you can be varying between paragraphs of description and simple phrases, such as ‘the woods’. It all depends on context. What you choose to class as ‘important’ and ‘trivial’ is up to you.

Let me pause a moment. I can give you a better framework than ‘it is up to you’. Here’s a few “rules of thumb”:

  • If more than one scene occurs in a location, then that location is important.
  • If only one scene occurs in a location but that scene is either essential to the plot, or the location itself is an important element (e.g. edge of a cliff for a fight scene), then the location is important.
  • If one scene occurs in a location and the location is not relevant to the scene (it could be any old street) then the location is trivial.
  • If the scene is a “travelling scene”, that is getting a character from one location to another (think inside of a plane), then the location is trivial.

Let’s first look at the level of description for an important location.

For example, if you are writing a story about a man stuck in a prison cell, then the cell is an important location (there will be more than one scene in this location, plus the cell is an important part of the scene) and will need a chunk of description, probably a couple of paragraphs. There will be a number of scenes set in this location and it is, therefore, an important backdrop for your story.

How you present this description will also depend on the context of the location. If the location is important, but will only contain a scene or two, then you will get away with dumping the description into one or two paragraphs. However, if the location is important, AND will be the location for multiple scenes then you are going to want to have a far more detailed description. However, you will not want to dump a massive section of description and, therefore, you’ll be spreading it out over a number of pages.

This leaves you with two choices:

  1. Add all the description in one go.
  2. Spread it out.

This isn’t really an and/or choice. The story will help you decide. Let’s look in a little more detail.

If the location is a one off, in other words, if the location will be used in just one scene, then add the description at the start of the scene in one chunk.

If the location will be used in more than one scene, then you need to take a different approach. In this situation, you start with a significant description, probably a single paragraph. Then, as the scenes progress you layer in more description, a line at a time.

Let’s go back to our prison cell…

Our main character has been captured and placed in a cell. He will escape at the end of the scene and that’s the last the reader will see of the cell. Therefore, the cell will appear in just one scene. However, since the scene is just in one location it is still an important location and is worthy of significant description.

In this situation, you present the description into a couple of paragraphs:

The cell is a small, square room. It is about six foot in height with each wall no more then four feet in length. There is a single window halfway up one wall. It is perfectly square and lets in a small amount of light, though it is blocked by a grill. The only other source of light is a single bulb that hangs from the center of the ceiling. Along the opposite wall is a squat bed. Its frame is steel but years of use leave numerous scratches and knocks. On the bed is a yellow mattress mottled with strains. The only way into or out of the cell is a single, heavy grey door.

Now, let’s look at the same description but this time in a different context.

This time our main character has been locked up in the cell and will not escape until near the end of the book. The cell will be the location for a number of scenes and is, therefore, a vital location for the story. In this case, the location will appear in a number of scenes. This approach is now different. When the location is first introduced we provide the reader with a significant, but not extended description. Then, as the scenes progress the writer will layer in a number of short descriptions to add texture to the location:

The cell is a perfectly square room. It is about six foot in height with each wall no more then four feet in length. There is a single window halfway up one wall. A single bulb hangs from the center of the ceiling. There is a single bed, a yellowed mattress resting on a grey steel frame. The only way into or out of the cell is a single, heavy grey door.

Here you can see we have cut the initial description to a single paragraph. It is enough for the reader to form a picture in their mind’s eye.

In a situation where a location will be used for a number of scenes you have a little more freedom. What you are able to do is layer in more detailed description. In this case you could write in a couple of sections, where the main character examines the room. Perhaps he tests out the bed, and then looks at the window; perhaps he bangs on the door or spots some writing on the wall. In each case you would layer in more description.

For example:

John looked closely at the bed. The mattress was yellowed and mottled with stains ranging in color from blood red to deep, dark brown. He lifted the mattress. The frame was gun metal grey, though it was scratched and dented. On the left hand leg someone had started to scratch out a series of tally marks, the lines of white clearly visible. Paul counted to thirty before giving up.

This process produces a layering effect. Each time it is repeated the location is further ingrained on the reader’s mind.

Remember the key rules of thumb, when writing description are:

  • If it changes, describe it.
  • If it is trivial, then a line of description will do.
  • If it is important, then go to town with your description.

Character Description 

Having looked at location description, we now turn our attention to character description. Many of the rules of thumb, which applied to location description, will also apply to character description.

As the reader progresses through your book they will be creating and recreating a picture of the current scene in their mind’s eye. This scene will consist of both the location and the characters. It is your job, as a writer, to provide adequate character description.

So what is ‘adequate’?

