Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Delia Latham: Word Painting

Show, don’t tell. Wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard or read this concise piece of advice.

Want to know why it’s repeated so often? Yep, that’s right. Because it’s absolutely, totally, completely, unequivocally crucial. The best writers paint pictures in the pages of their books, and the reader is so caught up in the word art that she forgets she’s reading and simply lives the story.

How do these amazing authors produce such magic? They recreate that “glint of light on broken glass” with vivid imagery. They don’t just describe a thing; they bring it to life in vivid 3D Technicolor.

The moon shone brightly on the meadow.

Well, that tells us there’s a moon tonight, and that the setting is most likely a rural one. But, seriously…boring, some? Let’s see what we can do to insert a bit of magic.

The meadow lay under a blanket of silvery moonlight. Each blade of grass seemed illuminated from within, creating an emerald shine across the open field. Buttercups, their yellow petals bright with moonglow, made a splash of illusionary sunlight in the glimmering darkness.

Clearly, painting a word picture requires the use of more words, and more concentrated effort. But it is a well-rewarded effort when the result is a riveting piece of word art. The above is an over-simplified, quick illustration. Imagine what could happen if someone took the time to really put some thought into it.

In the above example, I used literal descriptions. Another way to create images in a reader’s mind is through the use of metaphors and similes.

What are they? Both serve the same purpose: They show how two very different things resemble one another.

A simile does that by using comparison words: “like” or “as.”

Her eyes shone like blue stars.
The engine roared like an enraged bull.

A metaphor might make the same point, but without the use of comparison words.

Love is a rose.
The winding highway was a snake in the night.

The key to “show-don’t-tell” writing is specificity. Be more specific. Yes, you’ll use more words (more paint, and more variety of colors, textures and styles). But it will pay off in writing that grabs your reader and pulls her into the story…er, painting…and allows her to live the action right along with the hero/heroine.

Details create specificity. You find the details by getting INto your writing:

·         INterrogate your story
o   (Ask all the who-what-when-where-why-and how questions you need to know about your story, setting, etc.,—and then ask more.)

·         INterview your characters
o   (Know them inside out—the good, the bad and the ugly. Where was your hero born? Where did your heroine grow up? Who’s in their families, and where are those people now? Does your hero like the President of the United States? Is your heroine a leader or a follower? Ask questions until you know every tiny detail. Hey, they’re taking up space in your head…you have a right to know!)

·         INvestigate the back story
o   Find out what happened before page 1. What past events created the current situation? What happened in your characters’ childhood/teen years/early adulthood that made them who they are now? )

·         INvolve the five senses
o    (Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Let your reader experience those things with your characters. How does the wind sound blowing through the tree outside your heroine’s window? What smells drift up from the street below? As she steps through the front door of her workplace, does she still taste the sharp, citrus freshness of the grapefruit she had for breakfast? What do her gloves feel like against her fingertips? Are they soft and silky? Smooth? Supple with age?)

·         INsist on getting it right

o   (Refuse to stop mixing colors until you hit on the perfect shade for the object you’re painting. Don’t settle for baby blue if you wanted indigo. Keep at it until your create that masterpiece.)


  1. The INs are a great reminder. Thanks for basics put in such a lovely way.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, my friend. Thank you for stopping by!

  3. Great suggestions, Delia! Now we know how your work got to be so descriptive!

  4. Thanks, Tanya! Having a good critique/writing partner goes a long way toward upping the quality of my work! :)