Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, Description

Here is part four of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. And this post is a long one. Sorry.

Setting is important to any story, and it’s nice to know what the characters look like. One of your job as a writer is helping the reader enter your world, and description is key.

So how does showing and telling relate to setting, appearances, and other descriptions? As I have said before, showing creates mental images for the reader. Showing will allow the reader to feel they are part of the setting or see the characters.

Example one:
“At the farm, the barn was big, and it had a picket fence. There were also pigs in the mud.”

Okay, again, this is telling, and it’s a bit boring. Let’s try again.

Example two:
“At the farm, a two-story barn cast a shadow over a whole field. Pigs rolled around in a mud bath and splattered mud on a picket fence surrounding the barn.”

The second example helps the reader create an image of the farm. Now it’s easier for the reader to slip into the story and feel he is there at the setting.

So showing description is better than telling, right? Well, wait on a second. There’s one issue we need to discuss…


Description Overview:
As you may have noticed, showing requires more words and sentences than telling. Telling can get to the point, but it’s not engaging.

However, description is a little different.

Most of the time, I see writers halt the conflict of the story to spend a paragraph to a page or more devoted to describe something. I favor basic description and giving the bare minimum. As much as you try, readers will fill in blank spaces, so there’s no need to go into every last detail of a place, a character’s appearance, an object, etc.

When you write description in isolated breaks, you’re breaking away from the story’s conflict and slowing the story down. Let’s say characters Cindy and Julia are in a rush to buy business suits because they have a presentation in an hour. They’re at a mall, and we get this:

As the automatic door slid open, Cindy and Julia hurried into the mall. They entered the food court first. Hundreds of tables were spread out across the glassy floor. A mixture of grease and fish drifted through the air, coming from five burger joints and two Japanese restaurants on the left. Sunlight beamed through the glass ceiling and reflected off the fountain in the middle of the court.

“We only have an hour! Where should we go first?” Cindy asked.

“Vogue Ven. They got good suits there,” Julia said.

There’s too much description here, and most of it is useless for the story. Cindy and Julia need suits. They are in a rush. But that feeling is lost in the long description that focuses on the food court. Are all the details about the food court important to the story? If we took it out, will the overall story and conflict change?

Most people have been to a food court before. We don’t need a lot of details about it. Readers only need a sentence at most about the mall, and they can fill in the rest. Honestly, all we really need is:

As the automatic door slid open, Cindy and Julia hurried into the mall. They first entered the food court. It smelled awful, but they didn’t care.

“We only have an hour!” Cindy cried. “Where should we go?”

“Vogue Ven. They got good suits there,” Julia said.

There we go. This flows better. We gave the setting, so we know where the characters are.

Lesson: Less is better.


So We Can Tell Descriptions?

Well, not ALL of it. For writing descriptions, I think it’s okay to tell a little. I suggest not going overboard with the showing when it comes to description.

Because I believe description should be kept minimal, you can get away with telling sometimes. That’s why it’s okay to tell. I still believe in showing, and I strongly advise incorporating description with the action and conflict. I also advise keeping your descriptions on the short side and minimal. Readers will fill in the blanks.

I usually suggest hiding the description with the conflict and using a mix of showing and telling. So you’ll get something like this:

“With her long blond hair flying with the wind, Kelly ran down the road. She pumped her long legs. She had to beat her brother to the yogurt shop. He wasn’t going to beat her again.

She blinked, and in a second, her brother was right there next to her. He had big brown puppy dog eyes, and his hair was blond like Kelly’s. He smirked at her.

Kelly shook her head, and her green eyes twinkled. She ran faster.”

There’s showing, and there’s also telling. There’s also a conflict that’s moving the story, and some of the description is integrated into the conflict. The description about their appearances was kept minimal. The readers will fill in the rest.

So yes, it is okay to tell sometimes with it comes to description because it’s best to keep it on the short side. A few sentences that tell a setting, a character’s appearance, some object, etc are fine. But still try to show. Help the reader slip into your story.


Original Things: Magical Powers, Exotic Places, Different Cultures, Etc:
Many writers have vivid imaginations and create extraordinary worlds. If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction, you have a lot of world building and unique things in your novel.

In these three genres, the setting, creatures, magic, weapons, cultures, etc are original and unique. The reader has never seen or experienced these unique things before, so it is harder to fill in the blanks. The writer will have to write more description to convey everything that is original. Without that extra description, the reader will be lost and struggle to imagine your story.

Sometimes, writers have a hard time conveying what they imagine. How do you show how magic works in your world? What do your aliens look like? What is the culture like in the Stone Ages or Qing Dynasty? How do you convey this unique information to the reader?

Yep, you guess it. By showing.

Example 1:
“Elsa could make snow and ice appear out of thin air. Whenever soldiers attacked her, she just had to raise a hand, and then sharp pieces of ice would burst out of the ground. Usually, the soldiers would stumble back and flee.”

In this example, the character herself isn’t performing the action, and the writer is just telling us how her magic works. The reader isn’t there with the character and therefore not really part of the story.

Let’s try again with showing.

Example 2:
“Elsa gasped as the soldier charged at her. She raised her hand, and sharp pieces of ice burst out of the ground. Barely dodging the ice, the soldier stumbled back and fled.”

This example is more engaging. Because of the showing, we’re with the character as she performs her magic, so we’re there in the story with her. We understand how her magic works too.

Showing is especially important for culture. Culture plays a big role in any book. When we tell, you’ll get something like this:

Example A:

In the city of Tatali, men and women were never allowed to work with each other. Men had to work underground and make sure the underground generator functioned properly. Women could only work as teachers and assistants to The Elites who ran the government. Everyone could spot an Elite from ten miles away. They always wore red velvet robes, and their long hair was always braided. The every day people only wore rags, and because maintaining personal hygiene was so costly, most every day citizens smelled because they rarely bathed.

So like the ice powers example, we’re not actually in the story. The writer is telling us what the culture of this city is like. There’s no character to follow. There’s no way for the reader to enter this world.

Let’s try again.

Example B:

Luke and Megan walked out of their shack and entered the busy streets of Tatali. Passing shack after shack, they squeezed through gaps of crowds of people wearing rags. A stench filled the air and burned Luke’s and Megan’s noses, though they were used to it. Like everybody else, they too smelled from never taking a bath.

“How’s the generator?” Megan asked.

“It’s functioning. That’s all that matters,” Luke said. “How’s the school?”

“Oh, the usual,” Megan said. “I just wished we had more books for the children.”

“Maybe this is your chance to get more. Look over there,” Luke said and pointed.

Down the street was The School of Tatali. Every woman in the city pushed her way inside the building, and by the front door was a man dressed in a red velvet robe. As he tugged on his long braid, he held his chin up high and sneered at the teachers.

“An Elite,” Luke said. “Ask him to get the kids more books.”

Megan bit her lip. “Well, I don’t know…”

“Come on, Meg. The Elite control everything. If you want more books, you have to go through them.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll try.” Megan said. “See you later.”

Leaving Luke, Megan walked down toward the school. Luke ran a hand through his hair, accidentally smudging dirt over his forehead with his thumb, and turned down to the next street. He followed other men to a tunnel leading to the underground. Once inside, darkness swooped over him, and the sounds of clinking and every man in the city yelling echoed off the walls.

In this example, the showing helps the reader enter the story. The reader can now see this culture.

I know this post is longer than usual, so I’ll end here with a few take away lessons.

1. Keep description brief—readers will fill in the rest
2. Integrate your description with the conflict and story
3. Showing is better
4. But, it’s okay to tell descriptions sometimes too
5. To convey original info, please show


Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

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