Writers Write is a writing resource. Use this post to help you use the senses to show and not tell when you write.
My post last week was 5 Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell. Today I want to discuss Tip 2 – Use the Senses – in more detail.
Writing with the senses is brilliant advice. When you write with the senses, you engage your readers’ emotions. When you don’t use the words see, hear, smell, touch and taste you remove a barrier between yourself and your reader.
You know when you read a book and you tell people: ‘It was like I was there.’? Go take a look, I bet the author wrote making use of the senses.
How To Use The Senses To Show And Not Tell
Consider these examples:
Sandra walked through her childhood home for the first time in twenty years. They were so happy here. She touched the smooth railing and remembered sliding down the banister; she could feel the wet cement between her fingers from when they made imprints when Dad built up the courtyard. She remembered when Mom helped them to make their birthday cupcakes. She could still smell the vanilla. The kitchen had always been her favourite place. She remembered lining up so Mom could mark their height against the doorjamb. She could almost hear the yapping puppy they got for their birthday, the puppy that chewed a hole through the door. And she remembered what is was like after they found her sister and the puppy in the pool. After, there was no more sliding, no more cupcakes, no more marks on the doorjamb. Not even hers, even though she was still alive. It was time to pack it all up.
Now, think about what she saw, heard, felt, tasted and touched.
Sandra ran her hand along the banister. The dark wood smooth from years of sliding. Her twenty year absence obvious in each cobweb corner. The movers were coming tomorrow. Everything had to go, but where to start? The kitchen. It had always been her favourite place. The cupboard door creaked. The cupcake pan gave off a red powdery dust. The scent of birthday cupcakes replaced by the acidity of oxidising metal. It landed with a clang next to the dustbin. She opened the back door, the hinges protesting. She needed the big black bin. She ignored the chew marks the puppy had made in the wood. Two tiny hands pressed deep into the cement caught her eye. Her palm rested on the too small imprint. She shook her hand just as she had the day they made them and tried to shake off the memories. She couldn’t do it. She knew the markings would be on the doorjamb behind her, but she didn’t look around. She knew they stopped. At the age of five. Two marks. Two girls. One dead. One alive. Sort of. The puppy was a birthday present. Shelly had wanted to save the puppy. No one knew he had chewed a hole through the door. No one knew the pool was open. She scribbled a note to remind herself to buy paint for the doorjamb.
Deconstructing the examples
By using the senses you force your character to interact with the scene making it more of a showing scene. But I am only using one technique so this example still uses a lot of telling. (I would perhaps change the scene to add a conversation with a nosy estate agent to show her history.)
A last note, did you notice there was too much I tried to highlight? When you make your list of senses use all five, and use them all when you write. Once you are done, go back and decide which are important to the scene. Chances are you won’t use all five senses in every scene.
How to decide?
My scene goal was to show you that her sister had died and that it changed her family forever. The puppy, the cupcakes, and the marks on the doorjamb all tie in with a birthday so I think they work and birthdays are great markers to show change. But the hand prints in the cement? I like the image, but I might use it somewhere else or not at all.
Sometimes we have to tell
There were some interesting comments last week in favour of telling. I love showing, but I agree there are a few instances when you have to tell. I will always try to keep those to a minimum, but there are writers who enjoy it.
We do have a post about when you should tell. 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)
If you enjoyed this post, you will love
- How being specific helps you show and not tell
- How choosing a viewpoint character helps you show and not tell
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