Every writer should have heard the term ‘Show, don’t tell.‘ Which you can read about more on that link. But I’ve had people say they don’t understand this term.
Let me explain
Writers are not just storytellers. When we meet up with friends and family, we will tell stories of our day. We go through the events, often with wild hand gestures and more than enough exaggerated points.
This is telling. After all, if some idiot almost runs you off the road, I guarantee colourfulness of the story comes not from any description but from some choice curse words.
You don’t describe physically the driver or set the landscape other than maybe a passing reference to what road you might have been driving on.
Showing comes from description and descriptions make a story come to life. Each reader will take what descriptions you give in your story, paint out the image in their mind’s eye and then add to it.
With this knowledge, we know we need to supply some description to give our readers their mental paintbrushes but not every last detail as some things should be left to the reader.
Now, whether your story is plot or character-driven (or a nice mix of both) one thing it needs is landscape description. This does not just mean the actual land it means rooms, weather, roads, houses etc.
Many writers will create pages and pages of character description then barely give their reader any knowledge of where they are.
Before you write it, make sure you know what the area / the house / the land etc looks like. Are your characters trekking across parched plains, or marching up rugged mountains? Are they sitting in a rustic tavern or kneeling in a cold prayer hut?
You need to think of colour, texture, the lay of the land, weather, atmosphere etc. Once you have a basic idea, remember “show, don’t tell” and use the different descriptions together.
Example of telling: It was raining as the warriors walked through a large field feeling tired.
Example of showing: Rain lashed against the small troupe of warriors as they trudged slowly across the endless stretch of field.
In the second example I have given you the weather, but by adding “lashed” it gives you the type of rain. The first example could have been a light shower.
Again in the first example, the warriors are walking, in the second they are trudging – as one would in heavy rain. The field may be large but when you are wet and tired, it can feel endless.
Even this short description paints the picture. That is the goal, to paint the scene for your readers so they are “feeling” it. To do this well, you may need to think before you write.
If you knew the rain was heavy and the warriors were tired, put yourself there. Sit with your eyes closed and think about being in that situation. Feeling wet to the bone, the rain hard enough to hurt and the ache of your legs as you are forced to keep walking.
Have you been in that situation personally? Did the bus break down and you had to walk home in the rain? If so use that experience and write the sensation down.
So for every location, make sure you know what it looks like, feels like and what is happening there.
I’ve never met a writer yet who doesn’t have some basic ideas about what their characters look like. Even before there is a plot or dialogue, most writers will have created a character or two in their mind.
Profiles are important for characters – remember you have to know your characters as if they were your own family (but know them MORE so). But, if you have a lot of characters or they are complex you will forget things. In which case, we turn to profiles!
Main and secondary characters should have full profiles written on them. Minor and cameo characters do not, for these you just need one or two basic points.
Minor / Cameo Characters
These are characters who we meet once or twice like the innkeeper or the guard in the watchtower. For these keep it simple, just a few basic points will give the reader enough.
Example: The guard watched the warriors pass through the gate. He ran a bony hand over his thinning hair as he tried to decide whether he should let his captain know. Warriors could be such trouble.
Finally, the bottle sitting on the small table called him back and he soon forgot about these new men in the city.
From this, we see the guard is probably middle-aged or older (thinning hair), that his build is quite thin (bony hands) and that despite his age he has little authority (has a captain he goes to). He also enjoys a lot of drink while on duty (already forgot the warriors).
One small sentence and you have an image of this man. We don’t need his star sign, eye colour or to know that the guard has a tattoo of a daffodil on his left butt-cheek.
Pick a few points about his looks and personality and drop them in. It fills out the cameo characters without bombarding your readers with lots of unnecessary information.
Main / Secondary Characters
Main and secondary characters need more description obviously. However, how you bring up this description will affect your writing.
The reader does not want to read two pages describing your two main characters immediately. Almost all readers tend to skip large chunks of descriptive prose to get back to the plot.
Whatever the scene is you are writing to introduce your characters, pick two or three descriptive points (not just physical remember – characters are more than just their looks).
Example: No one ever gave Daniel a second look. Constantly scruffy his hair fell in unruly rat tails over his grimy face, hiding the strange mismatch of brown and green eyes he had inherited from his late mother.
Just another lost soul in society, his skinny body drowned in the oversized clothes that were held in place with numerous belts.
No one noticed the boy even when he passed then, brushing too close and then darting away. Only when the man or woman would reach for their purse would they think back.
From this, the reader should have an image of what Daniel looks like, scruffy, dirty, in clothes too big for him and with strange eyes.
I added the term “the boy” to give a hint at an age, so we know he’s not yet an adult but as yet not sure of his actual age.
There is no mention of his hair colour, scars, markings, height… yet the image is created. We know he’s a pickpocket and it appears he’s a good one.
This scene also throws up questions – does he hide his eyes intentionally? How and when did his mother die? Could it be because of the “strange” eyes? Why does he need to steal?
By adding the adjective “strange” we see in this world these mismatching eyes are not a normal occurrence and his hiding them may be on purpose.
