How (and Why) I Limit My "Show, Don't Tell" Descriptions - by author K. A. Crystal
I’m what you might call a bad “over-shower,” guilty of terribly oversaturated purple-prose.
In fact, it was so bad in my early college days that my professor for my “Intro to Fiction” class commonly scribbled into my short story margins: “Zoom out! Zoom out!” It took me forever to realize what he meant: that too often, I was so focused on showing literally everything I could that I bogged down the pace of my work. I made my reader feel like I was holding their hand and spelling the scene out for them instead of letting their imagination take flight.
As a reader, I know I don’t like it when authors describe every little thing. So why was I doing it as a writer?
I’ve seen Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov’s words, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” retyped in several different fonts and set against a myriad of backgrounds on cute, motivational Pinterest posts. There’s also Stephen King’s timeless, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” I know the words “show, don’t tell.” I’ve seen and heard it everywhere.
But let’s be honest: in my efforts to do just that, I’ve often done the exact opposite of what all of that advice is intended to do: I’ve over-showed meaningless and irrelevant details--things that might be pretty, but just aren’t necessary. A handful of years older and wiser now, I’ve found that sometimes, effective and concise descriptions are not always a case of how the descriptions are written, but what it is I choose to show my audience.
So here’s a list of questions I ask myself as a writer to determine if it’s something worth “showing” or just plain-old “telling.”
1. IS IT A SYMBOL?
Symbols are an author’s best friend. Maybe I have too many of them, but they always serve an intentional purpose in my writing. I like giving these symbols the attention they deserve for all the weight they naturally carry; they deserve to be noticed by my readers because they deserve to be affected by the story.
For example: let’s say a businessman’s suit and tie represent his goals and ambitions. If I said the man’s just been violently murdered, then I would describe the bloodstained clothes’ disarray. The sobbing testimony of his wife about how he had so much he was still hoping to do with his life, while touching, wouldn’t be as telling as the way his clothes have been affected. These details connect readers with the sudden loss of his potential--plus, it lets the readers get involved in piecing together the kind of life this man lived.
I’m a video game nerd, so fair warning: I’m going to pull from Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for another example, here.
There’s a moment during a flashback near the beginning of the game where Princess Zelda, the title character, must make a difficult decision. Her kingdom is in the middle of a war, and they have been gravely outnumbered by the enemy. She is given an ultimatum by her opponent: to surrender and save the rest of the lives of her people, or to continue fighting and let the massacre go on.
In the end, her decision isn’t told in words or dialogue. The cutscene jumps to her falling sword clanging against the palace stones.
This moment has always stuck with me ever since I played the game years and years ago because the camera zoomed in on a symbol of Zelda’s reign and power. As a viewer, I had been forced to hear the way that symbol sounds when it is released and hits the ground. I didn’t have to hear a tearful monologue that resulted in Zelda saying the words, “We surrender.” I was able to know the decision she made with one impactful shot. Nothing more.
“Show, don’t tell” so often works beautifully hand-in-hand with symbolism. Usually, I let myself show this one.
2. WILL THE ACTION/REACTION BE RELATABLE?
Though not every experience is universal, we are all still human, so things like loss, childhood, loneliness, and discovering oneself, etc. are things that most people can make connections to. In addition, people usually have their own kind of reactions to these. Naturally, my characters should, too. So picking something my character does to betray that relatable feeling can be a smart way to succinctly use “show, don’t tell” descriptions.
Here’s another example for you, this one from Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action remake of Cinderella.
There’s one shot that still sticks with me four years after I’ve seen the movie: the moment sharply after Ella’s mother has collapsed and we’re shown Ella’s feet, toes in her dirty flats, heels out.
(Sure, there’s probably an argument to be had here somewhere where the shoes act as a symbol in the movie, too, since they also reappear later as something that Cinderella must discard if she’s going to live her dream and go to the ball, but bear with me for a moment.)
This moment is relatable to me because of the restlessness of youth. As a kid, I used to stick my heels out of my flats, too. I associate that action with impatience because I’d do this when I was told to sit still. All of my bottled energy traveled to my feet and to get rid of it, I would slip my flats on and off of my heels (also partly because I enjoyed the odd sound they made when they popped back on).
