Physical Description: Showing vs. Telling

Physical description is an integral part of character creation and storytelling. It’s not just about giving your readers a mental image of your characters; it’s about using those details to deepen character development, enhance the plot, and immerse your readers in your story world.

The Importance of Physical Description

An effective physical description can help to flesh out your characters, making them feel more realistic and relatable. It provides insights into a character’s background, personality, and current state of mind, all crucial elements of a compelling narrative.

What Is Showing vs. Telling?

Telling is simply stating facts or details outright. Consider this simple statement: “Sara was angry.”

While this conveys the basic information, it doesn’t engage the reader’s imagination or emotions.

But showing involves painting a picture with your words, allowing readers to infer the details for themselves. 

If you rewrite the sentence to be, “Sara’s hands clenched into fists, her face turning a shade of red as she struggled to keep her voice steady,” it shows the readers that Sara is angry without explicitly stating it.

The Art of Showing: Painting a Picture With Words

Showing is about providing sensory details and using action, thoughts and dialogue to reveal character traits or emotions. Rather than telling your reader that “David is a kind man,” show them David helping an old lady cross the street or sharing his lunch with a homeless man.

The Art of Telling: Giving Necessary Information

Telling is often seen as less engaging, but it’s sometimes necessary for pacing and clarity. It’s more straightforward and useful for conveying information that doesn’t warrant a detailed description or for transitions.

For example, “It was a hot summer day,” or “Two years had passed since the incident.”

Balancing Showing and Telling in Character Description

A good story usually involves a balance of both showing and telling. While showing can make your story more vivid and engaging, telling can keep it moving and prevent it from getting bogged down in too many details.

Tips for Effective Physical Description

  • Be specific and choose your details carefully.
  • Add details that evoke the senses to make your descriptions more vivid.
  • Incorporate character descriptions into action or dialogue.
  • Use physical descriptions to reveal personality or state of mind.

The Role of Physical Description in Character Development

Physical descriptions can provide insights into a character’s background, personality or current state of mind. A character’s appearance can also change throughout the story, reflecting their personal growth or circumstances.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Physical Description

  • Avoid info-dumping by scattering physical descriptions throughout the story instead of lumping them all together.
  • Be careful not to rely on clich├ęs or stereotypes.
  • Avoid over-describing minor characters or insignificant details.

The Key Is Keeping Your Readers Engaged

An effective physical description is more than just a laundry list of features. It’s a powerful tool for bringing your characters to life, revealing their personalities and emotions, and drawing your readers into your story world.