“Show, Don’t Tell” and Story Setting

Updated: Apr 17


I should probably start out by admitting that, as a reader, I’m not very interested in setting details. When I pick up a new novel, the last thing I want is nonstop pages of description about where the plot takes place.

It’s also true that I don’t think a novel should contain nonstop pages of any story element. Full-length fiction is supposed to be a healthy mix of exposition, character development, dialogue, plot advancements... and, yes, setting details too.

But, again, in my opinion, a healthy mix is light on that last factor.

With that said, even I know that setting is important. It’s just a fact that readers need to know what they’re getting into as they vicariously live through established characters. That’s especially true once you move past the “visual” side of setting.

As we went over in Tuesday’s writing Definition:

Setting can also include how your characters feel walking into a room, whether it’s welcome or ignored or uninspired. That’s because it’s not just what your characters can see, but also what they can hear, smell, taste, touch and otherwise sense.

Setting actually involves all the senses, so feel free to play with them all!

One way to do that is to put this week’s Writing Challenge into practice.

Ever heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell”?

More than likely, you have. In which case, there’s also a decent chance you’ve stressed out about following this so-called rule.

In which case, my apologies. This next bit isn’t meant to stress you out further. I promise.

Don’t always talk about your setting. Show it off too!
The common writing rule of showing and not telling (i.e., describing instead of stating) can be overused advice. Writing instructors are quick to throw it around as an end-all, be-all kind of decree, when it’s really just a helpful guideline.
With that said, there is something about a “shown” setting that can draw readers into a story in an incredibly intimate manner, making pages disappear so that there’s nothing left but a shared journey. This can often be done very simply, such as with the examples given below.

Before we get to those examples… in case you missed the “so-called rule” and “overused advice” lines I labeled the “show, don’t tell” adage with… let’s clarify one more time.

This is nothing more than a worthwhile suggestion to apply in some cases and discard in others. Sometimes, showing is appropriate. And sometimes telling is.

So use your creative powers of discernment to determine which is which.

For those times when you can’t help but conclude that telling just isn’t going to cut it, consider these examples…

Examples like the ones below are best used when you really want to drive setting details through your readers’ intellect right into their emotions. When done right, showing setting can draw them into a story so fast and so far that there’s nothing quite like it.

Just – one more time for good measure – keep in mind that this doesn’t mean it’s always the right way to write. So don’t go automatically bashing the “before” setting details in favor of the “after” imagery. Consider the following:

Telling: Ennlie felt nothing but freezing cold from her hair roots down to her toenails.

Showing: Ennlie shivered violently, wondering if she even remembered what a roaring fire felt like.

Telling: A strong sensation of dread coursed through Tyrece’s stomach.

Showing: Looking over his shoulder to peer into the darkness, Tyrece wished his insides would settle back into their proper place.

Telling: The castle Jeannie found herself staring at was enormous. Enormous and the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Showing: Faced with such majestic splendor on such a massive scale, Jeannie couldn’t do much more than gape.

That's how you do setting details... when you want to show or you want to tell.


Editor’s Note: Read the next post on story setting here.

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