Monday, March 29, 2010

How To Show Instead of Tell

I haven't had much time lately for leisurely reading, but over the weekend I picked up my copy of  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and was reminded just how powerful good descriptive writing can be. Absolutely nothing Fitzgerald writes about is a prop or remains motionless. Every door creaks, light glows, windows harbor loitering individuals, etc. Reading his words makes you feel as though you are walking through the streets of New York alongside his narrator .

Keys to impressively descriptive writing like Fitzgerald's include, aside from practice, imagining yourself as a part of what is happening. If you were there, how would it unfold, by using this technique while writing down each and every step of the action you can create an environment that pulls your readers in. Also, something I've already discussed , use your characters wisely. Don't merely tell us what or how they are manuevering in your world, use detailed descriptions as well as the actions of your characters so show us.

The best way to achieve successful and immersive description is to utilize the five senses. The human brain  is incredibly complex, and something as simple as a mention of a particular scent can bring to mind a flurry of memories, sensations, feelings, and emotional reactions. This sense-memory  is only one example, and to reach your readers you should employ similar methods. So describe a scene based on the sights as well as the smells, sounds, and even tastes it encompasses.

Below is the example from The Great Gatsby that exemplifies descriptive writing at its best.So, read, enjoy, and feel free to share your favorite descriptive paragraphs.

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I like to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others--poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for the solitary restaurant dinner-- young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Again at eight o’clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were five deep with throbbing taxi cabs, bound for the theatre district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gaiety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.

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