In this Ask th e Editor, I explain what your editor means when s/he says “show, don’t tell,” and what to do about it.
Shut up and kiss me
“Shut up and kiss me” is a practical extension of “show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell your lover you love them passionately, show them you love them passionately with a kiss.
Your editor, like countless pop stars before them, wants you to make a more vivid illustration of what you mean. There are two ways to tell your reader what is going on.
- The sun was setting.
- She smiled.
- He didn’t like cats.
- The clouds in the western sky turned deep reds and oranges, as though the sun had gotten too close to their edges.
- She showed her teeth more than smiled.
- He caught a slight hint of a musky odor and shuddered. Disgusting creatures, cats—both unhygienic and unpredictable. They reminded him of his least favorite ex-wife.
Not just the facts (ma’am)
Your readers are not officers of the law. They don’t want simple facts, they want to be able to picture what you describe. Rather than tell me the man is old, tell me about his wrinkles, odor, or the sound of his cane as he walks. Let your readers understand he is old by the details you supply, not by saying he is “old.” Leave the readers a little bit for their minds to chew on.
Think of your descriptions like a game of Taboo. In Taboo you attempt to get your teammates to guess a word, say “ugly,” without using a list of other words, like “unattractive,” “hideous,” “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “homely.”
There was a sort of asymmetry to her face, as though each of her features were placed without regard to one another.
Tools for showing
- Similes and Metaphors
Use similes or metaphors to compare what is happening on your page to something with which they are familiar.
-His scales shimmered like a sequined dress.
-John was a snake, slick and smooth—and up to no good.
- Sensory language
Use language to describe how things look, feel, smell, taste, and sound. Smell is an evocative descriptor that often goes undescribed.
The smell of hard work clung to him with hints of engine grease, sweat, and something metallic.
BUT don’t go bananas
Your readers do not need to know every little thing. If it isn’t important to the story whether the taxi is a Prius or a Crown Victoria, you need not specify.
Like so many other things, there can be both too little and too much detail. I have spent too many hours of my life reading lengthy descriptions of patterns of cloth. I’ve also read stories of deeply moving sadness, told as though designed to be read aloud by Ben Stein. Try to find yourself somewhere cozy in the middle and listen to your proofreaders and editors.
In the next Ask the Editor: Foreshadowing
If you have a question for Ask the Editor, leave a comment below.