Back to Creative Writing basics: showing vs telling

Any seasoned writer will know this: showing trumps telling, any time, any day.

This show, not tell adage applies to all genres of creative writing, whether it’s fiction (books, poetry, short stories) or non-fiction (memoir, literary journalism, lyric essay). In show, not tell, writers are urged to describe the various aspects in a story (character, setting) instead of merely positing statements.

By showing, and not merely telling, we as writers describe a scene, a character, an emotion in detail. By showing, we focus on engaging the reader’s five senses—touch, smell, taste, sight, sound.

By engaging the reader’s senses we can not only breathe life into a scene, but also trigger different emotions in the reader! And when this is done right, we can hook our reader in, get them to connect with our story, and feel what our characters feel—we can get our reader to suspend disbelief and be in our story.

Put on a show

But yes, showing can be a challenging process… After all, it’s much simpler, much more straightforward to simply tell the reader:

The food Amelia cooked was delicious.

Well, we’ve gotten our point, but is that engaging? Does it create a mental picture in the reader’s mind? Does it have any associations that can evoke certain feelings in the reader?

Is that impactful?

Short answer is this: no, not really.

But, if we show the reader what the food smelled like, looked like, tasted like…

The food Amelia cooked filled the house with its almost magical aroma. It was a soothing blend of cranberries and rosemary, intertwined with the mouthwatering smell of braised chicken. And to a hungry teenager’s stomach, that certainly called for desperate rumblings. “Mum! I’m starving! Do we really have to wait?”

Here, the reader is able to vividly imagine, and almost taste (is anyone drooling yet?!), the food Amelia had cooked!

Can you smell that?

A very useful way to show something is to use the sense of smell. Writing about smells can be a challenging task, but nonetheless a rewarding one! Small has a very strong effect on people—it can trigger memories and evoke emotions.

We tend to associate certain smells with certain emotions or memories. And so in creative writing, smell can be a powerful tool for writers to consciously evoke specific emotions, or to convey a certain feeling within the story.

We can create calmness or chaos, attraction or disgust. With the mild and refreshing scents of lavender and freshly cut grass we can evoke a sense of peace and calm; with the pong of rotting food and pungent ammonia we can stir up a primal sense of unease and repulsion.

Homer just perfectly encapsulates what we’re talking about, lol.

Thanks for the memories

Besides being useful for evoking specific emotions in the reader, showing smells can also trigger memories—for your characters, as well as for your readers.

Think about it. Is there a smell that reminds you of someone, or an event in your life?

For me, the smell of pine trees (especially after the rain) always reminds me of my childhood home, of the tiny garden I often found solace in amidst a less-than-happy life. There was a wooden swing in the garden, right next to that pine tree, and I always sat there while upset or needing a quick escape.

So now, whenever I smell pine trees, it makes me remember a time/space where I felt safe, at home.

What about you? And what about your characters? What about for your readers? Would the stifling, lingering smell of burnt bush trigger memories of horrific bushfires?

There’s a time for telling, but for impact, showing is best

Telling definitely has its uses, despite the constant insistence on showing in every creative writing class out there.

Telling is great to inform the reader of select details that are relevant, but aren’t super significant for scene/plot/character development. But note that I said “select details”!

When it comes to creating an impact, to hooking your reader in and producing engaging writing that helps your reader suspend disbelief and connect with your narrative, showing can never be overstated. Just don’t show every single detail—especially those that aren’t relevant!

So get back to your writing, and have a look at whether your setting, your character(s) are appropriately shown. Get writing, and best of luck!

In the meantime, if you’re looking for more writing tips, check out my article on how to get over your writing block.

Till next time! xo

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