I am constantly learning as I walk the writing path. Like any vocation I expect it will always be that way and I will strive to find new ways to express my characters thoughts and feelings, what they see and hear, with ever improving and intricate plot lines.
Below we continue with show don’t tell and choosing the perfect word. Here I am sharing with you my learning, which helped to make Sam and the Sea Witch into a book worthy of publication.
Choosing the perfect word
We’re lucky, in that English is a wonderfully versatile language, with a myriad of words to choose from to cover every action, every mood. Think about sad, wistful, depressed, down, gloomy, poignant, nostalgic. All denote a sort of sadness, but each has a distinct shade of difference. When writing, strive to find the one perfect word that means exactly what you want to say. Especially when writing action scenes, this sort of attention to detail can really help to bring your images richly to life.
- He shut the drawer as hard as he could.
- He slammed the drawer shut.
In the first sentence, the verb is ‘shut’, with the adverb ‘hard’ denoting how the action of ‘shut’ takes place. ‘Shut hard’. Is there a word that means ‘shut hard’ that could be used instead? Yes, ‘slammed’. In the second sentence, the action leaps more strongly into life, with the use of the perfect word choice.
- She slipped on the ice and lost her footing, falling backwards.
- Her feet skated out from under her, and she crashed to the ground.
In the second sentence, notice how the use of more interesting words (‘skated’ and ‘crashed’ rather than ‘slipped’ and ‘fell’) brings the image to life more strongly. You should consider each and every word you write. Is it the most evocative? Does it mean exactly what you meant to say? Is it the first word that came to mind, or could you push yourself a bit, and think of something a bit more original and arresting?
Letting the reader make his own connections/interpretations
This is a really important one. It’s similar to the point about avoiding passive verbs, but looking at it from a non-grammatical viewpoint. This is the use of description to get an idea across rather than simply telling it, and in many ways it’s the very essence of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.
Which of these statements brings the scene to life?
- Grace was devastated by the phone message from her boyfriend.
- As his tinny words hung in the air, Grace sank onto the sofa, her throat tight and aching.
Don’t tell us that she’s upset, and trying not to cry. Let your reader figure it out for himself by what you show him. Let your characters’ actions and words speak for themselves. If you’re right there in the scene reporting what you see, your characters shouldn’t need you to interpret their feelings, moods, etc. to your reader.
Similarly, if you overuse adverbs to explain how your characters are feeling, you are almost certainly telling and not showing your action. Sometimes an adverb describes what you mean so perfectly that it is allowable to use it, but do use them sparingly, and consider what you are doing very carefully before you include one. As much as possible, try to keep away from them and show us how your characters feel instead, by their actions and dialogue. Your writing will jump into life.
- “What do you mean by that?” he said belligerently.
- “What the bloody hell do you mean by that?” He took a step forward, his hands coiled into fists.
Which sentence does a better job of conveying the idea of ‘belligerence’ – the one that tells you that the character is belligerent, or the one that shows you? Again, let your characters’ actions and words speak for themselves. They don’t need you, the author, to interpret their feelings to the reader; they’re more than capable of getting ideas across on their own.
It’s your job as a writer to paint sharp, clear verbal pictures in your reader’s mind. To really do this, it’s necessary to step back from your work and try to read it as someone who has never seen it before. Does it get across the picture that you wanted to get across? Often writers have exact, specific details of a scene in mind when they write it, but these are so obvious to them that they don’t report them to the reader. You naturally do not want to describe every little detail—as with most things, too much is as bad as too little—but you do want to impart a few carefully selected details to them.
For instance, which is more interesting/vivid:
- The expensive red car cut her off at the roundabout.
- The red Jaguar convertible cut her off at the roundabout.
- She took a sip of delicious white wine.
- She took a sip of cool, crisp Chardonnay.
Specific details make a story spring into sharp focus, which is what you should be striving for. Ground your readers in the reality you are creating. Give them details to grab onto. Let them see what your characters are seeing.
Look at the sentence above: “She took a sip of delicious white wine.” As description, this is utterly meaningless. (What’s so ‘delicious’ about it?) Keep in mind that words like beautiful, handsome, etc., are meaningless as adjectives because they’re so subjective. My idea of beautiful or handsome may not be yours. Using specific details, describe the person or place to your readers and let them judge for themselves. Or, let your characters do their own description through dialogue.