One of the things I really love about reading a great book is the imagery my mind conjures up. And for me the difference between a great book and a mediocre one is the difference in how well the words can paint themselves into a picture in your mind.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a master of such imagery. Take for instance this paragraph taken from one of his Sherlock Holmes short stories The Adventures of the Three Gables:
Holmes raised his hand for silence. The he strode across the room, flung open the door, and dragged in a great gaunt woman whom he has seized by the shoulder. She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
The description of this woman’s entrance is made all the more interesting because of the vivid imagery associated with a distressed chicken. Imagine if instead the last line was written as “She struggled and shouted as she entered”. Doesn’t really give the mind anything to picture does it?
Another author who mastered the art of showing over telling was Oscar Wilde as shown in the this example from The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.
As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife, and made each delicate fibre of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart.
In contrast, imagine if it was written like so: “He started to cry when he realised that he would grow old and lose his beauty”. Whilst it’s to the point and obvious, my mind couldn’t picture the scene as distinctly and graphically as I could with Oscar Wilde’s words.
These two example clearly show just how important it is to show not tell when writing a story. A sentiment perfectly echoed in this quotation by Anton Chekhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
This post was prompted by Silver Threading