When you look back on elementary school, what do you remember? The wooden bench where you ate lunch everyday, and the sharp sting of a splinter under your nail when you scratched off its periwinkle paint. The metallic tang of the water fountains, vibrating with an almost meditative hum. Your 5th grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald’s lilting Irish accent that reminded you of sparrows chirping in spring. Your favorite outfit: an oversized Who Framed Roger Rabbit t-shirt from your 8th birthday and baby blue satin skirt cascading with puckered ruffles. (I have a photo of myself wearing this very outfit with a crimped ponytail. My other favorite outfits as a child were a Wonder Woman costume, and my mother’s gauzy, ivory, rhinestone-strewn First Holy Communion dress. I also owned a surprising number of sequined ice-skating leotards for a child that didn’t take lessons. I’d wear them to birthday parties.)
When you recall the details of your own childhood, it’s easy to feel as though you’re back in Mr. Johnson’s math class, furiously scribbling down answers to your basic addition test. We are transported by the visceral details of a place, because we think in pictures, we feel the world through our senses.
No two people have exactly the same impression of a painting, or a piece of music, or a meal. Sensory experience is individualized, so it’s only through detailed, sensory images that a writer can pull a reader into the world of a novel.
Since grade school, it’s been drilled into our heads to “show, don’t tell,” but here is a refresher course.
To create showing writing, your descriptions should be vivid (clear, succinct, and specific) and visceral (using all senses: touch, smell, taste, hear, see), and it should avoid clichés (“he was drawn like a moth to a flame”). As Dennis G. Jerz in his great article “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell” clarifies: “Telling states facts, showing invites the readers into a deeper understanding.” (The article has a bunch of great examples. I highly recommend it.)
Here is an example of excellent showing writing from Lionel Shriver’s gorgeously terrifying novel We Need to Talk About Kevin:
“A few feet away, a fellow shopper’s frazzled black hair went right at the roots for a good inch, while its curl held only at the ends: an old permanent grown out. Her lavender top and matching skirt may have once been stylish, but now the blouse bound under the arms and the peplum served to emphasize heavy hips. The outfit needed pressing, and the padded shoulders bore the faint stripe of fading from a wire hanger. Something from the nether regions of the closet, I concluded, what you reach for when everything else is filthy or on the floor.”
What does this description tell you about the woman? She’s clearly unkept, but there’s something else. She’s unkept in a way that shows a certain misery, like she’s given up on taking care of herself. And her old-fashioned clothes and grown-out perm suggest that she’s stuck in the past, as if some past event has traumatized her so greatly that she no longer cares about herself. (This is all true, by the way. Her daughter was murdered the year before.)
Now think of how this would read if Shriver had used telling writing instead:
“She didn’t look good. After the death of her daughter, she had really let herself go. She’d gained weight, let her roots grow out and it looked like it had been a while since she’d done laundry.”
Not only does the telling version make it harder to visualize this woman, it also makes it harder to feel her misery. The little details like her “frazzled black hair” and “the faint stripe of fading from a wire hanger” evoke a sense numb resignation in a way that simply saying “she looked like she’d given up on herself” cannot. We feel her desolation because we can see it.
So think about what you’re trying to convey through your descriptions, and how you can use vivid visceral imagery to really make them pop. Not only will you end up with pretty writing, but you’ll take readers inside your characters and make them become invested in the story in a way telling writing just can’t.