In short, you need to provide enough description that the reader is able to paint a picture of the character in their mind’s eye. The same rule applies here as for the location — the more important the character, the more description that is required. So, for example, your main character should have a detailed, multi-layered description. This should consist of not only a basic physical description, but also the character’s physical ticks and traits. On the flip side, minor characters should have description levels that match their importance (or lack of it). If the character is a fleeting component of a minor scene, then a simple ‘the postman’, may well be enough.

One rule of thumb to use when writing character description is that if a character is to appear in just one scene, then include just a simple one line description. However, the more scenes in which the character appears, the more description is required.

As an example, here’s the opening description for The Old Man who is one of the two main characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This description appears in the second paragraph of the story:

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Let’s go back to our mate John for an example. Imagine that you are writing a book in which a package has been sent to John. It is important that the reader knows John received the package, therefore you write this short scene…

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle he swung the door open. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled package in his hands.

“John Smith?” the postman said looking at the address label.

“Yup,” John said.

“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.

“Thanks,” John said as he closed the door.

In this section the postman is simply ‘uniformed’. This is the postman’s one and only appearance in the book. He was nothing more than a tool to get the parcel into John’s hands. Therefore, there is no need to layer in a detailed description.

Now… let’s look at another example.

Let’s take the same scene but this time the postman is of more importance. It turns out the postman is actually a hit man who is following John. A few scenes later we will see John going to the pub for a drink with this friends, he’s going to bump into the postman (who is following him), but is not going to recognize him. However, we want the keen eyed reader to make the link.

Suddenly, the importance of the postman is increased. However, we face one small problem. If we were to layer in a very detailed description, the reader would smell a rat. We’ve been trained to match the description level with importance, more of that later.

So, in this example we are looking to balance the description with enough to make an impression, but not so much the reader is suspicious.

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle he swung the door open. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled package in his hands. The postman was taller than John, his smiling face, adorned with a long handlebar moustache, beamed down.

“John Smith?” the postman said looking at the address label.

“Yup,” John said.

“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.

“Thanks,” John said as he closed the door.

This time we’ve added in a new line of description. Though not subtle, it is enough for the reader to paint a new picture of the postman. It is also enough that when we mention ‘handlebar moustache’ in a couple of scene’s time the reader may make the connection. One little tip… the postman in this scene is actually based on someone I know, who, incidentally, is not a postman. So when I wrote this scene I had an image of my friend in my mind. Though I only added the moustache, the character appearance is fully detailed in my mind’s eye.

The final type of character description is for your main characters. If you look back at the location section you will see the concept of layering description. The same concept applies for your main characters. Though we want you to build detailed descriptions of your character’s features and actions, we don’t want to do it all at once. In fact, we want to do the opposite.

When a major character is first introduced to the reader you should include a couple of lines of description. At this point you are focusing on the major features. You are trying to paint a very rough outline of the character, just enough for the reader to conjure an image in their head. For example, 6ft, blond hair and blue eyes will be enough in the first instance. Then, over the following scenes, you need to start layering in more detailed descriptions. This is not only physical description, but also habits and ticks that will bring your character to life. If your character strokes his beard whilst thinking, then you need to be adding this in early on. A good place to do this is via beats.

You must resist the temptation to go overboard. A line or two of description, every couple of scenes will be enough. You must not overload the reader. The problem is that each time you add a layer of description you are triggering the reader to redraw the image in their mind’s eye. If you change too quickly, or too often, you will just confuse the reader.

If done slowly and methodically, this system will allow you to build a complex series of physical attributes for you character. Over time the reader will pick up on the traits and allow you to add another level to your story telling.

“Remember that guy in the pub with the moustache?” said John stroking his beard. “I am sure I’ve seen him before.”

Description Matches Importance

It has already been said that the level of description must match the importance of the character, but this is worthy of a little further examination. Over the years readers have been trained to see low levels of description as indicating that the character in question is unimportant.

This is the Red Shirt principle.

In the 60s Sci Fi series Star Trek it become an in-joke that any red shirted crew man, joining Kirk and his team for a off-ship planet visit, was doomed to a grisly death. A fan, with too much time on his hands, worked out that of the fifty nine crew members killed in the original series, forty three (73%) were wearing red shirts.

Of course, red shirts were just that, red shirts. They had no back-story, no development and often no name.

Your novel will be packed with red shorts, characters with so little description that the reader will see them but ignore them. The postman with the moustache was a red shirt. These are the glue that holds your plot together.

Now… a word of warning.

In some stories you will want to trick the reader, you will want to sneak an important character into a scene, but disguise them as a red shirt. As a rule this should be avoided. There is no more guaranteed way to upset a reader than to have a red shirt turn out to be a major part of a plot.

Remember the unwritten rule… the more description the more important the character. The reader knows this rule, they’ve been trained with years of books and movies to understand that characters with no back-story can be ignored. It is an unwritten rule. If you simply break this rule to trick the reader, they will be angered.

