“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”- Anton Chekhov
When I think of descriptive writing, the first thing that comes to mind is the popular board game, Clue. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing Clue, it is a murder-mystery, whodunit game where the players are tasked with figuring out the “who”, “where”, and “with what” of the crime.
Description, like Clue, is solving the mystery of a story by answering the questions of “who”, “where”, and “with what”.
Going further, descriptive writing should give the reader a clear picture of the scene, as though they were watching it happen in their minds. As Mary Jaksch of Write to Done says in her article, How To Show (Not Tell): A Writing Lesson from John LeCarre: “A skillful storyteller sets the scene by showing – not telling.”
1. Using Description to Show While You Tell
In order to show readers a scene, you have to give more clues than just who, where, and with what. If you were playing Clue, the answers to those three questions could be simply:
Who: Colonel Mustard
Where: The library
With what: The candlestick
With this information, you can visualize the crime scene to a certain degree. If your answers are correct, you win.
In contrast, if you were reading a murder-mystery novel, you may be slightly underwhelmed with an ending like:
“It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.”
That sentence leaves the reader asking questions like:
- What does Colonel Mustard look like?
- Where is the library? Is it a public library or inside of a house?
- What does the candlestick look and feel like and what is its significance?
These are “clues” that Clue leaves out but as a writer, it is important to cover all of the details down to the feel of something and even the smell.
2. Think Like a Reader
Literary agent, Mary Kole, discusses creating an experience for readers in What ”Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, a Writer’s Digest guest column. She says that “by showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper.”