Writers Write is a writing resource. Use this post to help you understand how being specific helps you show and not tell when you write.
At the end of last year I wrote a post titled 5 Incredibly Simple Ways to Help Writers Show and Not Tell. This week I want to discuss Tip 3 – Be specific – in more detail.
How Being Specific Helps You Show And Not Tell
As writers, we are often told to be specific. This is good advice. When you are specific, you create a clearer picture for your reader. Advice I often give students is to turn the telling part into a physical action that involves the object you are describing.
Look at these examples:
Angie sat down on the chair. She was so worried about the money. Their account was empty and the bills were piling up. The rent was due. She looked out of the window where the kids were playing in the street. Jake snored softly on the couch, surrounded by beer cans. She did not know what they would eat for the rest of the week.
Angie slumped in the chair. Empty envelopes crunched under her feet. The opened bills spread out on the tiny table. White papers folded in three, waving with a playful cheeriness. Stamped with serious red ink: Final notice.
A soccer ball hit the side of the house with a dull thud.
“Score.” Jimmy’s voice rose above the rest. He waved as he sprinted past the window. “Hi Mom!” he yelled.
She waved back.
The couch creaked as Jake turned over. Beer cans clattered to the floor. His soft snores building up to the belch that would follow.
The table vibrated as her phone rang. She sent the call straight to voicemail. No need to speak to the landlord. She knew exactly what he wanted.
She sighed as she made her way to the kitchen. The last can of SpaghettiOs sat on the shelf.
It slurped as she emptied it into the bowl. Dinner was served.
Six simple changes in one paragraph
I made the following changes to the second example:
- By using the word slumped instead of sat, you were able to tell more about her mood. (Using strong nouns and verbs can really change your writing, but more about this in a few weeks.)
- By introducing the actual bills and making her interact with them, I have shown you her problem. You’ve opened bills before. You can relate. Right?
- I introduced you to Jimmy. By doing that, I created a more specific picture in your mind. Regardless of what colour you think his hair was or what t-shirt he was wearing, you saw a little boy, not just a kid. You now know he is a happy, energetic kid who likes his mom. It has a lot more impact than just saying kids.
- I added sensory detail to Jake. Remember the post about using senses to show and not tell? Can you tell where else I used senses to improve the second example? Do you like Jake? What questions are you asking yourself about him?
- When Angie ignores the call from the landlord, we see how serious her problem really is. Everything is in jeopardy. It increases the conflict and a phone call is immediate. More so than a letter. What will happen next? Will the landlord knock on the door?
- The can of SpaghettiOs also helps to illustrate her dire circumstance. There is nothing else after this. What will she do? We can all relate to opening a can. Almost all of us can relate to worrying about money. It is up to the writer to make it real for the reader.
Be as specific as you can when you write. It makes your writing stronger, your images clearer and forces your reader to engage mentally and emotionally. Remember I am only using one or two elements to show. There are more and I will discuss them in detail in the following weeks.
[Remember that there are times when you should tell and not show. Follow the link to read more: 5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)]
by Mia Botha
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