Show, Don’t Tell is a common bit of advice in creative writing. It is especially important when describing setting.
Young or new writers often try to tell the reader too much about the environment a character inhabits. This often happened by giving one concrete detail of the setting then explaining what this detail means, such as, “The sofa had a tear in the arm rest, which had been there for years because Agnes’s mother couldn’t afford to buy and new one and never had enough time to attempt fixing it with her meager sewing skills.”
This might sound fine at first glance, but there are better ways to share this information with the reader without being so wordy and direct. Consider what this piece of description is telling the reader:
- The family isn’t wealthy
- The mother works a lot
- The mother lacks traditional “homemaking” skills
- The house/contents are worn and in need of repair
To make description effective and well-integrated into the story, avoiding big blocks of “telling,” its important to consider how the character experiences the information you’re trying to communicate to the reader.
Here are some examples of how this same information can be shown and integrated into the bigger story.
Agnes collapsed onto the couch. She blindly reached across the arm of the couch in search of the remote and her fingertip caught on the ever-present hole in the fabric. She frowned at is, just as her mother always did. Agnes wished she her after school job was enough to help her mother buy a new couch, but even with her measly paychecks, they were still barely covering the bills. The one time Agnes had suggested she quit school to work more still made her shiver when she thought about it. Her mother’s slap had been completely unexpected. She’d yelled that she wasn’t working double shifts just so Agnes could end up just like her. A strange mixture of hurt and shame filled Agnes as the memory swept over her. She stared at the hole. Maybe she could fix it. She scoffed and shook her head. With what sewing skills? Her mom had been too busy working as a kid to learn something like that.
In this paragraph, the same information is given to the reader, but through Agnes’s thoughts and experiences. It delivered over time, at a more natural pace, as well.
Overindulging in Description
Description should not be overindulgent. It should be relevant to the story and situation. Long passages of elaborate description may have been the style in past eras, but in today’s world readers have shortened attention spans because there are so many pressures on time. Building a detailed setting with endless description will bore most readers and may even cause them to abandon the book. Trim down description of setting to what is relevant to the scene and to what provides useful information to the reader.
Description should orient the reader in the setting, letting them explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character, his or her life, what is important to a character, etc.
Consider how to reveal information about a family’s dynamics through setting by having a teen look through the kitchen cupboards. If the sole box of cereal in the cupboard is on the verge of going stale that reader will begin to question how fit the parents are, whether there is enough money to meet basic needs, or if there are issues of abuse or neglect taking place.
You might present the opposite information to the reader by describing cupboards filled with healthy foods and ingredients and the character’s favorite items. This will suggest at least comfortable wealth, attentive and educated guardians, a caring environment, etc. Most likely, your character will have a home life that is somewhere in between these two extremes, but it only takes a few carefully crafted sentences to show that to the reader.
Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than directly telling the readers where the story is happening as information separate from the story.