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Mirror, Mirror: Using A Character’s Surroundings to Show & Not Tell

By Hannah Conway

Show, don’t tell.

I’m sure we’ve all heard that before. Some of us may have even rolled our eyes a time or two upon hearing those words from a critique partner, or editor. I may, or may not, have rolled my eyes…no judging.

Show. Don’t tell.

Um, hello, it’s a novel. We HAVE to tell some things. Yes, it’s true. We do have to tell some things. That’s the key– some things.

Our words are meant to create word pictures in our reader’s head–a movie reel of sorts– hence, showing the reader our story, and not telling them.
MirrorMirror Show Don't Tell
There are several ways we can achieve this movie reel effect in our writing, but I’d like to focus on what I refer to as mirroring. I’m sure there’s some fancy term for it, but mirroring works fine, and it works like this: the character will see truths, lies, similarities, and differences in themselves, based on what they see, feel, taste, smell, hear, or experience.

Ok…let me give some examples from my current work in progress.

Say hi to Emmaline, y’all! Emmaline’s had a bad, bad day. Her husband is on his sixth deployment (Oh My!), and she works as a therapist listening to everyone’s problems, but has no one to listen to her own. Poor woman!

Instead of telling the reader, “Emmaline had a terrible day, and trouble for her lies ahead,” I can mirror her feelings, and even the direction of the story, like this:

“Dark, cumulous clouds formed in the west. Emmaline eyed the sky as she left her office, jaw set, arms drawn tight around her chest. Tears brimmed, and she swiped them away with the sleeve of her jacket. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the storm had begun inside.”

In this case, I used the environment–something she is seeing and experiencing–to mirror and mimic her feelings.

Mirroring can also be used to show something about who the character is. Does he or she enjoy long walks? Late night snacks? Are they budget conscious?

“Emmaline checked her watch as she passed the corner coffee store. No time to stop in today, but the fragrant fresh grounds teased, and she stood in place.”

From this segment we gather Emmaline’s in a hurry, usually stops at this coffee shop, and that she likes coffee enough that the mere smell causes her to halt–my kind of character!

I could also use the mirroring technique to produce, and portray, the opposite of what the character is feeling/experiencing etc.

She wore a blush pink dress that floated across her ankles. A set of pearls, nearing the shade of the woman’s ivory skin, hung across her neck. Her laughter, like church bells, rang out across the ballroom. Emmaline turned from the woman, a picture of purity dancing across the room–someone she used to resemble.

Emmaline sees another woman who possesses qualities she feels/believes she has lost, and through mirroring, we get to see this too.

Mirroring is just one technique in this whole delicate balancing act of show don’t tell. If you’re struggling with that balancing act, and mirroring makes no sense, remember this: work hard to appeal to the five senses when writing a scene, keep it as brief as possible, and the reader will have been shown your story with little telling.

Win, win!

Happy writing, and many blessings!

Hannah Conway2Hannah Conway is an Army Wife, Mother, Speaker and Author of The Wounded Warrior’s Wife, and Wedding a Warrior from Olivia Kimbrell Press. She is represented by Jessica Kirkland from The Blythe Daniel Literary Agency. Connect with Hannah at www.hannahrconway.com

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One Response to Mirror, Mirror: Using A Character’s Surroundings to Show & Not Tell

  1. Wanda Griffith says:

    Thank you, Hannah. Your advice and examples are very helpful. Now, let’s see if I can put them to good use!