“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
During my part time career as a mystery shopper I visited retail stores to shop for phones, tested the serving times at casual dining restaurants, and ate way too many cheeseburgers. Mystery shopping brought in a little extra income (very little, actually) but it also taught me a valuable skill that enabled me to become a better writer. Mystery shopping taught me to “Show not Tell.”
Many businesses hire mystery shoppers to give them that inside view from the client’s perspective. After every mystery shop I turned in a report with details on my visit. The report gave management a look at what went on during the shop. The reports were written from an objective viewpoint, and the reader could draw their own conclusions.
For example, here’s a report that “tells” you what happened.
The hostess was lazy and not friendly. The dining room was dirty and noisy. Our food was bad and the service was terrible.
While the reader isn’t left with much doubt about the opinion of the writer, there aren’t any details to support what happened, and we don’t get a sense of the experience.
Here’s another way to write this scene, with details that “show” what happened. (I’ve left off descriptions of the crew members, to save a little space and time. If you were writing a fictional scene you’d put details in about their appearance.)
We entered the restaurant and saw the hostess sitting at a nearby table, talking to other crew members. After fifteen or twenty seconds she walked over to us and asked “Table for two?” Without waiting for a reply she picked up two menus and motioned us into the dining room. We followed her to our table as she dropped the menus and then turned to walk back to where she had been sitting.
Our table had a ring of some sticky, brown liquid on the top. There were three crumpled napkins, crumbs, and an empty plastic drink cup under the table. Through the open doorway to the kitchen area I could hear crew members yelling and the roar of exhaust from the fryers. I had to lean forward and shout at my companion to be heard over the music playing from the overhead speakers.
After ten minutes our waitress approached our table, told us she would be with us in a minute, and then walked out of sight into the kitchen area. My fried chicken had a dark brown, dry and flaky crust that did not cover the strips of meat. The chicken was tough, stringy, and bland.
I never had a meal this bad, but if you read the selection again you notice that the writer never tells you that the experience was horrible. Instead, the details show the reader what happened and let them form their own decision. How did you feel reading the second scene? Did you cringe at some of the descriptions? Compare this to how you, the reader, felt when you read the first example, the one where you were told how things went. It wasn’t compelling was it?
Here’s another bit where things went well, just so I don’t leave you with a bad taste for dining out.
I walked into the restaurant and saw bright orange flames flickering in the rotisserie, and golden brown chickens turning on the spits. The dining room was bright and sunny and smelled of warm bread and roasting chicken.
The cashier smiled at me as I stepped up to order, and after telling me hello, she described the daily specials. After I placed my order, she repeated it back and then asked for my name. She thanked me, using my name, and told me to have a nice day as she handed me my receipt. As I was filling my drink cup, I heard my name called at the counter. The crew member there smiled and asked if I needed anything else.
My chicken steamed when I cut into the pieces, and the meat was moist and tender. The crisp, roasted skin had dark flecks of spice visible and the chicken was hot in flavour with pepper and garlic.
That was a better experience wasn’t it?
Remember, when you’re putting in descriptive language, you need not go into detail about every action, as though you’re giving stage directions. Just include enough that the reader can visualize what’s going on with your characters.
The next time you go out to eat try viewing the experience like a mystery shopper. What details will you include to give the reader a view of your meal? Write out a report, and just for fun you could post it online or share it here in the comments.