As new scenes are written, you can then build on this character. Does he meet someone who states he is short for his age thus giving you more information?
Tip: do not bombard the reader with all the physical and personality traits of your character immediately. Let them come out gradually. Give the reader something, age, gender, one or two physical traits and a personality trait when the character is met. Then feed the other pieces over chapters.
Also, when you are building up your character in the following chapters, don’t just add in descriptions – use additional interaction (as mentioned above where someone might state he is short for his age”) – this way instead of saying Daniel is short for his age, it comes to the reader through someone else.
Remember the characters change as real people change. Experiences, memories, upbringings, situations can change how we view things, how we react.
If you write about a rich noblewoman who barely acknowledges the lower classes but is then attacked or robbed, we should see how this experience has changed her.
Maybe she no longer walks the streets with contempt but fear. Maybe she refuses to wear her jewellery or becomes a complete introvert. Now what if she were rescued by a tramp, a scruffy homeless man who risked his life to protect her, what would her view be now?
Do not stick so rigidly to your profiles – keep certain facts the same such as eye colour, gender (unless your novel requires them to change) but hair, build, personality, skin tone can change. For example: If your character is pale and spends three years in the desert, their skin will change.
Like the landscape, this is another important description that is often missed. There are five main senses so make sure you use them. We are visual creatures and so many writers focus only on this.
Don’t get stuck in this rut. At each scene look at the five main senses – have you included them? They don’t all need to be in each time as this can overwhelm the story but maybe use one rather than the other.
Example: Cheerful chatter and the soft melody of some folk song beckoned the weary travellers into the tavern. As the door was pushed open, a blanket of warmth enveloped them from the open fire.
Here we have the sense of touch and sound.
What can your character see before them – through a window? What about when they look at a painting or a book? How do others see them or themselves?
Does one character see the thick forest as comforting and another sees it as a blight on the land? Remember with this that perspectives change.
A woman might see her new lover as handsome, charming and dashing with tanned skin and a perfect smile. But maybe her child who has suffered the man’s anger sees only dark eyes and rough hands.
Don’t forget to add sound to your scenes. For example the faint lazy buzz of insects, the crunch of dry leaves, the creaking of a wooden deck, the snapping and popping of wood in a fire or what about the shifting of warm heavy bodies in a stable.
Whether it’s expensive perfume, rotting flesh, texpulsion of bowels, cooking meats sprinkled with exotic spices, salty sea air, acrid burning, or ripe cow manure…. Don’t forget to mention it.
If your characters are walking through a market, what scents are bombarding them? Do they cover their noses as they pass row after row of fish stalls? Does the stable boy cringe at the scent of lavender perfume as a reminder of when the lady of the house had him whipped?
Smells are memory triggers. Smells also change – a hint of perfume can be alluring but add too much and it’s heavy and sickly. Woods can smell of loam, add heavy rain and it becomes a different scent entirely.
Think about textures and sensations. The leathery feel of old book covers, the rough bark of a tree or the smooth touch of horse’s fur.
Don’t forget temperature, the feel of the sun’s heat or the painful pinch of an icy chill. (Also, remember the situation – for example, a warm sunny day can be lovely, but that same heat can be oppressive if you have no shade, no water – the situation can change the sense).
What about the heavy sensation of wet clothes or the airy feel of light linens? Again touch can invoke memories. What about how a touch can change a situation.
A friendly hand on the shoulder turns more sinister when it lingers there longer than necessary before squeezing the shoulder moving closer to the neck? How about a forehead kiss can be more tender than one on the lips.
This sense seems to be ignored more than the others. It does not have to come out just with food and drink, though don’t forget to add them.
Is the meat juicy or maybe rancid? Does the water cool a burning throat or taste stale? Is the burning from a pyre leaving an acrid taste in the mouth? A broken nose will cause blood to run down the throat, how does the character taste this?
Are they not bothered, just a taste of iron or maybe it makes them so sick they vomit? Dry mouths, swollen tongues, tasting someone’s perfume, what about no sense of taste? Blood, bile, vomit are all things we have tasted at one time or another. What about the taste of smoke? Salty tears?
One Affects The Other
Don’t forget senses connect to each other. If you have a cold and your nose is blocked, you notice it affects your taste buds. If you see some food that looks horrible, you may already assume it tastes just as bad.
A warning bell may make your heart race and so you see the man running towards you as a threat, not a protector. What our senses tell us can affect how our instincts react.
Good & Bad
I see a lot of writing where characters have increased eye-sight or hearing. Remember that a gift can be a curse.
Your eyesight is stronger, but what about the downside – is the direct sunlight agony, does it give your character headaches. What about having increased hearing when a bell tolls close by?
Be careful when giving characters increased anything, there is usually a downside. It also makes the character more believable.
What about increased eyesight but barely any sensation of touch. Not the cold nor the hot nor even the brush of a loved one’s hand against their cheek is felt.
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These are just some basic thoughts on descriptions. I will be writing a longer, more detailed Description tutorial later on. But hopefully, these notes will give you something to think about!