Today I’m talking about showing not telling in your writing. Every scene should push your character or the plot forward, but how do you decide what deserves your word count? I constantly talk with my authors about fleshing out their manuscripts and where to use their words, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on this with you all.
Take this description as an example:
We arrived at the pub, walked past the seating area and cigarette-filled ashtray, and went inside. The Smiling Mule was our local and we went there daily.
In my head as a reader, I am seeing my real-life local pub, The Smiling Mule. Here’s what it looks like:
There’s a parking space for one, maybe two cars, a single picnic bench, and a typically overflowing ashtray on the wall. This is what I imagine whenever I read about a pub in a book. Now, imagine that later on in the book, this pub, which is referred to a lot, is finally described as something different. Perhaps the author later needs a group of twenty friends to all be sat outside the front of the pub. In my head, this isn’t possible because there’s only one picnic bench outside my pub.
This gathering is integral to the plot, so it has to happen but as a reader, I’m left a little disappointed and frustrated that the images I have had so far, aren’t true.
Now try this description:
When we arrived at the pub, we walked through the huge, outdoor seating area, full of picnic benches, and a decked area with booths perfectly placed for the evening sun on summer nights. The off-white walls of the exterior were kept gleaming, something that always shocked me considering the pub’s proximity to the main road. I also found it amazing how, once settled outside, the noise of the traffic soon disappeared. The hanging baskets were always filled with a multitude of colourful and beautifully scented flowers and the potted shrubs were well maintained all year round. The Oddfellows Arms was our local and we drank in there almost daily. We even had our own table, a bit like the gang in Friends.
This is a picture of another pub I frequent, The Oddfellows Arms, and the setting of this one is perfect for the plot line.
My point here?
If you don’t show the reader what is in your head, they will see what they want to see.
Then, if you change that image later in the book, they won’t be very happy.
As this pub is integral to the plot, the word count is justified. The first description uses twenty-eight words and the second uses one-hundred and twenty-two, but the reader knows exactly where your characters are and can almost see the pub exactly as you do.
When it comes to allocating your precious words, think about the most important scenes. We don’t need to have a three-page backstory on a waitress who puts plates on a table and is never in the book again, but we do need to know what the main characters look like, details of the main locations, characteristics etc. Don’t waste your words on ANYTHING that doesn’t drive the plot forward or build on your character/plot development.
Look at your most important scenes, when the reader gets to that part of the book, will they be able to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste everything that your characters do? We have five sense, so use them all! Are you telling them what is going on or, are you dragging them off their sofa and into the pages so that they could be a bystander in the scene? Are they skimming over this ‘boring’ bit or are they sitting up a little more as their heart starts pounding because you have woken their senses and emotions through your descriptive showing? Have you broken their heart with a backstory that explains the character they previously hated, or couldn’t they care less if this person lived or died?
Which responses do you want for your readers?
These are the scenes that deserve your word count. These are the scenes your readers need you to make the best they can be.
And don’t worry, if you aren’t sure if you’ve done too much in a scene or not enough in another, your editor will be able to guide you and make sure that you are fully engaging the reader without driving them to tears of boredom!
I’d love to chat about your experiences with this, do you have any tips for other authors that you’d like to share? Drop a comment below…
Have a wonderful and happy writing!