I recently unearthed a short story I’d written in high school. It was a favorite, I remember, and one that my friends had actually been lining up to read after I’d finished and word got round that it was good. Digging it out from old papers was like the scene in Amélie when she discovers, quite by accident, an old tin box of toys, photographs, and trinkets hidden inside the wall: delighted, I forgot everything I was doing, blew off the dust, and sat down to examine the treasure.
Three sentences in I nearly died: I had already used five adverbs.
I tore through the pages, mortified, and sure enough all the way through it I had written lines such as “he said viciously,” “she said reassuringly,” and “he painfully added”. This, my friends, is another sad case of descriptive overdose, and an all-too-common breaking of what many call the first rule of writing: Show, Don’t Tell.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The good news is, showing is easy: all you have to do is replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs. This helps replace general, abstract words with more concrete ones, and it is the concrete that creates a lasting image in the mind of a reader. Let’s look at some examples. For extra emphasis print the lines out and circle or underline the nouns and verbs in each sentence. What helps show the best?
Telling: The cinnamon rolls looked and smelled divine.
Showing: The cinnamon rolls steamed as they came from the oven, filling the room with the aroma of brown sugar and butter.
Telling: “No snacking, Martin,” Nora sternly warned.
Showing: “Don’t even think about it,” said Nora, her eyes narrowing into talons.
Telling: Cautiously she left the kitchen. Then Martin was alone with the freshly-iced batch.
Showing: She backed out of the kitchen, eyes still pinned to him. Then it was just Martin and the plate of pastries, their icing glistening as it melted.
Telling: He was sorely tempted.
Showing: He approached, saliva dripping from his teeth.
Telling: He listened carefully. When he was sure that Nora was gone he quickly grabbed one and fled.
Showing: He strained his ears and looked over his shoulders. When he was certain Nora was gone he seized one and bolted.
Simple, right? For practice, try one of the prompts below. Remember to focus on using nouns and verbs.
- Describe a character’s emotion without naming it. Ask someone to read it and see if he or she can tell you what it is.
- Describe your favorite dish or recipe.
- Find something you have written in the past and rewrite it without using any adjectives.