Doing Description Wrong

Description. There’s an art to it. Writers miss it when they fumble the juggle between showing and telling, and there’s nothing worse than an overeager wordsmith slathering on words like blobs of paint to make for a Pollockian tapestry.

Description doesn’t quite work that way. You’re telling a story. Don’t forget that part.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Could you give me a few pointers on my descriptive paragraph?

“Caked mud gripped the desolate path. The faceless sky breathed a white empty fire. Nocturnal whispers retreated from the land like reverse rays of beaming sun. Rocks rose with purple resilience amid the bleak soil. Lonely black trees danced solitary in a faint breeze. A weary shadow heralded the traveler’s coming.”

—Caleb Hilton, Bothell, WA

I’ll give you one pointer: start over.

This isn’t describing anything. These are wasted words slapping into dull thuds, lacking any sort of verve in sentence structure. You’ve colored with shimmering paints, muddying the canvas with unclear blobs and no definition.

Description isn’t how many fancy words you string together, or how many words you can check off from your “Thesaurus Rex of Awesome.”

I’d only keep the last sentence, if that. Tell your story first. Make something move. Draw those lines, color within them as you go.

Description without meaning is an empty art. When things “move,” your reader will fill in the gaps, letting you interject to fill in the rest. I can look at an Epic Fantasy Picture Book if I want scenery. But you’re a writer. Give me a story worth describing. We’ll get there.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Showing vs. Telling: Round Two

Last week on Writing All Wrong, we touched upon the ongoing battle between “showing and telling” in writing.

You may “know show,” but can you “tell telling?” They don’t call it “storytelling” for nothing. Perhaps we should find some unbribed referees and make this a fairer fight.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Writing All Wrong:

I hear the “show vs. tell” mantra to know that telling something I shouldn’t be doing in writing. But should I? Doesn’t “telling” also have its place? How are they all that different. I figure you will have some smart answer to this so I await your response.

—Rachel Kovac, Thornton, Co.

And here’s where we let “telling” take Round Two. Can’t have one without the other, no matter how many pseudo-purists tell you otherwise. Heck, they tell you to show more. That should tell you something indeed. Some takeaways on telling:

Telling is underrated.

“Oh,” the pedant cries, “it’s writing, don’t you know! You can tell anyone anything. Showing is the sizzle of the steak, dear writer.”

This guy needs to sock it. Showing might be the sizzle and the shizzle, but telling is your beef. It does more with less (if done right). It keeps the car in gear. Compare:

“The fire raged to the last vestige of the house. The roof caved at last, crushing all his belongings with a punishing blow. He allowed an exasperated breath to pass from between his lips, carrying with it the air of long-held, pent-up desperation.”

You can just say: “He sighed.”

I think we get it. You tell a little, and you let your reader do more reading into it. Don’t do the thinking for your reader.

Telling hammers home the nail of showing.

“The stallion’s eyes become one with the black. The foaming ceased. He was dead.”

Anything past that, and you’re beating a dead horse. Literally. You don’t have to show it all when you can drive the point home with a forceful tell.

Telling is the soul of dialogue.

You may be a master showman, but you’re going to be a master cheesman as well if you don’t get your telling in line when it comes time to dialogue:

“‘How?’” she asked, barely hiding her confusion.

“With the spray cheese canister,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You can rig just about any of them to explode,” he explained, sensing the worry in her voice.

“But why?” Elena pressed. “Couldn’t he have gone . . . some other way?” Her voice trailed off, audibly conveying her hopelessness and dismay.”

You can show less, tell more, and fail much less if you stop trying to show the dialogue. Observe:

“How?”

“Spray cheese canister,” he said. “You can rig just about any of them to explode.”

“But why?” Elena pressed. “Couldn’t he have gone . . . some other way?”

Showing off your dialogue gets annoying. Don’t waste effort on annoying your reader, please.

Tell what you don’t have time to show.

It wasn’t about the money, he explained. She’d been unfaithful. Too many walruses and seals. Not enough orcas.

I don’t think you’d have the time nor space to “show” me all of that. I’m sure it’d be a fun read, but you’ve told me enough to keep me reading regardless. Nothing at all wrong with that.

Care to tell me about how you use your telling?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Showing vs. Telling: Round One

I’ve always enjoyed a good bit of advice by way of adage, even if I’m not all too sure what it means:

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

“You jiggle more with laughter than you do with lard.”

“Choke on a bone, don’t come home.”

“Show, don’t tell.”

You’ll come across that last one more than once. And you’ll tuck it away as fact. But what does it even mean? Make the assumption of fact an action at that.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Writing All Wrong:

I hear the “show vs. tell” mantra to know that telling something I shouldn’t be doing in writing. But should I? Doesn’t “telling” also have its place? How are they all that different. I figure you will have some smart answer to this so I await your response.

—Rachel Kovac, Thornton, Co.

Smart answer? Me? Maybe.

I’m going to take this one to two rounds, as there’s a lot of the arena to be covered. I’ll let “Telling” have its say in Round Two. But with “Showing,” here are a few key takeaways.

Showing is overrated.

Is it now? It’s a critical part of the narrator’s framework, but I think it gets too much time in the sun.

While it takes you from:

“Joe was scared.”

to:

“Joe’s face ghosted white, his chin quivering.”

Too often writers will go for the show gusto with:

“Joe’s face drained of color, leaving it a ghastly white. His chin and lips quivered incessantly, and bubbles of uncontrollable drool gurgled from behind his teeth. His whole head went clammy as a cold sweat broke out unbeckoned…”

All right, all right, we get it. Sho’ no’ mo’.

Show only what needs showing.

“Three uneven chairs surrounded the makeshift table. They were chipped in odd places, one on its back, the others within the seat. One of the chair legs had succumbed to some termites, while the other two looked just as wobbly by virtue of age and disrepair. Together, they made a trio of—”

We don’t need to know all about the dumb chairs. Are you showing? Sure, but it’s showing too much. Like the half-ton hirsute neighbor of yours who doffs his wife beater once he finds out the apartment pool is now open.

If you’re looking to improve this kind of lame writing, then make it compact. The first sentence would have done nicely.

Show what’s worth showing off.

“Bubble, the goldfish, flicked his shimmering fins within the sullen confines of the tank. His bulbous eyes flitted to and fro, darting this way and that, like he were searching for a lost treasure.”

Don’t care how much you’re trying, but showing me Bubble’s escapades in the tank isn’t going to take this story from the mundane to the transcendent. Show me everything you want about a story not worth telling, and you’re showing in vain. Now, if you took this approach:

Bubble, the goldfish, flicked his shimmering fins within the sullen confines of the tank. The M1 Abrams afforded little in creature comforts—”

Stop. You win.

Show, but don’t overshow.

“The crazed zombie tumbled from the fridge. Paul yelled back in horror.”

The amateur stumbles here, inexpertly finding an area of improvement with the “yelled back in horror” part. Here’s what we get:

“The crazed zombie tumbled from the fridge. Paul shrieked with panicky terror.”

“Aha,” you may think, “shrieking shows the emotion so much better!” What about the tautology of “with panicky terror?” Yeah, not everyone catches that, unless there’s a way to shriek with “meted control,” or “disciplined effect.” And no, I don’t think anyone’s “shrieking with delight” at the sight of a refrigerated zombie.

Showing: simple, but elegant. Try too hard, and you’re trying too hard.

How do you make showing work for you and your writing?

(You can read the take on telling here: Showing vs. Telling: Round Two)

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).