I’ve been told to paint a picture with my words when writing. I have also been told to show, don’t tell. It seems the phrases mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably. The problem is, it is easier said than done.

Why is Painting a Picture Hard?

It is hard to know as an author if you are  painting a picture because the picture is in your head when you write. If you read it back, the picture is still in your head. I find it is best to just write on and come back when you are in an editing/fixing mood.

Also it tough if you have a really good idea and you want to get it all out. So don’t worry about painting a picture when you are trying to dump out the story line. Just dump the story line and come back an paint detail on it later.

Painting a picture or showing not telling comes in many steps which I have documented here: Writing like a painter

Ok, so I am going to focus on #6 and #8 because they both cover the idea of showing not telling.

Ok, lets start with three simple sentences that are telling not show.

I was being watched. I looked but didn’t see anyone. It was breezy.

Ok, so lets analyze these sentences.  Let’s just start with some simple questions.

  • Where?
  • When?
  • What does the character see?
  • How does he know he is being watched?

The telling sentences just don’t answer these questions.

I am going to put this in a table so you can see the progression.

Telling Good Better
I was being watched. My instincts told me someone’s eyes were on me. Leaving my front door, the hair on the back of my head stood up, indicating someone’s eyes were boring into me from a distance.
I looked but didn’t see anyone. My head swiveled left and right but I saw no one. To the left kids played in the drive way a couple houses down. To the right a neighbor’s blue sedan turned the corner. The sidewalks were empty.
It was breezy. The breeze blew through my hair. There was no movement by the houses in front of me except the fluttering leaves that reflected the evening sun.

Now, lets look at a the good sentences. They are all right. They give an excellent image of the character. I see his head moving and I see the wind blowing his hair.

My instincts told me someone’s eyes were on me. My head swiveled left and right but I saw no one. The breeze blew through my hair.

In many situations the above sentence may be what is needed. But besides outside somewhere, where is the character? What position is the character in? Standing, Sitting? What time is it? He sees no one but what does he see when he looks?

Lets look at the better sentences.

Leaving my front door, the hair on the back of my head stood up, indicating someone’s eyes were boring into me from a distance. To the left kids played in the drive way a couple houses down. To the right a neighbor’s blue sedan turned the corner. The sidewalks were empty. There was no movement by the houses in front of me except the fluttering leaves that reflected the evening sun.

Now the questions have been answered. Where is he? (in a neighborhood, likely his house) What is he doing? (Looking around) Notice that he sees the left, then right, and then in front of him, yet I never said “he looked”. Showing what was to the left and then showing what was to the right gave me a picture (actually a movie) of him looking those directions. I never mention the breeze at all. Instead, the words “fluttering leaves” painted the picture of the breeze.

Now be careful you don’t go to far an alienate and bore your readers.

Also, pacing an focus also matter. The good sentences might be better in a place where the story should move at a faster pace or if you are zeroing in on the character and fading out the surroundings.

If you create a table of all your sentences that are telling sentences, you can actually create a toolbox of paint brush words that you can use over and over again. Here is an example…finish filling it out.

Telling Good Better
It was breezy. The breeze blew through my hair. There was no movement by the houses in front of me except the fluttering leaves that reflected the evening sun.
The wind blew hard.
The wind came at me at seventy miles an hour

Finish this table as if the character is standing on his front porch. Keep it around somewhere.  Now create a copy of the table and fill it out as if the character is in the city streets, or in a forest, or on the prairie. Notice how you paint the picture differently yet the tactics should be similar.

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