Being a Better Writer: Showing Character and Setting with Small Details

First of all, I apologize for how late this post is (it’s Tuesday). Turns out, I’d almost forgotten that I had a meeting at my part-time Monday. Now, I can’t work currently, but I can attend a meeting. So I did, forgetting until Sunday night that this automatically conflicted with the Monday morning Being a Better Writer post. I then got up a little early to try and work something out, but didn’t get too far before I had to head off to work.

Side note: The knee is still recovering. Trying to get my back pay for the several weeks worth of work I was unable to do. We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck!

Anyway, so today’s topic. I want to dive right into this one headway, because it’s a good one. Often here before I’ve talked about show versus tell, right? And yes, that’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell. The first is proper (all things in balance). The latter is overblown purple prose taught as a guideline to push writers into showing, but then unfortunately not untaught.

Anyway, there are, if memory serves, several blog posts on that very topic here on the site. But I want to go one step further and tackle something that usually comes right on the heels of telling someone to “show” something.

The question of “how?”

Okay, now here’s where I want you to do a thought exercise. I’m going to give you a few key indicators for a room, all right? Here they are:

—It’s hot
—It’s dark
—There’s a fan noise

That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say. Now, I want you to answer this question: Which of these three things would you notice first if you walked into the room? Got it? Okay, now, which if these three things would one of your characters notice first?

Okay, end exercise. Now, with that fresh in your mind, how would you show this when introducing your scene? See, if we went the tell route, we would end up with something like this:

Janet walked into the room. It was hot and dark. A fan was working in the corner to cool the place to no avail.

That is both generic and very tell. It just states things about the room, gives it to us up front. Very blunt, basic, and bland.

But what if we want this scene to show things? Well, suddenly we have two questions. First, how do we show, and second, what are we going to show. Because here’s a little trick to show, and one of the reasons we like it so much. Telling is just handing facts about a story to a reader. Here’s a plate, lift the lid to see your fact. Boom, done.

Showing, however, is a bit more complicated. For starters, we’re not trotting out the details on a silver platter. Or in other words, we’re not stating them the way we do when telling. In showing, we want the reader to experience our words, to feel the setting the way our viewpoint does. But this also means that we need to understand our viewpoint well, well enough that we not only can envision how the world appears to them, but that we know what would be the first thing to catch their attention.

The end result of this is where show versus tell gains another distinction. Tell is simply tell: It is up front and direct about its impression, or rather it gives things to the reader in a straightforward style. Show on the other hand often leaves flexibility or room for interpretation. Room for the reader to think, and to interpret.

Additionally, show is more … I hesitate to say “drawn out,” but at the same time this is true. Show is confined to a viewpoint … almost more grounded. Think of the difference, if you may, between a documentary and a film. A documentary is very straightforward, ie, this is how something is made (shots of thing being made). A film on the other hand, generally takes its time with very different camera angles, often to try and give you a sense of the elements on-screen through positioning or motion.

Think of show versus tell in writing as the difference between the two. The tell is straightforward, while the show wants to try and immerse the reader in the scene. This does, however, lead to a more … shall we say “prolific” vocabulary, since the author wants to try and immerse the reader.

Anyway, this entails most often coming at things from the perspective of the character in question. So, with regards to our example from above, what was a few short sentences simply presenting things can instead become this:

Janet walked into the room, her eyes open wide. A wave of heat swept over her, rushing out of the door and instantly causing a sweat to break out across her body. She couldn’t see anything despite the darkness, but the faint rumble of a fan came from somewhere to her left, and as she moved deeper in, she felt the air around her shift as it passed her by.

Okay, so it’s rough, but the difference is pretty clear. Now, if you look back over that, note all the times where the descriptions of the room are given through her eyes, or through something that she experiences—given as a sensation, rather than a summary. Which isn’t to say that some of it doesn’t just straight up state something; there is some tell in there. But much of it is show, given by Janet’s experiences and sensation. A wave of heat sweeping over her gives the audience a much more visual description to understand. As does something like “rumble of a fan.” Rumble is something that implies sensation, movement. Something a reader can pull from. This can be actions, it can be sensation, feeling …

Right. You get the picture. Show versus tell. As I said, we’ve touched on this before. So now comes the second part of this post, the part the title referenced: Using this via small details to show character and setting.

Okay, some of you are probably scratching your heads. So let me ask something: Have you ever read a book or story where the character descriptions, room descriptions, etc, are just all lumped together in one big, congealed mass? You know the kind I’m talking about. Character enters room and sit back, because I’m telling you all about this room now, like a narrator reading from a script.

Okay, it has its place, and it’s not bad, per se. It’s just also not that great. Also, it’s pretty tell most of the time.

But here’s the thing, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve also read a story or two (or more, hopefully), where the descriptions of settings and the like felt much more natural. Smoother, maybe.

You know what one of the things I’d bet those stories did was? They let the characters show both the setting and themselves, rather than simply describing things to the reader. Think back on the opening of this post, where I talked about the three bits of a room, and which one you would notice first, followed by compared to what a character would notice first.

Now take that into a story, and drop that small detail in. Say your character is the type that would notice motion above all else, and the room isn’t so dark that they can’t see the fan. So, when they arrive in the room, the fan is the first thing that catches their eye, followed by the other aspects (hot, dark, etc). Which in turn, tells us something about the character, too.

Especially if you continue to drop development for the setting or the character (or both) throughout your story. Going with our prior example, we introduce this room as hot, right? The character notices the temperature first and comments on the room being overly hot. We can reinforce this little bit of personality by having the temperature be one of the first things they notice elsewhere as well.

Or say we come back to that overly warm room from earlier later in the book. Some will, no joke, simply not describe it at all, since the reader has already read about it earlier. And in most situations, that isn’t exactly a bad thing. It works.

You can, however, instead use small details like the temperature to continue to develop the story, or help “reseat” the reader’s mind in the new scene, or even to reinforce the viewpoint character or develop them.

Okay, so it doesn’t have to be the temperature. I’m just sticking with that because it’s something steady that we’ve talked about since the start. But it can be anything. Say you have a character who always notices when things are ordered, when a room is in straight lines. Having them notice that doesn’t take much space—maybe a line or two at most—but allows you to both reinforce their character as well as give important details (to the protagonist anyway) of the setting to the reader. And by continuing to let these sorts of details pull double-duty we show our reader both more about our character and scene in the same motion.

Plus, as I said they don’t have to be big details. Small details are perfect for this, as they act as constant reinforcement of an ideal or mental set. Say, a character always looking up at everyone around them, implying that they are shorter and conscious of it. Or a character that always checks the rooms they enter for exits. Or notes the color. Or the body language of someone they just met.

This can be any one of thousands upon thousands of possible little details. But no matter what they are, they’ll serve to reinforce aspects of your character as well as develop or reinforce both the character and the world for the reader.

And that is a win-win. There’s really not a downside. You reinforce and develop your character, reinforce and develop your world … and in a smooth, natural manner that shows it all to the reader.

That’s really all there is to it. And you can apply it to move your development in a lot of ways, too. You can focus on different aspects of a character, reinforce shown behavior, or a setting … really just about anything. All just by carefully showing a few select, small details. Pretty nifty, eh?

One caution. Don’t overdo it. You’ll know when you have, because you’ll notice that you’re repeating yourself, or retreading the same ground too often. Or a reader will notice it.

But used properly, showing small details can be a great way to keep your character and setting development on course.

So good luck, and go get writing!



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