I have decided to start a weekly blog post here on my editing blog called Inspirational Mondays specifically to inspire writers because, after all, editors need writers to keep writing. Otherwise, what would we have to edit? I chose Mondays in particular because it seems we could all use a little inspirational pick-me-up on Monday.
This week’s Inspirational Mondays tip: Show, Don’t Tell!
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekov
Showing your readers the imagery in your mind’s eye is so much more effective and spellbinding than simply telling them. As the above quote by Anton Chekov suggests, rather than saying that your character looked out the window at the full moon, tell how the silver light of the full moon sparkled on the gently rippling surface of the quiet lake. Which do you find more interesting?
I would urge every writer, whether aspiring or published, to give Stephen King’s essay titled “Imagery and the Third Eye” a thoughtful read. Considering how many novels and short stories King has written, and how many film adaptations have been made of them, he seems to know what he’s talking about. Here is what King has to say about imagery: “Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind.”
So what does he mean by that? He uses an example: “It was a spooky house.” Well, that’s all fine and good, but as a reader, it isn’t enough to tell me that the house is spooky. I want to know what makes it spooky. King then quotes a passage from Salem’s Lot in which he describes features of the house that convey a spooky feeling without resorting to using the word directly. He says:
…that imagery is not achieved by over description… To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.
When writers set out to describe something for readers, they must use what King calls “the eye of imagination and memory” or the third eye. Readers have their own third eye, so it is the job of the writer to describe the scene so well that readers can see it vividly with their third eye of imagination. That requires a writer to be choosy about what to include and what to omit from the description. If it stands out to you as a writer, then emphasize it in your description. If it isn’t important to the mood and tone of the scene, then leave it out. For example, in the excerpt from Salem’s Lot, King emphasized characteristics about the house that conveyed a spooky feeling, instead of mentioning anything mundane like a garage or a driveway or how many stories it had. Knowing what to leave in and what to take out is part of what makes a great writer, and it takes a great deal of practice and hard work.
What is the key? According to King, it consists of two things: “First, [pledge] not to insult your reader’s interior vision; and second, [pledge] to see everything before you write it.” In the first case, you don’t need to describe everything. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice, be specific with your descriptors and verbs, choose words that will jump out at readers…and then let the readers’ third eye do the rest. In the second case, King says that oftentimes writers stop looking at the scene before they see all there is to see. Sometimes it may mean slowing down and taking your time, but it will be worth it. Says King: “Writers who describe poorly or not at all see poorly with this [third] eye; others open it, but not all the way.”
The bottom line is this: showing and not telling is important, but just as important is carefully choosing what to show your readers. The very successful Stephen King states that images lead to the story and the story leads to all the other things.
But he also says that the writer’s third eye is “a little bit like having a whole amusement park in your head, where all the rides are free.” And isn’t that the most wonderful thing about writing, being able to send your readers on such rides along with you?
*The essay “Imagery and the Third Eye” was written by Stephen King in 1980. Quotes were taken from the essay published at Wordplayer.com.