Imagery: Beyond “Show Don’t Tell”

Here I am standing next to Yan Di the Chinese god of agriculture who is very intimidating... not really.

I am sure that if you have attended any creative writing courses at all , you have heard the old addage “Show, don’t tell.”  This is referring to the idea that amateur writers often tell us about the action in their narrative rather than “showing” events through imagery, figurative language and good description.  Over the years, I have found some tips to help with this conundrum for almost any writer of any caliber.  Here they are:

1.  Eliminate “To Be” Verbs – This is a task not for the novice, but I have my AP students write a short story devoid of these words every year for a reason: it forces them to examine how they phrase sentences.  Example sentence: Tommy was happy.  This sentence tells us the emotion that Tommy is feeling without really showing us what Tommy looks like when he is happy.  I have seen many expressions of happiness in my lifetime and each of them had a different “look”.  We remove the “to be” verb “was” and revise the sentence to read something like: Tommy’s face lit up with an infectious smile that infectiously spread among the faces in the gloomy room.

2.  Take a Picture, It Will Last Longer – I have very vivid dreams that often are inspiration for storytelling.  However, when I wake I find that the dream fades away.  I keep a notepad near my bed for this purpose (and often annoy my sleeping wife with the tiny maglight I use to illuminate my musings).  I like to picture the place or person I am writing about in my head, but sometimes I find that using a physical picture of this place or person would be best because I can go back and actually describe them in greater detail.  I use pictures inserted into my Mindnode thought webs for every character I create.  These are pictures of celebrities, people I know or pictures randomly chosen from the internet.  I also do the same with locations.  For some of them I have pictures from traveling and others come from handy-dandy google earth.  Play around with street view sometime and see where it takes you.

3.  All or Nothing – It is important to understand that a reader only knows what you tell them in your narrative.  They will never know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or feeling of riding inside of a space ship at warp speed through an m-class nebula.  You have to show them what that feels like.  You must use most of the five senses for this and you must take the time to write this and plan this out.  If I have attempted a difficult imaginary passage I will give it to my “reader guinea pigs” and ask them after they read it to describe the place or experience to me.  If they describe it to my liking, I will move on, but if they are confused or if they do not describe it exactly as I imagined it, I ask them what is missing.  They are usually quick to point out the problems for me and I can then easily fix them.  Listen carefully to critics.  Readers know what they want.

4.  Research – Many times you will be writing about things you have not experienced in your lifetime or places you have never been (and if you write sci-fi or fantasy you are usually doing this all the time).  The way around this is careful research.  Today I had to write realistically about a 100 meter wide meteor impact in the Pacific Ocean and how it would be experienced in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I did some surfing and found a website that with a little data entry gave me enough credible information to represent what that experience would be like.  Above all, try to be as realistic and do as much research as possible.  One of your readers might just be an astrophysicist.  I have also used several consultants who know more about subjects than I ever could and then credit them on the dedication page.  Pay them or take them to lunch but make sure they are compensated somehow.  So far I have used the knowledge of a climatologist, an astrophysicist, a medical doctor, a policeman, and an elected official as consultants on my latest book.

5.  Connotative Description – One of the best ways to make sure that your descriptive imagery has the best effect is to make sure that when you are describing a scene you are setting the tone.  Often writers will use words that have a different connotation than they intended for the tone and mess everything up.  The best example of the use of this is the first paragraph in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.  In this text, Poe uses descriptive words that all have the same dark and gloomy tone.  This will usually be done in the editing process.  (I don’t know many writers who can do this right out of the gate).  If you can do this one task, your writing will be that much more powerful as you will subconsciously cause the reader to sense the tone of the narrative simply by the connotative meaning or feeling that the words invoke.  Great writers use connotation.  Practice this in the editing process.

Above all, realize that writing is indeed hard work.  If you want to write something that people will remember, good imagery is key.  How satisfying it is to have a reader comment on something you described in connotative, deeply researched detail with vivid pictures and listen to them talk about it as if they had physically been there.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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