“Show. Don’t tell.”

The key to truly great writing is in fleshing out details. Writers are told pretty regularly to support and elaborate. Our mantra: “Show. Don’t tell.”

But what does that mean?

How do we writers help readers see the action? Feel the characters’ emotions? How do we stop skim-the-surface storytelling and put our readers right down in it? For starters, we have to slow the freak down. Waaaaaaay down. We need to imagine a full, complete picture of every scene in our minds’ eye.

But it goes further than that.

Writers need to learn the kinds of details that effectively “show.” The stuff that helps readers see the wisp of blond hair curling toward her chin when her gaze falls to the ground. Feel the chill of a morbidly gray morning in November while hunting pheasant. Or suffer the metallic taste of irony when she first learns her lover is cheating with her sister.

It’s our job to give readers a reason to care about our characters and what happens to them. Here’s a handful of the kinds of details that help a writer “show.”Show. Don't tell.

Character details (moving, thinking, feeling, talking), moment by moment description of action, get inside your characters’ heads, inner thoughts, opposing perspectives.
– Setting details (smell, touch, taste, hear, see), create a living, breathing picture.
Important object details (color, size, texture, temperature), compare objects to something everyone is familiar with.
Non-narrative details (quotes, statistics, facts, anecdotes, definitions)

Books have an advantage over movies or television because they let readers inside characters’ heads. Beginning writers often forget this. But it’s critical to reveal characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. To show different perspectives by getting inside the minds of people from different times, places and backgrounds. Good writers will also reveal characters’ personalities, thoughts and feelings through dialogue.

When you’re adding these kinds of details, try not to get caught up in editing or critiquing. This part of the writing process – the fleshing out of stories – is about using YOUR power and magic. But it can be a frustrating time, too, pausing frequently to compare the scene in your head with what’s on the page. It’s hard work to adequately convey what your mind has constructed so clearly.

How hard you push yourself during this step is the difference between mediocre writing and excellence. Put another way, slowing down and adding details is the difference between editorializing and writing rich.

show me


A crude example: Walk into a class of third-graders and write on the board, “I have a dog.” Then tell the students to draw a picture of a dog. Each picture would be completely different. And likely vastly different from the dog you imagine in your head. The solution lies in the details.

Example number two: “Yesterday, my husband brought me home some cookies. They tasted good.” Forget that these sentences are boring and poorly constructed. Just think about what you would ask in order to learn more. Why did he bring me cookies? What kind were they? Did they have frosting? Did he make them? Did I share?

Once writers know how to ask the right questions – and that it is, in fact, okay to ask those questions – they become more adept at deleting the irrelevant to make way for the specific and concrete.

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Details help to create a picture in the mind of a reader. But how you go about adding them can make a huge difference – the difference between smelling the chlorine by the pool and feeling your head submerge in the icy water.

Don’t: When I started out, I had a bad habit of cramming every detail of a character in the first paragraph. “The short, fat, pasty-faced woman with a wide-brim straw hat, dressed in her best white Sunday skirt, had dirty, black fingernails and a grin that revealed yellow teeth.” It overwhelms the reader.

Do: Use descriptions of others to reveal something about the main character. “His thick black hair reminded me of my own, when I was pregnant with my oldest. Back before the cancer treatment left me with a threadbare scalp.”

Do: Bring description at unexpected moments. “The sky was metallic and grainy that night, as though sheaths of rain could come down any second. As she reached for the shutters, I could see where years of self-cutting scarred her forearms like some sort of bold tattoo.”

Do: Show details during conversation. “I left him,” she said, crossing her thin arms defiantly, wrinkling the fine lace and white satin of her wedding gown. “Don’t try to talk me into going back.”

Do: Add a bit of character detail when describing something important. “She had a nasty habit of biting her full, pink lips when she was uncertain, which happened frequently when he was around. He noticed – and he liked it.”

Do: Add detail while another character’s action is being described. “She watched him moving to the dance floor with envy. He was so graceful on his feet, while she tripped merely walking across the ballroom in her stilettos.”

