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How to Show Not Tell the Scenes in Your Novel

Updated on July 5, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I teach creative writing to adults and love helping my students improve their writing skills.

A Well Written Scene Adds Depth to Your Story

Rue du Porche, Peyreleau, Aveyron, France
Rue du Porche, Peyreleau, Aveyron, France | Source

How to Create a Memorable Scene in Your Novel

When writing a scene in your novel, aim to create a mood and an emotional connection with your reader. To help you do this, take a moment and carry out the following exercise.

Imagine you are taking a photo. Point your camera at your subject and then zoom in. Can you see the difference between just looking at the subject and then moving into close focus? The following two pictures illustrate what happens when a photographer does this.

The photo below shows a panoramic view of a city walkway with steps leading away from the viewer (or reader of your written scene). You can see the tall buildings on either side and there is a sense of being overpowered by the grim desolation of the place. But do you feel any emotional connection with this picture? Is your mood affected by what you see? To me this is a bland, flat scene that does not hold my attention. It does not inspire me to think about where those steps may lead.

Now take a look at the next picture.

Harbor Steps, Seattle, Washington, U.S.
Harbor Steps, Seattle, Washington, U.S. | Source

Zoom in to Engage Your Reader

The next picture shows a similar scene to the one you have just studied. It is shot in a cityscape with an escalator leading to an unseen destination, but there the similarities end. In this photo the photographer has gone for a closer view, he has zoomed in on the scene.

The stairs are now the center of the action. The sight of a man disappearing at the top of the flight of steps draws your attention and makes you wonder who he is and where he is going. The buildings in this shot are just as tall and overbearing as in the previous photo, but the size of the skyscraper is emphasized by juxtaposing it with a person.

Think about the five senses and how they create an emotional engagement with this scene.

Stairway to heaven, Ile-de-France, Paris.
Stairway to heaven, Ile-de-France, Paris. | Source

The Five Senses: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch

When you are creating a scene for your novel, your aim is to create a vivid picture of your world in your reader’s imagination. Don’t just rely on the sense of sight in your description. Think about the other four too. If you were standing in your scene what would you hear and smell? Think about the feel of things if you could reach out and touch them. Taste does not just relate to food, but can give an idea of pollution or lack of it (for example, the taste of wood smoke or salty sea air).

Using the five senses in your writing, not only creates a better mental picture of the action’s physical location, but can also place the action in a specific historical time period.

In the video below, the writer Nalo Hopkinson gives great advice on how to make your writing more descriptive. Done well you will create a magic that will hold your readers spell-bound.

How To Write Descriptively

Study How Other Writers Set the Scene

If you are struggling toshow not tell”, read other writers and analyze how they have brought a scene to life. Here is an example of scene setting from “The Followers” by Welsh writer Dylan Thomas.

Water from a chute dripped on to his sacking. He waited in his own pool of rain.

A flat, long girl drifted, sniveling into her hanky, out of a jeweler’s shop, and slowly pulled the steel shutters down with a hooked pole. She looked, in the grey rain, as though she were crying from top to toe.

A silent man and woman, dressed in black, carried the wreaths away from the front of their flower shop into the deadly darkness behind the window lights. Then the lights went out.

A man with a balloon tied to his cap pushed a shrouded barrow up a dead end.

A baby with an ancient face sat in its pram outside the wine vaults, quiet, very wet, peering cautiously all round it.

It was the saddest evening I had ever known.

Some of the phrases in this passage that elicit the five senses are as follows.

Sense
Descriptive Phrase
Sight
His own pool of rain
Hearing
Sniveling into her hanky
Taste
As though she were crying (salt tears).
Smell
(Water) dripped on to his sacking
Touch
Pulled the steel shutters down with a hooked pole.

Join a Writing Group

Sometimes it is difficult to be self-critical. Reading your script aloud in a writer’s group can be very helpful. Constructive feedback from other authors may guide you to improvement. Don’t worry of you lack self-confidence in your ability to read aloud. Others in the group will feel the same way and a supportive group will help you overcome your fears.

Join a writing group where you feel comfortable and supported. If there isn’t one like that nearby then start one of your own. It’s a great way to network with other writers.

Each writer can take a turn of reading a page or two from their work in progress. The rest of the group should then discuss the passage they have heard. The discussion should focus on what made the story interesting and memorable. You will be amazed at the issues others notice. Treat it as a learning experience and be willing to explain why you wrote the scene the way you did. If you are able to accept constructive criticism your novel writing skills will improve.

To create an interesting story, the writer needs to show not tell the reader about people, places, and things they are writing about.

Showing creates mental pictures in the reader’s mind.

When readers get a clear picture, they are more engaged in the writer’s story

— dadeschools.net

Evoke a Sense of Place with Your Writing

You have lived, breathed and thought about your story for months. In your mind’s eye, you can see clearly where the action takes place. You see every scratch on the sidewalk, you feel each individual snowflake as it forms into drifts. You think it must be obvious to your readers where the story is set, but often it’s not. Novice writers make the mistake of thinking that making bland statements about location is sufficient. You need to set the scene by “showing not telling”.

Show Don't Tell: Four Writers Explain How

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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 4 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great information and advice. My writing experienced a major shift when a publisher told me not to start my novel by describing the scene, but with action or conversation. Put the reader in the midst of the story and let the setting reveal itself. Best advice I ever got.

    • quildon profile image

      Angela Joseph 4 months ago from Florida

      Very helpful article, Beth. I love the graphic at the top. It's so easy to take the lazy way out and tell instead of show but if we have someone else look at our work we would be able to see where we need to shape up. Thanks for sharing that video.

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