Show vs Tell: Five Senses

Including detailed sensory descriptions can help breathe life into your prose. The right details can add color to the page. They can create soundscapes, scents, textures, and atmosphere. But to be effective, your sensory details shouldn’t feel telegraphed, overblown, or random.

You want to choose details which not only cause images, sounds, smells, etc. to pop into the reader’s head, but also reveal character, develop theme, and push the story forward. You want to show the way character’s feel through your details. You want, in short, to create an immersive, exciting, plot-pushing experience with your descriptions.

Once again, ladies and gentlemen: POV!

As we’ve discussed in many of these articles, the easiest way to make sure you’re showing and not telling in your sensory descriptions is to root your storytelling firmly in the head of the main character. This is done in first person and third person limited stories, where you can design your POV character specifically to fit the descriptions you want to include. 

If your story takes place among the floral paradise of the gardens at Versailles, for instance, smell will be important. Depending on who you cast as your POV character, the amount of words you can spend describing the sweet bouquet of those sweet bouquets will be drastically different. Did your character grow up on a farm or in the city? Are they a botanist or a bounty hunter? Do they have allergies? Does the scent of roses bring them mentally back to the bedside of their dying grandmother?

The way in which you describe the smell of the gardens should differ depending on how you answer those types of character questions.

If instead, you’re writing in third person omniscient or third person objective, the reader won’t necessarily stay inside the head of a single character in a given scene. In these cases, the amount and type of sensory detail you include comes down to your author’s voice and the general feel you desire the prose to have. 

The Five+ Senses

Ideally, each sensory description should be as specific an image as possible, be written as concisely as possible, and never be distracting. (The one exception to the distracting rule would be if you’re writing a literary story where ‘style over substance’ is the aim.)

When light bounces off the world around you and shoots into the jelly-filled, camera obscuras called your eyeballs, your brain is suddenly given a whole bunch of information, but the vast majority of that data is discarded. Only the important bits—a lover’s face, your phone’s screen, a cheetah leaping out of the bushes to eat you—are given top priority in your mind’s eye. 

The same can be said for sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. We don’t consciously notice most of the things around us. If you choose to specifically call out and describe a detail in your prose, the reader will assume that detail is important to the story. If it’s not important, don’t waste many words on it. If it is important, choose your words carefully.

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly how every character’s hair looks, the pattern of the wallpaper, or that the sky is blue. They already know the sky is blue. Now, maybe you want to say that “the sky that day was an infinite stretch of softest blue, unsullied by cloud or moon or the contrails of jet planes”. That would work because it changes the way the reader feels about the scene. 

Your details should always be meaningful. They should give the scene a special quality that it wouldn’t have otherwise. 

As for the “Show vs. Tell”, let’s start playing with some details, one sensory organ at a time…

Sight

Tell: The man was very old.

Show: His back was shaped like a question mark and his skin was a sagging, wrinkled, gray cloak which hung loosely from his bones.

Tell 2: It looked very silly.

Show 2: He couldn’t help but roll his eyes.

In each of these examples, the ‘tell’ simply describes one objective attribute of the visual, whereas the ‘show’ expresses the same visual while also evoking emotion and creating a sense of movement.

Sound

Tell: The music sounded beautiful.

Show: The notes flowed over him like an audio bath.

Tell 2: The car raced by.

Show 2: Vroom!

This last ‘show’ is an example of onomatopoeia, and though it might be out of place in certain adult genres, feel free to use onomatopoeia if you feel it fits your voice and style.

Smell

Tell: It smelled bad.

Show: She sniffed and wrinkled her nose in disgust.

Touch

Tell: The cushion was soft and silky.

Show: She released a long pent-up sigh as her cheek squished into the cushion.

Tell 2: The cactus had very sharp needles.

Show 2: “Ow! Ah, crap. You guys gotta bandaid?”

Taste

Tell: The candy was extra sour.

Show: The toddler winced, mouth puckering and eyes squinting in a wicked smile as she sucked on the candy.

The Tragically Oft-Forgotten Other Senses

When finding ways to describe your scenes and develop your characters, don’t forget about all the other sensations a human body can experience.

There’s thermoception (sensing temperature), proprioception (your body’s awareness of its place and movement), and the senses of pain, balance, and vibration.

Describing Character’s Looks

Straightforward visual descriptions of your characters is often unnecessary. Go back and check some of your favorite novels. You might be surprised how rarely characters, especially the POV characters, are described at all, and for good reason.

Flávia had curly hair and green eyes.” 

A description like that doesn’t really tell us anything about Flávia. If your only reason for describing her that way is because that’s how you imagine her in your head, you can probably cut the description. Most readers want to use their imagination when it comes to the character’s looks. 

“Flávia’s hair was always perfectly combed, not a strand out of place, and she wore sunglasses indoors to hide the fact that she had a glass eye.” 

Now there’s a description that actually reveals something about her character. We get personality, insecurity, backstory. We know her a little better now.

Oh, and don’t just focus on looks. Visual description of body language is very important. Does your character bounce their knee when they’re nervous, do they lean in when they’re interested, do they bite their fingernails, does their whole body stiffen when they are hugged?

Order of Adjectives

When it comes to listing a whole bunch of adjectives in your descriptions, there is a sort of unofficial order that they usually sound best in. I recommend erring on the side of whatever order sounds natural, but as a general rule, try the following order first:

  • Quantity
  • Quality
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Proper terms such as material (“metal”) or nationality (“Canadian”)
  • Purpose or qualifier

Example: Beth adopted three wonderful, tiny, jet-black Great Dane puppies.

Final tricks, tips, and musings

Remember that showing takes more words than telling. Sometimes, to quicken the pace and keep the action tight, you need to simply give a ‘tell’ description and move on. 

When describing things, don’t just focus on what is happening, show how it affects your POV character. That’s the difference between A scary dog ran around the corner of the house and jumped at Jamal, and Jamal cringed as a massive dog rounded the corner.

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October 28, 2019

Dave Kavanaugh

Dave likes to write about ancient aliens, newborn gods, and really big swords. He is the author of the serial "Age of Omicron" and lots of speculative short fiction. To learn more, head over to www.davekavanaugh.com.

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