Monday, May 10, 2010

Some thoughts on description

The adage "show, don't tell" usually refers to the emotions of characters. Not: Ted was angry, but: Ted slammed his fist into the wall. But there's a role for "show, don't tell" in descriptive passages as well.

When she came in, she carried a bunch of fresh flowers.

When she slipped through the door, fragrance wafted off the lilacs in her hands.

Several things "show" here. First by choosing a different verb for her entrance, we give some information about our character. She moves quietly. Perhaps she doesn't want to make a fuss. Second, we engage the senses with the perfume of a specific flower. The choice of flower tells us that it's springtime, that the flowers are either a shade of purple or white, and that she most likely got them from a nearby garden, as lilacs are rarely for sale in a florist's shop. We've shown a great deal more than the "telling" sentence lets us.

When Bill sat down, Anne noticed his suit looked old.

When Bill sat down, Anne saw the too-narrow lapels and the frayed cuffs. How would they manage money for a new one?

Next time you're editing your description, look for ways to add specifics that show, don't tell. your readers will like it.

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