Joseph made breakfast and tea, then spilled it.
This sentence may state what is happening in a story, but it doesn’t evoke much emotion in the reader. The empathy comes and goes as quickly as the words pass through the mind. It’s a good example of a “tell” sentence that gives a reader the knowledge of what happened without any action or character. It can often be difficult to find the perfect balance between “showing” and “telling,” and I am definitely no expert. I struggle with this so much. I am probably one of those writers that spends way too much time showing the unimportant details of the story and telling the important ones. But I’ve been working on it by doing an exercise that can help. It’s helping me learn how to show everything, then when I get the hang of that, I’ll pair down and tell the more unimportant things or find simpler ways to show them.
This exercise/method is called telescopic text. It can help you find the small but important details of the story or scene.
A brief summary of telescopic text:
Write a super simple “tell” sentence. Then slowly expand it.
Joseph made breakfast and tea, then spilled it.
Joseph made pastries and Earl Grey tea, then spilled it.
Joseph made pastries and Earl Grey tea. After burning himself, he dropped the pastries and tea on the floor.
Joseph made s’mores pastries and Earl Grey Tea. He impatiently took a bite just after the pastries were done in the microwave, and burnt his tongue. Then he dropped his breakfast on the floor.
And you continue doing this until your story can pull the emotion you desire out of your readers.
How does the following story compare to the opening sentence “Joseph made breakfast and tea, then spilled it because he was tired”?
Joseph woke up, his left arm dead and tingling from having rolled onto it during the night. He slipped on his house shoes—on the wrong feet—and stumbled through the hallway to the kitchen. He grabbed the kettle and threw on the tap, slowly raising and lowering his head and his right arm up and down with the weight of sleep and the filling kettle. He went to heat the water, sloshing water across the counter as he accidentally tipped the spout. He turned to the cabinet and grabbed a box of s’mores flavoured pastries and a tin of Earl Grey tea. He popped a couple packets of his sugary breakfast onto a plate and into the microwave. Then he reached for a mug, set it on the counter, put a single bag in it, and wrapped the tag around its handle.
The microwave dinged, and Joseph grabbed his food, immediately picking up a pastry and taking a bite. He opened his mouth and let the bite fall back to his plate, the heat of the filling burning his tongue. Instead of trying another bite like his stomach wanted, he waited for the kettle to boil. He stared through the glass as the bubbles formed and started to rise to the top, almost lulling him back to sleep. The sudden click and sharp beep of the kettle made him jump and his still numb left arm slammed against the bottom edge of the counter. The distant pain crawled its way to his brain as he filled his mug and set a timer.
Three minutes later, he turned off the timer his vibrating phone and took out the bag of tea. Grabbing the tea in his right hand and the pastries in his left, he started to walk to the table. But as soon as the plate left the counter, his arm dropped, and the sweet s’mores filling landed on the floor. He stepped over the dropped breakfast, set his mug down, grabbed a couple new packets, and decided to carry them cold and wrapped to the table. Having picked his tea back up, he took a few shuffling steps before the toes of his house shoe snagged on the corner and his body sprawled through the air and onto the limonium along with his tea and second set of breakfast.
There is so much more detail, and it conveys more emotion than the single sentence story I opened with. The small details are what can help bring out more emotion and help you show what’s happening instead of just stating it.
The small details in a story can become major plot devices. Use small, previously unthought of details about the environment, characters’ appearances, characters’ personalities, or props to bring about big moments and changes in the story.
I used his arm being asleep and his houseshoes being on the wrong feet as plot devices. But I wouldn’t have thought of those small details without starting off with the large picture and then working my way down into the tiny details. But as you can tell, there are details that I could have left out because they didn’t hold enough importance to the story. Sometimes those details are nice to read. Others, they are a bit cumbersome and confusing.
Learning to use telescopic text to expand your story and give the interesting information, no matter how small it may be, can easily lead you to overloading your readers.
My advice on learning the balance is this:
- Figure out what you what the reader to get out of the scene.
- Figure out what the character needs to learn from the scene.
- Decide what needs to happen in the scene.
- Use telescopic text.
- Find the little details that will add to the ambience and/or the plot.
- Get rid of the unnecessary bits.
It can be difficult to pair down on the writing that you have done. You spent time and energy creating the phrases, the worlds. Sometimes the details or sentences you need to get rid of to help the story are the things you like most about your writing. If that’s the case, have another document open to save all the bits that you aren’t keeping. They might come in handy or inspire another piece one day. Use discretion, ask critique partners for advise, and take time to edit. After all, it is your story. Write it how you think is best.
What’s your favourite exercise to practice show-not-tell?
Any advice on how to use small, important details in stories?
Let me know in the comments below!