Sensory Details & Show, Don’t Tell (again)

I am now directly involved in recruiting other indie writers who want to join Moran Publishing’s hybrid publishing house, which means I get to mentor fledgling writers on how to improve their craft. I’m working with two right now and my advice to them both is the same:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Include sensory details.

These two are closely related and in all honesty should never be approached independently. You should also describe how characters respond to people and events. For example, don’t say “She annoyed him.” Say, “As she spoke, he began to grind his teeth.” In addition to that, if you only describe the visual, you’re only giving the reader one-fifth of an experience. You have five senses – use them all!

WHY is this important?

  1. Readers like to use their imagination – otherwise someone would wait for the movie to come out. A writer should paint a picture for them to the point that they feel in the moment and the moment feels real to them. Even an alien encounter can seem realistic if you describe the experience of touching its skin as opposed to saying it had “slimy skin.”
  2. Sensory details and showing character responses rather than stating them reveals more about the characters. Saying “She laughed, despite her embarrassment” could be taken several ways. Is she just playing along with something? Covering her feelings? But saying “She stared, red spreading across her cheeks, then she broke into a broad, toothy laugh,” reveals exactly how she’s feeling. She realizes whatever she is embarrassed about is funny and isn’t worth feeling foolish.
  3. WORD COUNT! You can take two sentences and expand it to several paragraphs by describing the sensory details.

Let me SHOW you, rather than TELL you:

Thatch walks into a filthy apartment. What a shithole, he thinks.

The author was kind enough to tell us that it was filthy, but how? Are kids’ toys strewn about the place? Food containers? Are the walls decaying from a leaking pipe? Is it a health hazard, or just unpleasant to look at?

The character is crass enough to think shithole, but that tells us very little about him and how he feels about the resident of the apartment.

The general rule is three sensory details to one “tell” or thought. 

Somewhere down the hall, a woman was yelling. Karyn’s face fell into a tight-lipped expression of resignation as she stood before the door. She wiped her palm across her jeans before unlocking the dead bolt, then took the doorknob in one hand and threw her body against the door. She repeated the maneuver, and the door shuddered open.

Thatch was assaulted by the stench of stale cigarettes, mold, and cat feces. Acid rose in his throat. He had trouble choking it back down.

“Nan, I’m home!” Karyn yelled over a TV blaring in a back room.

Thatch grabbed the doorknob to shut the door and wrinkled his nose. He wiped his hand on his coat, but still felt the grime sticking to his palm. The motion of the door strewed fluffs of animal fur across the floor.

“This… is where you live?” He bent his head back to peer the ceiling. Black spores spotted the water-stained plaster, trailing its way down the corner.

“Mm-hmm.” She pursed her lips, her eyes on the floor. She closed them with a sigh as she caught sight of the partially-eaten corpse of a roach.

Thatch nodded. “You’re moving in with me,” he said. His tone didn’t allow any room for argument. The small smile that played across Karyn’s mouth told him she wasn’t about to protest.

I never state what they are thinking, but the reader can determine their feelings based on their responses. Thatch wrinkles his nose. He almost vomits. You can tell Karyn is embarrassed, even though she never says or thinks anything that would reflect that. Her facial expressions and short response reflects her emotions. You can also determine the relationship between them to some extent: It’s his first time at her apartment and he’s already demanding she move in with him.

 

I’d love to see how some of you have improved your writing by using sensory details and/or showing rather than telling! Whether it is something you have done in the past or throw together after reading this post, share it with us!

OR if you don’t agree or have an alternative suggestion, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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