Show vs. Tell: On Nuance (Author Toolbox*)

NOTE TO MY #AuthorToolbox FRIENDS: unfortunately, this is going to be the week I miss.  I recently helped run #Write4Life and it put me so far behind in my work that I can’t spare the time for the blog hop this week, so I won’t be able to hold up my end of the commenting. Feel free to read though!

As part of my ongoing blog series on how to show, not tell, I’ve put together this little list of simple tricks for using nuance to maximize Showing. This is the last of my planned Show Vs. Tell series. Let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

Using Your Characters

The more color I can find, the more shadow I can find – the goal is always to make more nuance…

– Cecilia Bartoli

 Use Senses

Showing is all about nuance, and nuance is all about details. And details can come from all over, but some great candidates are the SENSES. Don’t EVER forget smell, sound, taste, and touch… not just sight. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to use big details, and you likely shouldn’t use every sense in every scene. The trick with nuance is to make your details count – toward your tone, character, setting, or otherwise. Let’s go through those examples:

Tone: Let’s Say, BLEAK

I picked at the red fabric of the pew seat. It felt like my cat’s scratching post. When would this funeral end?
What does the cat have to do with anything? Make the sensual feeling count towards your tone.

I dug my fingernails into the red discount fabric , but I couldn’t break through to the stuffing. Instead, the coarse fabric repelled me like sandpaper, nearly scraping the skin off my fingers.
The “breaking through to the stuffing,” and the feeling of having skin scraped off, relate to the bleakness of the funeral.

Character: Let’s Say, ABUSIVE

The moment I clicked “Send” on the email, my husband burst through the door, his face red and eyes bulging in rage.
This forces us to believe her husband is scary, without giving any details we haven’t seen before in other books.

The moment I clicked “Send” on the email, I heard the door slam open downstairs, rattling against the end cupboard with all the dents in its wood. My gut twisted as I hurried to close all the tabs, listening to the THUMP THUMP of my husband raging up the old wooden stairs.
This use of sound makes us feel her fear, and the terror of her husband’s presence; the detail about the cupboard lets us know how often this has happened.

Setting: Let’s Say, FREEZING

I shivered, hitching my coat higher up on my shoulders.
Not bad – gives us an action. But you can do more.

I shivered, the smell of mothballs filling my nose as I zipped my coat collar all the way up. Squinting into the intense sunlight, I drew a steadying breath, and smelled the freon scent of my father’s deer-season freezer. I even tasted venison, but that must have been in my head.
Gives us the sunlight (sight), the cold (feel), the state of mind, and several tastes and smells we can connect with (mothballs even have their own connotations that add to the scene). Yes, it’s much longer – but sometimes it’s worth it!

Use Tone Words in Setting Descriptions

Before you describe a setting, think about the scene (the scene itself, or the scene that’s about to play out there). Is it a sad scene? Happy? Will people die? Use what you know about the scene to set a tone for it by using words that lend to that tone. This is great for foreshadowing as well as in-the-moment scenes. Example tone words:

Horror: eldritch, crawl, shadow, void, putrid, dark, damp, grey, moonlit, shroud, etc.

Go read H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” I’m not even going to try.

Action: sharp, skitter, race, dive, tear, bear down, weapon, muscle, laser, gun barrel, etc.

The crown molding glittered black like a gun barrel, and I wondered who had decided to polish it. Even as the useless thought darted into me, it raced out again; I imagined a penny falling, skittering through the silence, and the imagination alone was enough to contract like a muscle around me, to tear down my resolve and to break me.

Newborn: fresh, ultrasound, heartbeat,  grasp, tiny, exhausted, cry, pink, giggle, round, mobile, etc.

The white wallpaper whirled in my vision, turning pink; I heard a giggle, reached out for my husband and grasped at thin air. Even on the ground, the gray light fixture overhead seemed to spin like a mobile, like a fork circling toward my mouth: “Here comes the airplane!” I thought weakly, as the ultrasound beat of my heart merged with the black. 

The Ultimate SHOWING Rule: Can the Camera See It?

To conclude my Show Vs. Tell series (for now), I wanted to give you an overall rule regarding Showing. According to this Writers Digest article, there’s a very simple trick to separating Telling from Showing: just ask your reader, “Can a camera see it?”

Imagine someone else is looking at a photo of Marge, and they are describing the photo to you. They tell you “Marge is pretty.” What springs to your mind? A perfect image of Marge? Unlikely – you need more to go on than “pretty.” Describe the photo to someone who cannot see it, and see what details – and nuance – you can capture.

Marge is pretty.
Her face has the long, soft-edged look of a supermodel spending too much time under a cursor in Photoshop.

The city has just recovered from a war.
The cobblestones are torn up, the road packed with holes where bullets and bombs made their mark.

He is angry.
Red rises in his cheeks, and his fists closes. He is reaching back toward a glass bottle, as if he plans to shatter it on the table and use it as a weapon.


  1. sandra

    Your “toobox” series has inspired me to minimize my computer time on facebook and other social media and work on improving my writing skills. Your information and method of presentation makes me feel like I am getting a free Creative Writing course. Thank you

  2. Love the examples. When I first started writing, I ignored senses altogether. It took some practice to get the senses working for me, but it was worth the effort. Now I check if I’ve used all the senses, or if I’m using one too much compared to the others.

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Great examples. Including the senses is so important to adding depth and texture to your story. We experience so much more than just sight, and it is crucial to include this in our writing too. Just take a moment to watch a tense scene in a movie without sound to see how important it really is. Thanks so much for your concise lesson!

  4. Great post as always, Mica! I’m sorry I wasn’t on the ball and didn’t promote your event before the fact. 🙁 It’s been a busy month for me as well. Almost done revising though! TONE HOPEFUL: The light at the end of the tunnel, it’s blue-white, like the colour of a cloudless sky. 😛 See you next month!

  5. Great tips! I’ve always been bad at leaving some senses out. In fact, I’ve been told I need to slow down and set the scene a bit more. I just want to dive in and let the reader decide for themselves what the environment around the character is like!

    1. That’s what most of us do in early drafts – you’re not alone! The trick is to challenge YOURSELF, the author, to be interested in the setting and senses; if you can write it so you like it, the readers will probably like it too. If you do it as a chore though, it likely won’t fly. To that end, it can be fun to use environment and atmosphere to build tension.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *