Show, Don't Tell, Part II: Building on Detail in Revision

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

Once you’ve completed a first draft, you’ll have scenes in which you show what happened through vivid detail—and hopefully one or two places where an image, metaphor, or idea takes on extra importance.

Having a vivid image or metaphor appear once helps you convey your message, and also leaves your reader with a visual/sensory impression of that passage. Once you’ve crafted that detail, you can also return to it again and again to drive home your point.

You probably remember a few metaphors from books you’ve read. The flashing green light in The Great Gatsby, or the silver doe in Harry Potter. These repeated images stand for larger ideas and concepts, and every time they appear, you know to pay attention. Including a pattern of details in your own manuscript can do similar work: at crucial moments, your detail connects passages not just through narrative, but through feeling.

In my last post, I discussed a passage where flowers become a metaphor for change. Let’s return to an edited version of that passage:

That morning, I looked in the mirror: I looked drained, thin. I put on my roomiest dress and plodded to the kitchen, but I couldn’t swallow even a teaspoon of my usual shake. The sun was shining when I got in the car; the weeds along the driveway had sent out bright wild flowers. As I sat with the key in the ignition, I knew I needed to make a change—I needed space to bloom.

We have the bloom of the flower taking on extra importance here—it shows us where the speaker has been, and where she’s going. Now comes the fun part: where else can this metaphor go?

If you have one important image related to flowers, you can do more: go back to an earlier point in the manuscript and describe dormant seeds. Go to a later place in the manuscript and include images of a shoot coming through the ground. Fast-forward and describe what it looks like to be in full bloom, and get specific: use peonies or daffodils or whatever blooms where you are. This imagery will all work together: the reader will track the transformation of both the flower, and the narrator.

Of course, you probably won’t be talking about flowers. You’ll be using experiences, images, and sensory details unique to your own life.

So maybe you describe the soundtrack to your life at the beginning, middle, and end of your journey. Maybe you describe the weather. Maybe you describe what you had for breakfast. It all depends on which details help tell your story as it evolves and shifts.



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.