How do you add detail to your work?

The writer’s super power

Yep. Writers have a super power. It’s not dreaming up fantasy realms or talking to characters in our heads, either. What we do better than anyone else is say yes to the power of our voice, even for just a short time.

We’ve all read books where the words leap off the pages at us, then depart as we breathe out a humid sigh. Some of them clutch us in solidarity: We think, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’ We hold our breath, clench stomach muscles, and rush to turn the page. They speak to us, rip open our chests and beat in time with our hearts. It happens. With truly great, honest-to-God, gut-wrenching writing, it happens frequently.

What those writers know better than anyone is fear has no place in this craft. They stare it down with a big, old ‘fuck you.’ But even beginning writers have an innate ability, to pause how the outside world measures them. They believe they have something to say, and that someone will want to hear it. They believe in themselves enough to put pen to page and try to make sense of their world.

That’s huge.

Writing takes courage. Maybe that’s why writers make up less than 1 percent of the population. Fear is about all that prevents writers from creating their best.

writers' super power graphicI’ve spent my entire writing life talking to others about how to make fear their bitch. I mean, if you’re going to bring your readers into the story with you, if you want them to feel your damp shirt sticking to your back while you climb that cliff, then you really can’t be worrying about what other people might think. Writing is a two-step process, and neither step involves weighing the opinion of the masses.

We create, write. Then we critique, edit. Those functions use two distinct sections of our mind. It’s damn near impossible to do both at the same time. And if you try, you will likely find yourself “stuck” or “blocked.”

First, let’s talk about getting the words on the page. During this step, we need to shut off the internal editor. No re-working scenes, swapping paragraphs, grabbing the thesaurus. When you’re only objective is to create, you should not be judging. Instead, practice writing whatever pops into your head. Don’t hedge. Don’t think. Just write. It has actually been scientifically proven that the more you do this, the more your creativity improves. Without a little voice inside questioning everything, you can let loose. That’s when many writers find their very best words.

The second part of writing is to critique. This is when we decide what stays and what goes. What could be said better, or what’s just superfluous. When you’re looking to edit and place words “just so,” your brain does not readily accept anything that crops up as appropriate. In those moments, you are trained to detach and doubt. So if you’re searching for better ideas, descriptions – inspiration – then you must be open to everything.

This is the point – and it’s big, so pay attention → You will not improve your imagination and resourcefulness, nor generate new and better ideas, if you do not open your mind to every bad idea as well. Accepting every thought that arrives (whether it’s crazy good or utter crap) builds creative muscle. Editing cannot be allowed during the creative phase.

In sum, my little chickens, once you learn to separate creating and editing, your writing will improve. Once you lose the fear of what you might say – of your truth, of someone else’s judgement – your words will begin to flow effortlessly.

The better you become at losing the self-editor, the more good ideas you will generate. Knowing that you will be editing later actually frees you up to go further and further into new territory. Write a paragraph of single words unrelated to the next. Imagine a scent and write ten adjectives that describe it. Be crazy. Who cares? We’ll edit later.

“By the way, what shape are your nonsensical words? Flat and dull? Sharp and intuitive?” (That’s me, writing without editing.)

We all inherently know how to be critical, perhaps a little too well. We’re writers. What we need to practice is letting loose, creating. We need to celebrate that we’re already among the “less than 1 percent” who has the balls to say what needs to be said. Remember that when you sit down at the keyboard. This is what helps to bring the raw, unencumbered you out onto the page…

You already have a super power. Use it to write on your terms, in a way you feel good about, with your own honest-to-God, gut-wrenching voice.

Because, if you let it, it will change everything.

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Each week, RebeccaTDickson.com and Laura Howard bring you a weekly writing prompt that kicks you in the ass. The assignment: Let go and have fun. No editing. No second thoughts. And absolutely no using the delete key. We call it “Just Write,” and it is designed to build creative muscle. It’s a free-writing exercise, where we literally post what pops into our heads. And it’s a blast. Read more here.