Sunday, July 12, 2015

Show, Don't Tell

 Show, Don’t Tell

We writers hear this all the time. In other words, don’t make a habit of labeling  characters or places with adjectives. Instead, describe using sensory details to draw the reader into the story. This is not to say adjectives don’t have a place in our language, but too often they’re used as a shortcut. The objective is to write in a way that evokes an experience.

+ instead of he was charming -- He watched with lively eyes and listened.
+ instead of she was beautiful -- Children beamed when she strolled by.
+ instead of lonely -- His hollow apartment echoed the street below.

The idea is to engage the reader in the physical world we create. That’s a matter of detailing characteristics of any given thing/person/place. Rather than labeling a car new, you’d write about the lustrous paint or the smell of leather. Adjectives can contribute to our sensory experience, as in sticky paper, bitter taste, or blue angel. The problem develops with subjective adjectives, such as awesome, difficult, funny, or harsh. These are based on opinion and have almost no valid meaning.
“For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain [and] the noise of battle.”—John Cheever
A photograph might help us get away from telling adjectives. In other words, instead of “the old, abandoned ruins of a church,” we might say “a building of lost faith, now only walls with vacant windows.” 

Chapel of Ease, St. Helena Island, SC, Built 1740, Burned 1886 

Anton Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 
  
 

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