However, in this scene, Ella is perfectly still and no one’s had to tell her to be. In fact, save for the soundtrack, it’s completely quiet. Her waiting conveys her anxiety in a way that looking at her face wouldn’t because of her lack of the expected (and honestly relatable) antsy childish movement.
Character behavior in response to their circumstances is usually the most common way people “show, don’t tell,” anyway. Less of: “She felt nervous about whether or not her mother would be okay,” and instead: “Ella’s muddied flats hung perfectly still off her heels.”
But it’s what happens afterwards that’s key.
I can’t get caught up in every little detail that conveys Ella’s feelings; the narrative needs to continue: then, the door opens. Ella’s head snaps around to her father, and the story goes on.
3. IS IT ABOUT THE SETTING?
A few years ago, I had a revelation about how much I underappreciated the settings of my favorite stories. I realized how important they usually turned out to be in showing character growth, or setting the stage for suspense, or slowing down the pace and giving me a sense of awe and wonder.
Now when I write, I consider the setting of the narrative vital--especially in regards to tone. My description of the time and space surrounding my characters can either mirror or contrast said tone without being too heavy-handed. A classic early 2000’s example might be if a character is grieving, then I might focus on the rain falling against a window pane (analogous to the tears my character is internally shedding).
But consider the way Mary Shelley uses her beautiful backdrops in Frankenstein as a stronger example, here.
About 30-40 pages from the end of the story, depending on what copy you have, Victor and Elizabeth have just gotten married and are on their way to the Lavenza Villa.
Unfortunately, there’s this monster Victor’s created who wants to kill him. You know the story: Victor destroyed the monster’s hopes and dreams about 30 pages ago when he tore apart what was supposed to be the monster’s companion. Now the monster’s angry and has sworn that he will be with Victor “on his wedding night,” and now that he’s a married man, Victor has taken this to mean that he is going to be killed in a few hours. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension surrounding this little boat trip of Elizabeth and Victor’s on their way to their honeymoon villa.
Shelley uses her setting descriptions to show the conflicting joy Victor and Elizabeth feel as they’ve been recently wedded juxtaposed against Victor’s horror regarding the upcoming confrontation with his monster all while the narrative continues.
Elizabeth tries to comfort him, because they should be happy, right? They just got married! Look how pretty everything is, Victor:
A side note, but one that goes nicely with everything I’m saying here: Shelley constantly uses nature in Frankenstein as a sense of “escapism.” Victor frequently escapes to the outdoors and at one point, the ocean, in order to get away from the conflicts in his life and find some peace. When he is in nature, he is revived and calm and even feels hope, similar to what Elizabeth is talking about here. Even Shelley’s descriptions start out happy and rejuvenating.
But literally, the sun is setting on this beautiful world:
Victor and Elizabeth are approaching the shore. As soon as they hit land, Victor can’t run anymore. He can no longer escape. He has to face reality and confront the monster he’s created before it kills him:
As the light goes out and the sun sinks away, so too does the scenery’s joy and hope. Their little boat has hit the shore. The time for escape has ended. As readers, we know the climax of the story is approaching without Shelley needing to tell us exactly that. We are ready.
And if the falling sun wasn’t dramatic and telling enough, the chapter literally ends after Victor steps onto the shore.
(Talk about showing without needing to say anything at all.)
In the end, I always have to remind myself it’s not necessary to spell out for my readers every little detail. If I deliberately choose a few key items to focus my literary camera on and show, my writing will be much more enjoyable. I can tell most other things just fine. Of course, these are not the only possible ways to limit your “show, don’t tell” descriptions, but they are the ones that I use most often. They are the ones that as a reader, make me ask the most questions and get involved in a story.
My readers deserve that same chance: the chance to imagine my characters and my world for themselves.
K. A. Crystal
K.A. Crystal (Krissey) first started writing when she was 12, drabbling out Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction, and for better or worse, she hasn't stopped writing since. Fourteen years later, she's finally writing her own quirky, original adventures (with a lot less musical number breaks). Her first full-length novel, What Rises From the Depths, a 'fanta-sea' revenge-turned-saving-the-world venture is being serialized on Channillo and also released monthly on her Patreon. She lives happily in Dallas with her wife and cat.
Follow and get in touch with K. A. Crystal on Twitter @krisseywrites
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