But what happens if you want to hide a character in plain sight?

Perhaps you are writing a crime genre and you want the killer in the plot without the reader knowing. What you mustn’t do in this situation is make the character a red shirt. Instead, you can use stereotyping.

Stereotyping is when you call upon a well-understood character type to short cut the description process. If I say ‘frail old man’, or ‘huge body builder’ or ‘grumpy teenager’, they all conjure up an image. A stereotype.

In fact, you should routinely use stereotypes to short cut your description process. In fact, the best way to wield a red shirt is via a stereotype. Look at our postman (without the moustache), when I said postman, you conjured up a ready made image. I didn’t need to say anything else; you had already done all the work.

However, you can use this stereotype to distract the reader.

This is not the same as tricking the reader by making a red shirt a major character, this is using the reader’s own stereotype to hide a character in plain sight.

In Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady, Dahl gives us a master class in stereotyping. 

The story goes like this… The main character Billy Weaver stays at a bed and breakfast ran by a charming old lady. The twist to the story is that the old lady is… (look away now if you’ve not read the story) a serial killer who plans to poison Billy and have him stuffed. The problem Dahl faces is how can he trick the reader into thinking the Landlady is harmless until the last possible moment? The slight of hand comes in the unexpected behavior of the landlady. Dahl intentionally has his killer in plain sight.

The first we see of the landlady is this description…

She was about forty-five or fifty years old, and the moment see saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile.

Then, on the next page…

She was half-way up the stairs, and she paused with one hand on the stair-rail, turning her head sand smiling down at him with pale lips.

Add to this the narrator’s insistence that she is a ‘dotty’ lady and who would expect her of anything harmful?

The power of Dahl’s writing is that he gives us what we expect. The narrator TELLS us the she is a ‘dotty, old woman’ and we believe him, why wouldn’t we? Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (though The Twits is my all time favorite book), he wouldn’t lie to us, would he? Dahl’s plays on our stereotypes. We are told it’s an old woman, so we see an old woman.

The result is a memorable twist. This all said, the foundation for character description is not complicated:

  • If you are describing your main character, layer in description over a number of scenes.
  • If the character will play a part in more than one scene, add a few lines of description (and perhaps a layer or two).
  • If the character is a red shirt, then less is more.

Action Description

We have examined the role of location and character description, discovering that the amount of description needed depends on the importance of the location or character. We now turn our attention to action. The best place to start, when discussing description of action, is to clarify exactly what is meant by action.

In the context of novel writing, action is anything that happens.

So… if your main character makes a cup of coffee. This is action and would need a description.

If your character is watching someone else making a cup of coffee, then this is action and also needs a description.

If your character is fighting off three ninjas, who are riding genetically mutated unicorns, then, yes this is awesome, but it is also action.

From a technical viewpoint there is no differentiation between the type or intensity of action. If is happens in the scene, then it needs a description.

Let’s start with a little word of warning. It is very easy to slip into TELL when action enters your story. TELL must always be avoided. ALWAYS.

Perhaps, this is time for a little confession. When I wrote the examples for this book I kept, unintentionally, slipping into TELL. I just couldn’t help it. However, with each rewrite I weeded out the TELL and replaced it with SHOW. The moral of the story is that we all, accidentally, use TELL from time-to-time. It doesn’t make you a bad person, as long as you work hard to remove it with each edit. Now using adverbs, they do make you a bad person.

Here’s an example from our mate John…

John made a cup of coffee and sat down to answer his emails.

This is TELL. You are telling the reader what is happening. You are not showing them via description.

Here’s the same section but as SHOW…

John picked up the kettle and walked to the sink. He turned on the tap and allowed the water to fill the kettle. He returned to the work surface, plugged in the kettle and turned it on.

This is SHOW. In this example of action, you are SHOWING the reader what is happening. They are part of the story; they can see it unfold before their eyes and, therefore, they remain an active part of the process. You must constantly be on the look out for TELL. If the narrator is telling, then stop and SHOW.

Now… it pains me to say this but there’s an exception to the rule. It is just that, an exception; it is not an excuse for you to TELL.

It is OK (sometimes, occasionally) to use TELL. However, it must be done consciously and with forethought.

Here’s the problem – If you are showing everything, each little action, then your book can rapidly become very boring. If taken to the extreme the concept of SHOW says that you should describe every step, every breath, even every blink of an eye.

Of course, this is stupid.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

But is does present a problem.

How do you deal with the boring and mundane stuff?

Do you really want to describe your character making a cup of tea? Probably not… but go back and look at those two passages, the second (with the SHOW) is more enjoyable to read. You feel part of the process. Therefore, it becomes a balance. You want to SHOW as much as possible, but sometimes a simple ‘John made a cup of coffee’ is the best option.

