Every liar knows that the more concrete the details, the more believable the lie. Did you pay those bills last week?
Liar 1: Yes, of course I did.
Liar 2: Sure I did. Remember? The old lady in front of me wore this crazy cat shirt and the cat had googly eyes that shook round and round every time she turned to tell me how awful the weather was.
Most people wont argue with the vivid memory of an old woman and a googly-eyed cat on her shirt front.
If you want to persuade, (and all fiction writing is persuasion) you need to appeal to emotions, if you want to appeal to emotions, you need to excite the senses; if you want to reach the senses, you need details. Not just any details: the details must be concrete, and they must be significant. A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of our five senses. A detail is significant if it matters…it must generate an idea or create a judgment.
Janet Burroway says you must do more than simply say what you mean, you must mean more than you say. Details only move the reader if there is meaning behind them. Every day, we derive ideas and judgments about people we meet, places we pass through, and scenes we witness from the information our senses gather. This is why showing, rather than telling, is absolutely necessary. You can tell us the clapboard house is old, or you can show us its peeling white paint and the weeds grown into its cracked siding, and let us come to the judgment ourselves.
Saying what something is or was or seems is an abstraction. Abstractions are natural and easier to beginning writers: she was happy; it was a fantastic sunset; it seemed a gloomy day; his breath was bad. You can’t taste, smell, feel, touch, or see the abstractions: happy, gloomy, bad, or fantastic. But ideas and judgments will hold weight in fiction if we show them, rather than tell them: Her lips lit up in a cock-eyed grin; the flaming orb shot brilliant golds and violets over the pellucid waters; the dishwater sky wrung itself dry, its cold wet piercing the skin of those caught uncovered; the stench of a corpse rode on his breath. Both sets are details, but the first examples tell, the second examples show. Do we want to be told the sunset is fantastic, or do we wish to see it painted literally before our eyes? Which detail will you remember best?
So, why is it not enough to be told that something is scary or that we must fear it, why must we experience that horror? Neuroscientist Paul MacLean believed the human brain could be categorized into three systems that dissect, disseminate, and process information slightly differently from each other. If we’re simply told that something is scary, we file that information away, categorize it, and rationalize it. We’ll assess the information and when we think of hungry lions, we’ll remember that we must be scared because we were told so and it made sense to be so. But show us the way the lion moves, its sinews stretching taut, the bleached bones (do some look human?) strewn outside its den, and the incessant buzz of flies around the smelly, rotting carcass—now you’ve penetrated into the limbic system of the human brain; this system takes in information using the senses and responds to the sensory details in physical ways.
As a writer, you’ve just made a reader feel and respond. You’ve engaged us.
Lists of attributes will only remain lists in the readers’ minds. Tall. Dark. Handsome. But if you want to leave an impression, learn how to tell lie. A good lie is concrete and significant. A good liar doesn’t says I’m telling the truth. A good liar says, believe me because….An excellent liar doesn’t tell. An excellent liar shows.