“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov ~
Inspired as ever by fellow bloggers’ posts and comments, I was thinking most of today about the perennial problem we face as writers when we have to decide between showing and telling. Some decisions are obvious. Unless it’s an alcoholic drink, don’t refer to anything being ‘dark and stormy’. Don’t endlessly use the word ‘Nice’ unless your novel is set in the South of France.
But there has to be a limit. What goes on in my head is clear as day but can, when committed to paper, be clear as mud. The greatest writers can indicate mood and relationship with no more than casual flick of the eyes towards their characters. I have John le Carre in mind here – a writing hero of mine. The worst will endlessly repeat, explain, embroider, elaborate and finally, kill stone dead. Most of us probably fall somewhere between.
My current challenge is adverbs. Show me a writer who doesn’t adore them. They encapsulate all that is inside our heads and help to externalise it on paper. Then show me a great writer who doesn’t ruthlessly edit them out.
A writing course I once started (and stopped quickly because it was getting me nowhere) did teach me one invaluable lesson that has stayed with me. We were asked to write a one thousand word article. Easy. Then cut it to five hundred. Hmm, manageable. Two hundred. Ouch. Then down to one hundred and finally to fifty. I was grumbling and moaning like mad by the end of the exercise but it’s very much worth doing sometime. It’s also a little shaming that it often is actually possible to say in fifty words what it originally took you one thousand to say.
So I am currently challenging myself to use language that is tight and concise so I can show and not rely on adverbs and flowery adjectives to tell. I can’t say I enjoy it all the time…