by Laura Garwood, Collaborative Editor
So many writers struggle with the vague sensation that their book is a little flat, but they don’t know what to do when people give them suggestions like, “Show, don’t tell,” or that the book needs to be “spiced up.” You are likely asking yourself, What does that mean??
I recently finished line editing a book that immediately drew me in. She showed and she spiced. And the way she did that was not automatically being born more gifted than you. She did that by adding a lot of minutiae to the manuscript. You see, the devil’s in the details.
Each time the main character (let’s call her M) is thinking or talking, she’s doing so in a setting. We not only know where it’s happening, but we see details. When she’s driving, the thinking or talking is interrupted by very simple details like, “I changed lanes,” or a mention of the highway’s comical name. The fact that M finds the name bothersome tells us something about her, politically and socially. The author didn’t have to tell us M’s beliefs on these issues; she just had her think the name was irksome.
Each character is very quirky, and this is revealed not just in their words but…in the details. Every time M visits a relative, the relative tells her that she is reminded of M when she looks at this statue. It repeats, over and over, and becomes part of their relationship and the relative’s character. If someone is in her sister’s house, amid their conflict, have the character look at the same vase to ground us. But also, have the vase reflect the sister—is it shaped like a cat? Does it look like it came from the antique barn? Is it ridiculously overpriced? Does the sister’s phone keep binging? Does she interrupt the main character to text back or do a really good job of refraining? Does she have the latest smartphone or the oldest flip phone?
Have the characters use distinctive words. (And don’t oversummarize what they say—have them actually say it.) Have them keep using or misusing the same words. Have them persistently smell like a specific drugstore perfume or overuse Clorox. Give them too many cats. Give them no cats, because they’re way too uptight to want a litter box in the house.
Build in sensory details too. How does the character’s girlfriend’s house smell? What did the curry that Dad served taste like? When her husband is leaving her, what does the character’s stomach feel like? We do need to know how your character feels, both emotionally and physically. You don’t always have to tell us what he feels, but you can show us how he feels by saying he clenched his fists, that his face got hot, or that he thought he was going to throw up.
The devil’s in the details. But so are your characterization and your setting. And characterization and setting are a lot of the spice! Now get out there and show, don’t tell.
*And thank you, Gail Knopf, for the inspiration. We look forward to seeing Call Me Collect on a shelf!
Laura Garwood loves reading—er, working on—great fiction. An experienced line editor, she has collaborated with all kinds of authors on all kinds of projects, and enjoys finding ways to help them bring more zip to their stories. But she never, ever drops the “Show, don’t tell” bomb.