On November 30th, at Butler University I had the privilege of hearing Eric Freeze read from his collection of stories called Invisible Men. During the introduction, one of Eric’s students stated that Eric gave the following writing advice during a recent graduate fiction workshop:
“If you’re feeling lonely, don’t tell us you’re lonely. If you describe your surroundings with enough care the emotion will surface.”
This bit of advice struck me as profound. I think it is the first time I’ve heard the ancient writing adage “show don’t tell” adequately explained.
Eric’s advice proves out. Descriptions are never neutral, never objective. They always bear the mark of the one doing the describing – they always (if done “with enough care”) make the mind of the character visible. The emotion comes through in the details that are provided as well as those that are not. Description is a series of choices – both conscious and subconscious.
How about a quick example?
Here are the first two sentences of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. “The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.”
What does this description reveal about the mood of the narrator and the tone of the novel that follows? What do these opening choices suggest? What do you make of the description’s mention that it’s act 4 and wintertime? Are we reading a romance? I doubt it. Detective fiction? Not likely. You’ll not be surprised to learn that this is a literary post-apocalyptic novel.
The mood is set from the first line. No tell. All via careful description.