“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
I was in a theater watching a film when the screen went black. The soundtrack played for a couple of minutes before the crowd started to protest. Without visuals, they found the dialogue inadequate. What were the actors doing? What expressions did they wear, what props surrounded them? Without a picture, the words had no tether to reality.
Movies and television have raised the bar for modern writers. Our audiences have been inundated with immediate scenes that cause them to weep or laugh or flinch and scream. Readers expect an experience and won’t tolerate narrative summary for long. Entertainment has come of age. In this brave new world, “tell me a story” has become “paint me a parallel universe.”
To show the water clearing in the spring, really to show it (or a falling leaf, a life) so that the mind may confront it and the heart contain it, is the most difficult labor on earth, the labor of art.
The writer’s page is his canvas. Painting with words, he twists and manipulates phrases to fit a certain way, just as a sculptor brings clay to life.
The right word choice allows readers to visualize an event, to see (and feel) a subtly as unambiguously as if they encountered an intruder in their homes. By selecting details with care, the writer pulls a universal cord and opens a floodgate of associations that deluge the minds of his readership. Showing, rather than telling, he creates an effect that travels the same neural circuitry as would the effect of firsthand experience.
One can feel sad or happy or bored or angry in a thousand ways. The abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture, on the other hand…. As Mark Twain advised, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike visits his childhood home. Instead of saying that he felt nostalgic, he writes—
Yet the day did have a taste, an excited buzz in the lining of the brain, a nearness of tears in the eyes and the tickle of a shout in the back of the throat.
Rather than a sensory description of the setting, Updike depicts his sensory response to it. Each phrase taps into our memory bank, and we become attuned with his emotions. Through our own recall, we feel “a buzz in the lining of the brain”…”the nearness of tears”… “the tickle of a shout.”
Reading passages without sensory context is akin to sitting before a blank screen and hearing only the sound track. The information lacks dimension, suspended in a void that leaves readers without footing.
A good writer will train his eye to see things accurately and selectively. His powers of observation are not innately more acute than that of others. He is simply determined to become one on whom nothing is lost. He has learned—and continues to learn—to experience a setting with all of his senses, first to apprehend, and then to convey.
“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
It takes but a word, if it’s the right word, to animate the imagination of a reading mind, to cast upon the imagination’s screen the magic of a visceral Technicolor panorama. A picture undoubtedly can pierce a soul. But the word can reshape a world. Show, don’t tell.
Descriptive Writing Exercise
Choose one subject from the list below and write a paragraph that brings the subject into view.
- An automobile accident.
- A homeless man pushing a shopping cart.
- A prisoner about to be executed.
- An octogenarian testing for her driver’s license.
- A young prodigy conducting an orchestra for the first time.