Monday, May 31, 2010

The Writer's Cardinal Rule: Show, Don't Tell

My creative writing instructors in college pounded one rule into my head with such vigor that sometimes I swear the echo lodged between my ears like an annoying Jiminy Cricket, chirping:


Abstracts and generalizations do little to flesh out a story. Instead, employ the five senses to describe the scene in real time. And do it through the character's POV. For example, let's pretend the character is a starving guttersnipe by the name of Smolliver. Let's drop him in a bakery. Since this is Smolliver's scene and his stomach is growling like a pit full of of rabid ligers, what will hit him first about the bakery, how "truly scrumptious" everything looks in the glass cases? No! Avoid excessive adjectives and vague descriptive phrases at all costs. Get into specifics. Personally, I'd start with the aroma of cinnamon buns hot from the oven and still dripping gooey frosting down the sides, but that's only because I have a sweet tooth for said gooey buns. Smolliver might be partial to buttermilk donuts.

To paraphrase one of my favorite instructors, Dr. Dean Hughes:

"Don’t claim a thing is magnificent, show it. And don’t use the word magnificent."

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