Show Me the Sword, Don’t Tell Me about It
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
by Sophie Nitsche
The sword sank into Beth’s chest. It didn't hurt until she took a breath and was filled with pain. She stumbled backwards. In her shock, she grabbed at the blade where it had stuck, but found it was slippery with her own warm blood.
What’s wrong with this passage? Something interesting is going on, but there isn’t any real feeling of what’s happening and the reaction from the character. We are only being told what’s happening with very little sensory detail to tie us into the scene and let us experience the action alongside the character.
When a writer hasn’t painted vivid imagery, it can be difficult for readers to fully picture what’s happening. That’s when a story can feel flat, unengaging, and dull.
Compare the previous example to the following passage, where the same action is happening. What’s different?
The metal blade didn’t hurt when it slid into Beth. For a long moment, there was only a strange pressure, like a papercut that kept going deeper and deeper. Still, there was no pain until her lungs tried to fill with a gasp of shock and instead began to fill with blood. All at once, it was as though a line of searing fire had burned straight through to her spine. Beth stumbled back and looked down at where the hilt bloomed from her chest. Her numb fingers closed uncomprehendingly around the blade, too slick to grip and warm from blood pumping out with each beat of her heart.
At no point in this passage is it stated that Beth was stabbed or that it hurt. These facts are implied through the sensory detail and the actions made by the character in response to what’s happening in the scene. Rather than just knowing that she was stabbed, the reader is able to experience what it feels like to be stabbed, the shock she goes through, and automatic reactions she takes.
To let a reader experience your story, show rather than tell. Telling means giving a factual statement, a thing that occurred or that exists. Showing means using sensory details and describing actions to direct a mental movie in your reader’s mind.
She was tired
She is hungry
Her stomach rumbles
He was nervous
His hands were damp and his mouth was dry
What are sensory words?
Sensory words are descriptive—they describe how we experience the world around us: how we smell, see, hear, feel, or taste something.
Details related to sight indicate colors, shape, or appearance. For instance: gloomy, dazzling, bright, foggy, gigantic tense, ragged.
Words related to touch describe textures, as well as feelings and abstract concepts: gritty, creepy, slimy, fluffy, sticky, rough, smooth, slimy, chilled.
Words to describe sounds, hearing, and amount of noise: crashing, thumping, piercing, tingling, squeaky, deafening, earsplitting, faint, serene.
Taste and smell are closely related. Most taste and smell words are more in-depth substitutes for basic words like good, nice, or bad. Some examples include: zesty, tantalizing, sweet, stinky, stale, fragrant, rotten.
Motion is sensory as well. By using active words or describing movement, you help your reader experience your words. For instance: vibrating, soaring, mind-boggling, staggering, bumpy, blown away, paralyzed.
Feelings can be expressed physically, but as perceptions of one’s inner mental state, they can be harder to show rather than tell. To show feelings, consider someone’s internal thoughts and think about the environment or reactions that may highlight those feelings.
For instance, someone is scared to walk down a darkened hallway. If a character is frightened, they are much more likely to be wide-eyed and focused on the shadows in the corners, the spiderwebs brushing their face, and the sounds of rats scuttling between their feet.
We can also see someone’s emotions in their body language: this character jumps at each creak of the floorboards and has their breath caught in their throat.
It’s never stated that the character is fearful, but the reader will reach that conclusion while experiencing the character’s intense reactions to the environment.
In contrast, a character that’s walked down this hallway a million times won’t be reacting in the same way; they will be annoyed at the cobwebs getting caught in their hair and roll their eyes with exasperated disgust at the rats underfoot.
Connecting a reader to the experience of a character is important for immersive, in-depth, and engaging storytelling. If a character is afraid of snakes but the reader is not, simply stating that the character is afraid will not connect a reader to the experience. Describing exactly how snakes cause the character to react, with physical response, anxiety, and deep emotion, allows for that connection.
However, keep in mind...
…That sometimes telling is just fine.
Descriptive language allows a reader to experience what a character is experiencing.
We don't need a paragraph of sensory detail and description to show that someone ate leftover spaghetti for lunch, unless it is in some way very important to the plot, unusual in some manner, or emotionally heightened.
When we all already know what eating leftovers is like, it’s fine to let spaghetti be spaghetti.
The following links are resources with more examples, writing exercises, and information: