“The best style is the style you don’t notice.”
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
We’ve all been overwhelmed with advice about showing not telling — and Somerset Maugham’s witty advice about the rules of writing certainly seems apt. It’s also important to bear in mind that as Lee Child once noted, we’re called storytellers for a reason.
Still, there are moments in a story when it makes sense to turn a tell into a show in order to plunge your readers more fully into a dramatic moment or give them a richer sense of atmosphere. Here are four tools you can summon up to “show” your readers what you want them to see and feel:
1. Use strong verbs: Probably the most powerful tool in your writer’s kit bag to immerse readers in the world you’re creating is the muscular, visual verb. Just think about the enormous range of verbs you can use instead of the rather pedestrian “walk” to convey
information about a character: “saunter,” “amble,” “ramble,” “shuffle,” stride.” Each of these words reveals far more about a character’s behavior, state of mind, or personality than the neutral, colorless “walk.”
2. Use specific nouns and clear adjectives: Sharp, specific descriptions paint a picture for the reader that’s far more vivid and lifelike than muddy, generalized prose. Generic descriptions seem ordinary; laser-sharp descriptions seem real and convincing. Consider
the difference between “Grandma baked a pie,” and “Grandma baked a cinnamon-apple pie with a buttery golden crust.” Which looks and smells more appealing?
3. Include sensory details: When you describe how something looks, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels — you shift from flat, two-dimensional telling into a three-dimensional world that has texture, weight, noise, friction (see Roasted Figs). When you’re crafting dramatic moments in your story, stop and consider all the sensory messages characters might be receiving and how they might affect their mood and reactions. Rich details immerse your readers in the moment right alongside your characters.
4. Use spunky, emotionally charged dialogue: Carefully crafted dialogue is another great tool at your command for showing your readers what’s happening or how characters feel. Crisp dialogue livens up a story. Consider the difference between telling: “Her mother was angry” and showing via dialogue: “Don’t you walk out of here!” her mother yelled.
See if you can strike a better balance between showing and telling — and write on!