How to Go Big in Your Fiction

Today’s post is by Steve Alcorn.

How do you make your story memorable long after the last page has been turned? How do you captivate your readers, and leave them with a powerful impression?


Writing big means going beyond mere words—it means creating images in your readers’ minds, a movie that will involve all their senses and keep them on the edge of their seats.

Let’s take a look at two of my favorite techniques for writing big.

The Power of Suggestion

A big part of memorability is vivid writing, and that’s mostly accomplished by simply showing rather than telling, which can be hard because vivid showing involves two almost opposite techniques:

  • Suggest rather than specify.
  • Be specific.

Wait! How can we do both?

Suggest rather than specify means you don’t need to tell us every little detail. Here’s an example from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies:

Around the outskirts of the city, cut off from town by the black oval of the river, everything was in darkness. Everyone ugly was in bed by now.

Tally took off her interface ring and said, “Good night.”

“Sweet dreams, Tally,” said the room.

She chewed up a toothbrush pill, punched her pillows, and shoved an old portable heater—one that produced about as much warmth as a sleeping, Tally-size human being—under the covers.

Then she crawled out the window.

What a vivid mental picture we get of the city, the night, her room, her bed … and yet none of them were really described, were they? We saw them through Tally’s eyes. Westerfeld just suggested they were there and let us do the rest.

Yet he was also specific: interface ring, toothbrush pill, portable heater. He didn’t explain these things, but he did mention them as important details to make the scene vivid.

Another easy way to show rather than tell is to select adjectives and verbs that build the mood of your story. Here are a couple of very different examples:

  • Gail trudged through the rainy cemetery, the damp moss clinging to the soles of her sneakers.
  • Gail drifted down the shimmering beach, the sparkling waves washing the tops of her flip-flops.

For the cemetery scene, my vocabulary included trudged, rainy, damp, and clinging. For the beach scene, I selected drifted, shimmering, sparkling, and washing. In both cases the vocabulary reinforces the mood. Watch what happens if I switch them around:

  • Gail drifted through the shimmering cemetery, the sparkling moss washing the soles of her sneakers.
  • Gail trudged down the rainy beach, the damp waves clinging to the tops of her flip-flops.

Wow, those really don’t work!

By the way, did you catch the double meaning word I slipped in? Soles sounds like souls. It’s one more trick for establishing the mood of your story.

Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the oldest writing admonition there is, yet it’s so easy for inexperienced writers to violate it. That’s a shame. Because it deprives us of the joy of discovering things for ourselves.

For example:

The wind screamed through the trees, bending them almost double and tearing apart smaller branches. Then came the hail, pummeling and shredding everything it encountered. How would Ian ever reach Castlegate? The weather was much too bad by now.

With screaming wind and shredding hail, did we need the additional weather report? Of course not. Quite often, the temptation to add that extra bit of telling comes from not trusting ourselves and what we’ve written, as well as not trusting the reader to get it. Even experienced writers can lapse and make this mistake.

Here are a couple of surprising examples from a very successful author, Michael Crichton, and his book The Lost World:

Suddenly, the forest erupted in frightening animal roars all around him.

The verb erupted is a good one, bringing to mind volcanic power and destruction. That’s a great image to couple with the roaring of wild animals. But we didn’t really need the adjective frightening, did we?

And here’s one more I found especially funny:

He could not take his eyes off it. He was entranced.

The first sentence shows us he’s entranced, and the second tells us the same thing, only more explicitly, in case we missed it, I guess. On the other hand, Crichton has sold over 100 million books!

Now that you know what to look out for, I want to show you some examples to aspire to.

Ray Bradbury was a master of showing rather than telling. Here’s a passage from his classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Read it carefully. Look for places where the author tells us what the characters are feeling or thinking.

“Take this, free! Why? One of those houses will be struck by lightning! Without this rod, bang! Fire and ash, roast pork and cinders! Grab!”

The salesman released the rod. Jim did not move, but Will caught the iron and gasped.

“Boy, it’s heavy! And funny-looking. Never seen a lightning rod like this. Look, Jim!”

And Jim, at last, stretched like a cat, and turned his head. His green eyes got big and then very narrow.

The metal thing was hammered and shaped half-crescent, half-cross …

“What makes you so sure lightning will strike anywhere around here?” said Jim suddenly, his eyes bright.

The salesman almost flinched. “Why, I got a nose, an eye, an ear. Both those houses, their timbers! Listen!”

They listened. Maybe their houses leaned under the cool afternoon wind. Maybe not.

Did you find any places where Bradbury told us what Will, Jim, or the salesman were feeling or thinking? That’s right, there weren’t any. And yet, even in this short snippet, taken out of context, the personalities of all three came through: the half-mad salesman, gullible Will, and daredevil Jim. In just a brief scene, Bradbury has shown us the personalities of all three.

As an author, you want every word to be memorable to the readers. There are many more techniques that I enjoy using in my own writing. The two techniques above hopefully have sparked some interest for you to write big!

Steve Alcorn is a USA Today best-selling author who has written more than a dozen novels and nonfiction books. His publications include mysteries, young adult novels, a romance novel, children’s books, history and nonfiction about theme park design, and the writer’s guide How to Fix Your Novel. During the past decade he has helped more than 40,000 aspiring authors structure their novels. Many of his students are now published authors. Learn more about Steve at his online school and visit him at his Facebook page.


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