"A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings but a cat does not." -Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Does Show Don’t Tell Have To Do With The Equation: Mood + Story = Theme

Mood and theme is not necessarily the same thing, but they are closely related.  That’s why it is important to keep in mind every setting has its own individual mood and the interaction between them and your story plays an important part in conveying the theme. For instance, a story with a theme about depression may start out with a bright and sunny setting but eventually it turns dark and gloomy, thus revealing the theme. 

Today’s question:  Are there books you still vividly remember reading because it was as if you had been there yourself experiencing the emotions and actions of the main characters and then others you can hardly recall?  If you went back and reread the ones you still remember and the ones long forgotten I bet you would find the difference lies in the details in the description of the settings and how they all tied together to convey the theme of the story.  How did the author do this?  Do you know the answer is not in overloading every setting’s description with adjectives? 

Let’s explore:  Fact is, no one wants to read a book which is filled with every clichéd adjective in the world but would rather read a book in which their imagination soars. In other words, to use a famous writing cliché, show don’t tell!

Most beginning writers struggle with the concept of “show don’t tell” because telling is the easiest way for the protagonist of their story to “tell” what is happening; however, this often times results in leaving out important details such as sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.  That’s right you have five senses not one and so do your readers. Each one of these senses can be broadened to describe a scene with using limited adjectives.  For example, if a scene takes place in a school room what does the description of the light filling the room remind the reader of, does the smell of the room remind them of glue or finger paint, does the glue make them wonder what wet wadded up paper in their mouth would taste like or does the teacher's clapping hands remind them of their grandmother?  Hint: If you are writing for children, the five senses play a huge role in them connecting with your story.

So the next time you’re editing and you find a scene where you have conveniently described every aspect of it using adjectives try looking for ways in which you can show not tell.  How?  Try using specific nouns instead of adjectives or find a way to make the setting more memorable by drawing out related memories and let your readers do the work!  Remember, just as in life, balance is the key.  Too many nouns can lead to boring writing and too many adjectives can lead to unimaginative reading. 

Next week, The Unknown Author is going to step aside from writing techniques and explore the road to publication.

Until then,

Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin
The Unknown Author


  1. I enjoyed reading your post and reflecting on how I need to pay closer attention to this aspect of "show don't tell" in my own writing. I agree that the setting and the atmosphere of a scene can have as big of impact on the reader as the characters.

  2. Thank you Audry for the nice comment. It took several years honing the craft of rewriting in which I realized what one of my best writing teachers had taught me about show don't tell. I still practice at it everyday!