The key is that when you do TELL you know you are doing it, and most importantly, WHY you are doing it.

If something happens in a scene, that is:

  • So mundane that is verging on boring if described.
  • So commonly understood that there is a shared understanding of the action, then you can get away with a bit of TELL.

If we go back to John and his caffeine habit:

John made a cup of coffee.

This statement fulfills both of the criteria. It is both mundane and commonly understood. We all know what it means to ‘make coffee’, plus no one in their right mind wants to read a description of someone ‘making coffee’.

Ok, let’s look at this principle in action…

Say your story calls for two scenes. The first scene is in Location A and the second in Location B. Your main character will be getting in his car in Location A and travelling to Location B.

This means you will need to write the first scene in Location A and the second in location B. Now, if you are strictly applying the SHOW principle, then you are going to have to write a third scene. This is the “travelling scene” in which the character moves between locations. The problem is that this “travelling scene” is pointless. It fails to move the plot forward or develop the characters and is, therefore, just a waste of the reader’s attention (and there’s NOTHING more valuable than the reader’s attention).

The answer to this problem is simpler than it may first seem. Your reader is not stupid. They will understand that the character will travel from Location A to Location B. Therefore, you don’t need to SHOW them, and you can just let it happen off page.

One of the great advantages of the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is that the reader is firmly engaged in the world of the narrator. Since you have actively tied them to this world they are able to accept that events occur away from the narrator.

This can be used to a greater or lesser extent.

At one extreme they will accept that if a character leaves Location A and gets in their car, then they will drive in that car to Location B. This is a mundane and commonly understood event and, therefore, there’s no need to describe it to the reader. To a greater extent, they are also able to understand that characters ‘do things’ off page. So if a character leaves one scene and then turns up a couple of scenes later with a broken arm, this is acceptable. You will probably need to explain the broken arm in the dialogue, but you don’t need to describe it in the action.

The result is that the way to avoid writing a complex and pointless travel scene is to do the following.

‘Ok, I’m off,’ John said as he picked up his car keys.

‘Where are you going?’ Sally said, her voice drifting from the next room.

‘To see Paul.’

‘Right see you later.’

***

John slowed the car as he pulled into Paul’s drive, the house ahead of him looming tall in the morning light.

The spacer (***) indicates to the reader that time has passed and something has happened whilst they were not reading (in this case John has driven his car). It also indicates that whatever ‘happened’ was not important enough to be in the story.

To summarized, the rules for writing description are pretty common sense:

  • Ensure that you SHOW description not TELL.
  • Unless it is mundane and boring, then a little TELL goes a long way.

Describing Emotion

Description of character, actions and events is normally something writers find easy to understand, once the basic elements have been explained. However, weaving emotion into your novel, with being able to fall back on TELL (he was sad), is no easy task.

The key to understanding the best way to deal with emotion is to revert back to the principles of Show, Don’t Tell. The fundamental concept of the system, is that if you are able to provide a truthful description of a character’s words and actions, this will stimulate an emotion in the reader.

At the most basic level TELLING the reader someone is sad will do nothing, but SHOWING the reader someone is sad, by describing the actions of a sad person, will stimulate a level of sadness in the reader.

If we are able to SHOW the reader an emotion, describing them in a way that triggers their own internal emotions, we are going to produce a far more powerful reading experience than one in which we TELL the reader how to feel.

Once again this is the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology at work.

Here’s an example:

John cried with sadness.

This is pure TELL. We are TELLING the reader John is sad. This is emotionally sterile. We don’t want to reader to know John is sad we want them to feel his sadness.

Try this example:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body shaking sobs wracked through John’s body, each coming in a wave and with each sob he let out a low whimper.

In this example we SHOW the reader John is sad. We are not TELLING the reader what John is feeling, we describe John’s sadness. In the process we create a narrative space. Since we don’t tell the reader what John is feeling they are forced to try and work it out. It is this narrative space that the reader will fill. They try to match John’s actions with actions they have seen or experienced. In the process, they trigger that same emotion within their own mind.

Your job, and perhaps the most difficult part of writing, is to write descriptions of action that are truthful reflections of the way a character would act whilst experiencing a certain emotion. The more truthful your description, the deeper your understanding of human nature, the more powerful your writing will become.

Now imagine this same example at the end of a scene where John has just returned from hospital after identifying his five-year-old daughter’s body following her death in a car crash.

Hold that image in your mind and read the example a second time:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body shaking sobs wracked through John’s body, each coming in a wave and with each sob he let out a low whimper.

Now that’s power – ‘John cried with sadness’ my arse.

Chapter 6: Narrative Voice >>