Writing Tip #1: SHOW, Don't Tell!—The Secret to Descriptive Writing

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

When writing stories, both fiction and nonfiction, detail is everything! It allows your readers to engage with your story on a deeper level and relate to your characters in a more meaningful way. So, it's vitally important to the success of your story that you SHOW, rather than tell. Below are a few tips to help you better develop your descriptive writing.

Since becoming a freelance editor, I've been exposed to many different writing styles, all great in their own way. And although these styles of writing are unique, I've noticed a similar trait between almost all of the first drafts I've edited: very small amounts of detail when it matters most.

In story writing, detail is EVERYTHING! The main goal for a writer is to make sure their reader is as engaged and emotionally invested in their story as possible. The way to easily do this is to make sure you, as the writer, SHOW your readers what's happening in your story instead of telling them. Overly describe your scenes and really get into those details, so your reader can get a glimpse into your true vision of the plot. You may think you're overdoing it, but I promise, the more detail, the better. You should never give your readers too much freedom in interpreting what's happening in a scene. This could easily distort their perception of your story and confuse them later on when the plot thickens.

By describing everything in extreme detail, you're telling your reader that the little things are important; you've thought of everything, and you've taken the time to paint a picture for them with your words. If you've been struggling with this, you may be wondering, "Well, how can I make sure I have enough description in my story?" Lucky for you, I've included three of my top tips that will make it a bit easier to start including more detail, and they really boil down to this simple rule: Utilize your five senses!!!

1. Describe what your setting looks like. This may seem like a "duh" piece of advice, but I can't tell you how many times I've read stories where the writer quickly skims over the setting; it usually left me confused, causing me to reread the page over again in hopes that I'd stumble upon information I may have missed the first time.

Your setting is the PERFECT opportunity to go as in depth as you can with your descriptions. If nothing else, this is the part of your story that should absolutely be spelled out to your reader; they need to know exactly where and when these scenes are taking place and how this space affects your characters.

Now, I'm not saying you have to come outright with random facts about your setting in one paragraph (in fact, you probably shouldn't do that because it's not an organic way of adding detail and could make your paragraphs seem clunky), but rather, you should subtly integrate detail in your sentences. When you're describing a character's action, for example, spend a little extra time painting that picture for your readers. This will also create more complex sentences that your readers crave.

Random example off the top of my head: "Lucy ran through the dense, dark, evergreen forest, unable to get a sense of where she was."

Instead of simply saying Lucy was running through the woods, I added small amounts of detail to give you a better image to work off of. In this example, there could be many types of forests for Lucy to run through, but because of a little extra detail, you now know exactly what type of forest I was talking about and how this may affect Lucy and/or future scenes.

If you're still having trouble coming up with ways to elaborate on those small details for your setting, consider these questions:

  • Is your scene indoors or outdoors? If it's outdoors, what season is it? Describe the plants, the animal life, how being outdoors makes your character feel, etc. If it's indoors, is the space modern or rustic? How is the furniture arranged? Is it a big, open space or closed off and claustrophobic?

  • What objects are in your character's immediate line of sight?

  • What sounds are your character hearing? Are they loud, calming, annoying?

Imagine that you are in your scene and really get into those specifics that could easily be overlooked. The more detail you provide for your reader in your setting, the better they can visualize what's going on in the context of your story. You want your reader to feel like they are in the scene right along with your characters, and this is a great way to do that!

Keep in mind, though, that you don't want to spend TOO much time describing a setting that may only be in one chapter of your book. While detail is definitely important, you don't want to distract the reader from the plot–it's all about finding balance.

2. Describe smells! Now, you may be thinking, "Really, Lyric? You want me to describe smells?" YES!!! Smell is the most memorable out of our five senses; I'm willing to bet any amount of money that there's a scent that can instantly take you back to your childhood with just one whiff. You may not even know where it's coming from, but when you smell it, you're right back in your grandma's kitchen or at the beach or in your favorite teacher's classroom.

Smell is powerful! Using smell in your story is a great way to get your readers engaged; it's easier for people to relate to smell descriptions because most smells are universal. If you describe a particularly foul smell in great detail, chances are your readers will know exactly what you're referring to and will be just as repulsed as your characters. So, how do you effectively incorporate smell into your story? Think of the scene you are writing and imagine that your nose is in it.

  • If your scene is outside, first of all, tell us, and then describe the scents! Is it woodsy, earthy, clean? Does the air smell of earthworms after a hard rainfall? Does the tree sap emit a sweet smell? Do the animals in the area leave a trail of musk in their wake? Is the nearby city giving off some type of foul odor? Get creative, and don't be afraid of going overboard—you can always go back and edit later!

  • If your scene is indoors, does it smell like food? If so, what kind? Does the smell remind your character of another time or place? Is it sweet, savory, meaty, repulsive? Does the area smell like cleaning products, candles, incense? If it's an older space, does it smell like moth balls, dust, or mildew?

There are TONS of ways to include smell into your writing, and it will truly enhance the way your readers engage with your plot.

3. Describe your characters! There's literally nothing worse than reading a book and realizing in chapter three that you know absolutely nothing about the characters. Revealing who your characters are early on in your book is absolutely vital to the success of your story. After all, these are the people your plot revolves around; without them, there's no conflict or progression. So it's super important you spend an ample amount of time letting your reader get to know them. The earlier they fall in love with your characters, the better odds you'll have of your readers actually finishing your book.

  • What do they look like? Starting off with physical description is an easy way to introduce your characters. But it's not enough to just say your character is tall or young or pretty. Get into those details! Give your reader the exact height, body proportions/build, hair color/length, facial features, etc.–anything that can help them visualize exactly who you're talking about.

  • Go in depth about their personality. Who are they as a person? Are they loud, quiet, subdued? Do they have a ton of friends, or do they prefer to keep to themselves? How would other characters in the book describe them? Are they optimistic about the world, or do they tend to focus on the negative? Are they stuffy or laid-back?

All of these descriptors make a difference in the long run; they clue your reader in on what your character might say or how they might react to a certain situation, so it's important to keep their personality in mind when crafting those moments. It's also these descriptions that get readers truly invested in your book. When people are able to relate to and fall in love with your characters, you have an absolute gem on your hands!

It doesn't help anyone, you nor your reader, if you stay super vague in your writing. Yes, it takes extra time to go in depth, and yes, it may take even more time to go back and edit, but it will be worth it when your book ends up on The New York Times Best Seller list!

If you need more tips, tricks, or advice on how to incorporate detail in your story, let me know! I'd be happy to help.

Also, leave a comment below mentioning the ways you make sure you have enough detail in a scene! I'd love to hear what your process is like. And if you enjoyed these tips, make sure to subscribe, so you never miss out on my other awesome content!


Grammar Babe💋

#fiction #nonfiction #fictionwriting #nonfictionwriting #writingtip

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