“Show, don’t tell,” “watch the adverbs,” “said is not dead” and other such statements were the first thing that greeted me when I started my high-school writing course. Well, that was easy! I started off, confident that I would have no issues with fulfilling those statements.
I plotted out my story, from A to Z for the first few weeks, and then I dived into writing. About halfway through, however, I knew something was wrong. I was disenchanted with it, and it was the hardest thing I had ever written. What was wrong with it, I wondered?
My sole proofreader on the writing site I was a part of, finally told me. “Don’t take this as harsh,” she said, “but I think the issue with your story is the lack of detail.” I had to agree with her. The story had a good plot, but it was so flat. I began to edit it, confident that if I just added more detail, it would begin to perk up.
My sentences evolved from “It was a windy day,” to “It was a crisp, cool, windy autumn day.” I started to add descriptive adjectives and adverbs as much as I could. It was “adding detail”, but I found my writing was coming out forced and wordy. It seemed almost worse than when I had been writing without much detail at all.
I found myself disenchanted and frustrated. How could I make my writing full and descriptive without it sounding forced and wordy?
Imagine the Scene
I first discovered that I needed to imagine the scene. I thought I had been doing that – I knew the sky was blue and the day was a sunny, windy, autumn day, and I communicated that. But in fiction writing, imagining isn’t just writing what you see. That is just listing facts.
I read of an author once who hung a picture above his computer. Every time he would sit down to write, he would look up at this picture, and it would remind him to imagine the scene. It was an image of a pair of eyes, ears, a nose, a finger, and a mouth. These represented the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Using all these, he would write his scene.
That is part of what imagining the scene is. It can also sometimes be tied into the phrase “show, don’t tell.” For example, “The orange leaves fluttered around the house, coming to a rest in the front lawn,” is a way of showing that it is windy out. However, another way to do it using more than just “sight” could be the following. “Emma rubbed her arms as she watched the leaves scatter from the sidewalk.” It’s showing feeling (Emma rubbing her arms shows she is cold) and also sight (her watching the leaves scatter shows it is windy out, as well as why she is cold).
In certain third person points of view, this may be all that is necessary. Deciding what details are necessary and which are not is the next step in the process. Is it necessary to show that it is windy out, or should we use “telling” (otherwise known as narrative) to quicken the story along and get Emma to the next place she needs to be? Obviously this depends on the scene and author can ultimately decide what is best for his or her story.
Learning this technique helped me out greatly with detail. It wasn’t describing a list of facts so much as it was playing a game of taboo. Was it necessary that I say it was windy out? If so, how could I say it was without using the word windy? Did I need to put that much description into the scene, or was it something I should put in narrative form?
A valuable piece of advice I learned was that although most scenes should be shown and not told, sometimes there are necessary scenes that should be told in narrative form for both the story and reader’s sake. There are a few cases where you should, in fact, “tell, don’t show”.
“Feeling” A Scene
For me, one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my writing so far is how to “feel” a scene. It can be tricky to do, and sometimes I still struggle with it, but if you combine this along with picturing the scene in the right way, then you can have a masterpiece.
First person novels are becoming more popular, and one of the reasons I believe they are, is because they allow a closeness to the character that is not possible in real life. In real life, you cannot read other’s thoughts or know exactly what they are feeling. But in first person novels, you can see the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings about a situation, as well as what is going on around them.
And that is what I refer to as “feeling” a scene. By putting yourself in a character’s shoes, you begin to get emotionally invested in them, even if you don’t realize it. Characters that feel flat or boring often don’t have many of their thoughts or feelings revealed. How people begin to pity villains is by seeing their sad backstory, understanding and “feeling” the hurt and pain the villain went through, and seeing the reasons (or thoughts about) why the villain is doing the things that make him a villain. Most villains do not see themselves as villains, but as heroes. And from their point of view, they are.
I find it much easier to get attached and invested in a character who’s thoughts and feelings I can see, at least a few times throughout the book. If I am shown that a character’s brother has died, my mental mind says, “Yes, that’s sad,” but if I am shown the character sitting in her room, staring at old photos and remembering the times she and her brother spent, and how they had planned just the week before to go on a trip together, then I am much more inclined to really feel sad inside.
As I said before, this is typically easiest in first person point of view, because you only have to do it on one character in the entire book. In fact, the first time I recall trying a first person point of view book is when I finally got some breakthrough in this area. I would advise anyone who wants to practice at this to try and write from a first person point of view for a little while. Try and write two senses and an opinion.
For example, using the illustration about the wind, I could write from Emma’s point of view. “I rubbed my arms as the leaves scattered from the sidewalk. Boy, I wished I’d listened to John and brought a coat today.” The two senses are the same as above, but I added a sentence which is the “opinion” or feeling sentence. We are seeing her thoughts about the situation, not just her physical senses, as well as receiving the added information that she does not have a coat.
However, though it can be a little tricker, it is also possible to do in third person point of view. I discovered that all I had to do was take the “I”s and “me”s of first person point of view, and change them to third. Using the example above, I could write, “Emma rubbed her arms as the leaves scattered from the sidewalk. Boy, she wished she’d listened to John and brought a coat.”
As I learned these techniques, they helped my writing become more detailed with interesting, necessary facts. I went from one set of details – trying to be super descriptive with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, to another set, being selectively descriptive by showing and not telling, and by putting the necessary thoughts and feelings of my character into the story.
I thank God for the help He has given me in my writing journey so far, and cannot wait to see where He brings me next! I hope that perhaps some of my struggles with details and what I learned to help overcome them will help you in your writing as well!
What are some ways you have grown in your writing? What are the issues in writing that you wish would be addressed more in how to write books? Answer in the comments below!
Thanks for reading, and God bless you in your writing journeys! ~ C.G