Creative writing instructors say it over and over: “Show; don’t tell.”
What they mean is that good writers use words to paint a mental picture of something, as opposed to simply stating facts or opinions. Show-don’t-tell is especially useful in establishing character and setting. Rather than saying, “John was a slob,” show me. Describe his greasy hair, the sweat stains on his dingy white wifebeater, or the tobacco stains on his teeth. Give me some details and trust me to draw my own conclusions.
At the same time, don’t give me too much information. I don’t need a list of everything you know about John; I just need a couple of really specific details that give me some insight into who he is.
The trick is to know the purpose behind every word you write, then choose words that will accomplish that purpose as efficiently as possible.
For instance, let’s say my character is sitting in front of an old motel in a small town in New Mexico, and I want the reader to know the following:
1. The wind blows a lot in New Mexico.
2. It’s cold outside.
3. The town is kind of run-down.
4. The motel is kind of run-down.
5. The character isn’t from New Mexico.
6. The town is pretty rural.
I could write something like this:
Sierra was sitting on an old metal lawn chair with a red back and seat and a white base with alligatored paint and rust spots all over it. The wind was blowing, which happened all the time. It was cold out. She was sitting in front of an old motel with stucco walls, brown trim, a green roof, and peeling paint. The stop sign, ornamental windmill, clotheslines, chair, and the neighbor’s porch swing were all creaking. Coyotes sang, prairie dogs called to each other, and road runners scurried across a field at the edge of town, which seemed very exotic to her, because she was from St. Louis.
That passage contains a lot of detail, but it feels clumsy and kind of boring, because it’s basically just a bunch of lists.
Instead of including everything I know about the setting, what if I just pick a few critical details and weave them together into sentences?
Sierra shivered in the ever-present New Mexico wind. Her chair protested the sudden movement, its faded back groaning against its rust-ravaged frame. The chair seemed to go well with the paint peeling from the motel’s cracked stucco walls and the brittle asphalt shingles on the roof, she thought. A coyote yipped somewhere in the darkness just beyond the property, and Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin.
See the difference? In both paragraphs, I’ve established basic facts about the setting and the character. But while the first paragraph includes a larger quantity of detail, it ends up using more words to provide less information. The second paragraph gives just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the rest.
Try this: Write a paragraph describing a tired mother trying to get two young children out of the grocery store before the little one throws a temper tantrum. Establish the setting, the characters, and the situation as clearly as possible, using as few words as possible.