This is a tough one, the mistake most writers, but new ones in particular, are most likely to make: telling the reader something, rather than bringing it to life by showing it happen. In a sense it’s the art of dramatisation; it’s certainly the raising agent that turns a sloppy mix of eggs, butter and flour (or characters, plot and language) into a light sponge (or gripping read).
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:
John was a tall man. Hmmm. Doesn’t really do much, does it? But John shouldered his way into the room, ducking his head from habit; he was used to the feeling of being too large for most interior spaces. Without directly commenting on John’s height, the writer has shown the physicality of his size and a little of how it makes him feel, so not only are we seeing John in action, we are getting a hint about how his appearance affects his behaviour and his thinking. Although the description is longer than John was a tall man, it is doing far more work.
“I wish it would stop raining,” said Jane gloomily. “It’s been like this for days.” In this example the writer is half way there, as dialogue can be a help when you want to avoid bald statements and this short speech is a better description than simply saying It had been raining for days. There’s more to extract here though, especially in terms of the effects of the weather on Jane and what it tells us about her mood. How about, “I wish it would stop raining,” Jane leaned her forehead against the window, her breath flaring against the glass. She traced the path of a single raindrop through the condensation with an idle finger, noting how the paint on the frame was cracking and that small rifts were filling with moss. “It’s been like this for days.” She paused, waiting for a response, but nobody answered her. She breathed on the glass again, trying to make the weather disappear…” By exploring more fully just what gloomily might signify, a great deal of additional atmosphere and context has been added to the scene: the single raindrop perhaps equates to a tear, the cracked paint filled with moss implies neglect and decay, the fact that Jane’s finger is idle and that nobody responds to her her remark suggests her boredom and isolation. The resulting image has infinitely more detail and more depth.
To try and prevent yourself from slipping into the trap of telling something rather than showing it, remember that good writing will always do more than one thing at a time – it will comment on the interior as well as the exterior, will describe physical and mental states, or use the particular to throw light on the general. This is partly because as an author you always want your work to have a two-fold effect on your reader – you want to make them think and feel…