Show, Don’t Tell, Part I: Turning Detail into Metaphor

A guest post by Heart of Writing Team Editor Rebecca van Laer

Whether you’re toying with the idea of writing, or are a seasoned scribe, you’ve probably heard the dictum “Show, Don’t Tell.” You know that including plenty of detail and dialogue helps the reader to get invested in your story by picturing the scene. You know “showing” is a way to convey your emotions. But you might find yourself wondering—how much do you need to show? Which details are important, and which irrelevant?  

Imagine you’re telling a story about your turning point—the moment when you hit rock bottom and you knew everything needed to change. Does it matter what you were wearing, or what you had for breakfast, or what you saw in the rearview mirror as you sat parked in your driveway? If it was raining or sunny, winter or summer?

If you provide the reader with all this information, it may cause information overload. And if you provide all this information every time you begin a new scene, it may be hard to get to your point—to convey to the reader all the wisdom and insight that you’re capable of sharing.

So how do you make sure you’re choosing the most impactful details?

Once you’ve zoomed in on a few moments in your manuscript, it’s time to turn detail into metaphor. A metaphor is more than a neat trick of language or an opportunity to vary your word choice. Used sparingly, metaphor can help you convey your point most fully, and can also leave the reader with a visual/sensory reminder of a particularly important passage in your text. Not all your details will push towards metaphor, but if a few do, you’ll convey more while describing less.

Take for example this description of a turning point.

As I brushed my teeth that morning, I looked in the mirror: I looked drained, thin. The toothpaste was minty. I put on my roomiest dress and plodded to the kitchen, but I couldn’t swallow even a teaspoon of my usual shake. The radio was playing, but not a song I liked. The sun was shining when I got in the car; the weeds along the driveway had sent out bright wildflowers. A neighbor walked by. Then a cat walked by. As I sat with the key in the ignition, I knew I needed space to change.

Which of the details need to stay? Which need to go? Is there a metaphor to be made? In order to decide, think about which details take on a greater significance, and which are unrelated to the meaning of the passage.

The passage is all about change and transformation. Some of the details in this passage show us how unhappy this speaker is: the roomy dress, the thin face. Some of them contrast with her unhappiness: the wildflowers, the sun. Some don’t add much: the toothpaste.

The images that contribute to the meaning are helpful: when you bring flowers into relief with an unhappy character, they become a metaphor for the thrive that she’s denying herself.

And there’s room to push it further: Instead of saying “I needed space to change,” what if this passage said, “I needed space to bloom?”

Then, we have metaphor. The speaker compares herself—and the feeling she wants—to those bright flowers. We see where she is now, and where she’s going.

What if this transformation had taken place on a dreary winter day? Then the detail might’ve contributed something different. And it wouldn’t necessarily become a metaphor for change. But if you keep brainstorming, sifting through details and considering what they convey, you’ll find that more and more that you might have the opportunity to incorporate metaphor.

Why do you want metaphors in your writing? Once you’ve created meaning through a complex image, you can return to it—and variations of it—again and again.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post! 

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Rebecca van Laer is a writer, editor, and teacher. She holds a B.A. in English from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Brown University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals including ProdigalSalamanderThe Iowa ReviewThe Cimarron Review, and others. She has taught literature and creative writing at Boston University and at Brown, and has worked as Writing Center Associate at Brown for five years, helping to develop, clarify, and edit writing in a variety of genres. She is also a certified yoga teacher. Her interest in yoga philosophy aids her in bringing friendliness and deep listening while determining her clients’ individual needs.