How Being Specific Helps You Show And Not Tell

How Being Specific Helps You Show And Not Tell

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:

Example 1

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.

Example 2

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

Happy Showing.

[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)]

(You can also try our FREE COURSE: How To Show And Not Tell In Short Stories)

 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

  1. Five Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell
  2. How To Use The Senses To Show And Not Tell
  3. How Choosing a Viewpoint Character Helps You Show And Not Tell
  4. How To Use Dialogue To Show And Not Tell

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 21st January 2015

3 thoughts on “How Being Specific Helps You Show And Not Tell”

  1. you were right, I imagined what Jimmy looked like as well as the cupboard the can came from. And I don’t like Jake. I shall continue to work on showing. This was a great explanation. Thanks.

  2. Hannah E. Murphy

    Great lesson! Let me give it a go!

    Empty envelopes crunched under Angie’s feet. She still remembered that sick, tight feeling in her stomach as she ripped them open and tossed them aside from the bills that morning. They were still in a chaotic mess on the tiny table, right where she left them. She slumped in her chair with a long sigh, her eyes grazing over the serious red ink stamped on each paper: Final notice. The sick feeling twisted inside of her again just looking at them.
    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!” She waved back, managing the small smile she always attempted when times were rough. He was still too young to understand any of this. No reason to tie him up into it. His good for nothing father was a different story.
    She could hear in the other room the couch creaking as Jake turned over, and sure enough, the sound of beer cans clattered to the floor. That sick feeling in her only tightened more when his soft snores built up to the belch that followed.
    She gasped, her heart skipping a beat as her attention darted from Jake’s ruckus to the her phone vibrating on the table. The landlord again. Her thumb slammed down on the screen, sending the call straight to voice mail. Why bother speaking to that jerk? She knew exactly what he wanted.
    She frowned, hauling herself up from the creaky olf chair and made her way to the cabinets over the stove. The sick twist tightened further as she glared up at the last can of SpaghettiOs sitting on the shelf.
    It bubbled and slurped as she shook it into the bowl. Dinner was served, but now what would they eat the rest of the week?

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