“Show, don’t tell.”
We’ve all heard this critique at one point or another, and I’m willing to bet that we’ve all said it even more times. This workshop note is one that, while helpful in pointing out where a scene or character description could be more evocative, also tends to leave us writers puzzled.
Whether it’s in poetry, a novel, or the graffiti of a bathroom stall, the image is the foundation of compelling writing that pulls a reader along. Long gone are the days where writers could get away with opening lines like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Nowadays, readers want an image right off the bat, be it a galactic space station rotating in the open black of space or a thin fishing dock bouncing off the wake of a passing boat.
As writers, it’s easier for us to understand what lies beneath our own imagery, because of how close it is to us. Perhaps that’s why it’s so shattering to hear those three words: “Show, don’t tell.” But fear not. Here are a few suggestions of what to look for when you return to those images that you know are lacking in physicality:
Avoid “like,” “as,” and any other form of simile.
This can be a tough one. Very often I’ll go through a first draft feeling confident that all the little image bombs I’ve dropped on the page are so subtle–only to discover the next morning that there was line after line of blatant simile. And while similes are all well and good, they must be earned. Once you’ve eliminated those words from your repertoire (or at least heavily scrutinized each and every use of them), try to evoke the same response from your reader in another way.
SIDE NOTE: Try to avoid using ‘as’ to transition from one moment of action into the next. This is especially important for action writing, as it looks lazy and doesn’t do much for the reader in terms of figuring out your scene spatially. For example, if you write, “Steven broke the jaw of the clown as Jenny bolted with his shoes,” I don’t see how Steven’s moving, where Jenny has gone to, or even where they are. Pacing is important to action, but it must come with a solid dose of imagery.
Kill those adverbs–KILL THEM.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that 9 times out of 10, an adverb can be either eliminated or replaced. Steven didn’t swiftly break that clown’s jaw, he broke it with a swift, upward thrust of the heel of his palm.
In my own experience, adverbs are nothing more than a placeholder we toss into a first draft so that we know what we want to tease out of there when we return to it. Again, adverbs sometimes work, but they almost always have to be well earned.
Do a sense check.
I can swear to you up and down that I know we have 5 senses. But if you only had some of my first drafts to go off, you might think that sight is where it ends. I’ve learned how important it is to comb back through a revision with all of my senses working their way in to my imagery.
I find this particular suggestion to be a treacherous slope, though, because it almost sounds counter intuitive. Unlike a painting or a photograph, we have the opportunity to immerse the reader in an image. Don’t be afraid to let your reader smell the rotten breeze that ekes out from the fruit drawer in the fridge or hear the rending crash of two steel swords against one another.
Show and Tell
What I’ve just shared with you is, by and large, lessons that have been impressed upon me in studying poetry. In fact, one major advantage of poetry is the way that it reveres the image. This allows me to approach the marble slab of imagery with a finer chisel and hammer, but it is also very easy to become over indulgent this way.
So remember that the best writers practice balance in all things. A brass kettle that’s screaming on the stove doesn’t always have to be a symbol of imminent danger. Sometimes it is nothing more than a container of boiling water and tea leaves, and that’s pretty darn cool too.
How do you approach imagery? Do you focus on established scenes first and then insert imagery later? Or do you begin with an image and work out from there? How do you decide to include the physical details that you do in your writing? And what makes you decide to keep the ones you do and toss the ones you don’t?