We’re back with more of the old advice, ‘show, don’t tell’. Last week I covered why we may have a tendency to tell, and how to combat that inclination by writing from a character’s immediate viewpoint. Let’s pick that idea up where we left off.
The Important Details
So you’re in one of your characters’ heads, and you realize you’ve got to get some description of another character or the setting to your readers. How do we show these things instead of telling?
First and foremost, think of how you perceive things, the details that jump out at you given a particular situation. The first time I saw my husband at a video shoot, he was completely overdressed for the gig. I felt sorry for him in his very nice suit while the rest of the crew was in jeans and tee shirts. No one had bothered to tell him to be ready to get dirty as we set up lights, sound, and camera equipment.
The next thing I noticed was his black, below shoulder-length curls (hey, this was the mid-90’s). I have a weakness for men with dark curly hair, and I was practically dying to touch his. And those big, brown eyes … sigh. That’s all it took for me to check to see if there was a wedding band on his finger. Yep. I shut down the fantasy train at that point and didn’t start it back up until a year later when he told the whole production crew that he was getting a divorce.
Now you’ll notice I don’t give you a long, exhaustive list including his exact height, weight, build, etc. Of course at the time I didn’t know he was five-feet-ten, one hundred sixty-five pounds. Sure, I saw a decent body in that ill-chosen suit, but I couldn’t give specifics. Neither should you when you describe things to your readers. Real people don’t see like that.
If I was to write my first encounter with my husband-to-be, this is how I would do it.
My eyes went directly to the nicest view in the room. I had to guess the new audio tech had never worked live television before, because he was dressed to go in front of the camera instead of behind it. His tailored black suit, cut to show a trim body, was badly at odds with the jeans and T-shirt uniform the rest of us wore. He knew it too, moving uncomfortably as he ran cables to the set. The below shoulder-length spiral curls of his black hair didn’t quite work with the fancy duds either. He looked like he’d be more at home wearing leather on stage with a guitar slung to his waist, maybe belting out some Def Leppard or Van Halen. Those big, dark puppy dog eyes would melt many a groupie’s heart, I thought. They sure made mine go pitter-pat. I usually like my guys a little taller, at least six feet, but otherwise he was the physical package I preferred.
I checked his left hand and sighed with disappointment. The flash of gold from his wedding band struck him right off the list. Oh well. On to the next.
Just as you avoid getting too specific with your description, you also don’t want a checklist of attributes from head to toe. Start by choosing one dominant characteristic, as I did with the suit. By seeing that first and foremost, I was able to describe how ill at ease wearing it made my husband, as well as how it didn’t jibe with not only his environment but also his long hair. That allowed me to flow into how he resembled more of a guitar player in a rock band (he was actually the bassist). The musician analogy continued to describing eyes that would attract groupies … and me. My attraction caused me to zero in on his commitment status, discovering the wedding band he wore.
Four items of description: clothing, hair, eyes, wedding band. That was all I covered and all I needed to cover to show you my future husband.
May I Have Your Order?
Showing and not telling means putting things in a logical order. Again, we’re not creating a checklist here; we’re simply going step by step as the character takes in his or her situation. Look again what my assessment of Master St. John reveals as I take in the surroundings:
I walk into the room.
I see someone I don’t recognize and immediately assume it’s the new audio technician.
He’s wearing a suit while the rest of the crew is wearing casual clothing.
He has a nice body.
He’s running cables to the set and not moving well in the inappropriate outfit.
He has long black curly hair, which I associate with a rock musician.
He’s got big brown eyes that I like. A lot.
He’s not as tall as the guys I usually go for.
I’m attracted to him until I see by his wedding band that he’s married.
The reader experiences all this in the same order I do. It works because this is a lifelike experience, with the most important impressions coming in one after the other.
It works with settings too. Think back to that terrible day when the planes struck the Twin Towers. What order did your impressions come in as you watched the horror unfold on the television screen? I’ll tell you mine, which started after the second plane hit.
Towers standing tall with smoke roiling from the tops.
Huge black gaping holes in the buildings.
Papers and debris fluttering down in slow motion.
People milling in the street, looking up with stunned expressions.
Emergency vehicles tearing down the road.
Blameless blue sky, completely at odds with the burning buildings.
This is exactly how I took in the initial sights of what the cameras showed that day. You will notice that the sky was the last thing that I saw even though several helicopter shots showed more of it than anything else. And when the sky did make an impression on me, it was because it looked so out of place with the horror unfolding beneath it. You know what made no impression whatsoever? The rest of the Manhattan skyline. The surrounding buildings might as well have not been there for all the notice I took of them.
If I was to write this description in a scene, this is exactly the order I would put it in, because that is how it unfolded before my shocked tunnel vision. And I would leave out the other buildings because they did not exist for me.
This is how it should be when you write. See only what your character sees. Describe in vibrant language only what matters to your character. And put those impressions in exactly the order the character would notice them in.