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Describe, Don't Explain

A Simpler Explanation of the "Show, Don't Tell" Advice

By TestPublished 5 months ago 3 min read
Describe, Don't Explain
Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

Spoiler Alert: A description of important details pertaining to the murder in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith are provided.

If you've been in any sort of writing program or critique group, you've likely heard the advice, "Show, don't tell."

Honestly, a simpler definition is, "Describe, don't explain."

There are many ways to use description in your story, and all of these can draw the reader in, though, sometimes, simply explaining is sufficient.

As a writer, it's important to know when to use which method.

Description makes the scene pop off the page, while explanation can create curiosity in the reader.

I love Shaelin's writing channel, and this is a great video on the classic "Show, don't tell" advice.

As Shaelin says, it's important to know how to describe certain scenes and simply explain others.

If you are describing, you are painting a picture on a page.

You might want to consider the following to create a scene if you are with two characters who are drinking tea:

  • What does the tea smell like?
  • What are the characters wearing?
  • What are they having a conversation about?
  • What do the characters feel like?
  • What do the characters look like?
  • What does the room look like?
  • What is the general mood?
  • Do the characters have certain quirks, like tapping their feet or twiddling their thumbs?

There are many examples of describing instead of explaining.

I recently came across an incredible description of a carcass in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith:

A carcass: trussed, stinking and rotting, empty and gutted lying on the floor instead of hanging from a metal hook where surely it belonged. But what looked like a slaughtered pig wore human clothing. It lay beneath arched beams, bathed in light from that gigantic Romanesque window, and though it was a private house and the traffic sloshed still beyond the glass, Strike felt that he stood retching in a temple, witness to a sacrificial slaughter, to an act of unholy desecration. (p.124)

This is a brilliant description of a carcass. The best I have seen.

Honestly, there are many ways to kill a person, but this particular scene is absolutely horrific.

I can see it in my mind's eye, as grotesque as these details may be. As a writer, that is what you want when you create a scene.

Personally, I prefer a balance of explanation and description.

For example, I do not need to know the many precise details of a boat unless it is intricately important to the plot of the story, which it very well might be.

Conversely, I might want to be shown the many nooks and crannies of a castle, like Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter series because these are, indeed, crucial to the story.

If you are simply explaining something about a character or a scene, you do not need to provide nearly as many details.

For example, you could simply write something like this:

He strode to the castle in the middle of the night. It was dark.

Nothing more needs to be said, because this is already explanatory.

Sometimes, I enjoy explanation because it leaves the reader with a certain amount of mystery and curiosity: Every detail does not need to be provided; leaving room for whoever you are telling the story to to fill in the blanks can actually be quite effective.

In short, showing versus telling—or describing instead of explaining—is perhaps overused advice, but it is quite effective to combine the two when you are crafting a story.

As a writer, it's important to know how to do both and then use each method to your liking.

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