Is that a banana in your pocket, or are you trying to kill me?

What do you see?

What's important in your scene? Show, don't tell.

I’ve already blogged here and elsewhere about my difficulty writing description. My prose tends to be terse and action-oriented, much like the television, movies, and comic books that have influenced my work. I think in pictures, and write only what needs to be shown.

This was not always the case.

Back in college, the most baffling comment I ever received from an instructor was to “show, don’t tell.” I had no idea what this meant. I assumed that it meant that I needed more description, but I discovered it was really more than that. It was about setting the scene and putting the reader there with my character.

It’s one thing to say, “There was someone in my apartment.” That’s telling. It’s quite another thing to show the scene. In order to show the reader what was happening, I had to learn to write on a different level.

He emerged from the bedroom, his hulking form obscured by shadow. He stood several inches taller than me, and outweighed me by half. Something jabbed at the material of his front pocket. He pulled out a knife, the kind hunters use for field dressing their kill. The front of my pants warmed as wetness streamed down my left leg.

Here I’m showing the scene. I’m not just telling the reader that there is an intruder. I’m showing what the narrator focuses on and what he feels. In this moment, all his concentration is on the figure in front of him.

I’m also leaving out a number of details. For starters, when my character discovers an intruder in his apartment, he’s not likely to take note of the smashed glass on the framed photo of his sweetheart. That kind of detail may come later, when he’s cleaning up.

I could have mentioned the broken lamp on the floor. I could have talked about the sound of traffic outside the window. I might have included the smell of urine as our hero pissed himself. But i didn’t. The details I included were those which helped show what was important to the moment. I’ll leave the rest to the reader to fill in.

And yes, there are certain details that are left out because our narrator isn’t always reliable. He makes us forget he’s telling this story from some indeterminate future, one where he is safe at home and his pants are dry.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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