This week’s Wednesday Words of Wisdom come from Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer and playwright who is seen as one of the best short story writers in history. Chekhov contributed much to the modern short story and he certainly knew how to craft words in a compelling way.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov
Not always an easy thing to accomplish but worthwhile for the reader experience nonetheless. Readers respond better to a piece that shows them something rather than one that tells them something.
As a writer, I’m still learning this principle. It’s much harder to show how a character feels, to describe the essence of a place you’ve visited or to describe a scene in rich sensory detail rather than easily summarize it. But once you put more focus into showing rather than telling, your writing becomes so much more enjoyable for the reader.
One way to do this is to be aware of emotional impact in a story or piece. I was watching a YouTube video from the writer Ava Jae (a.k.a bookishpixie) and she mentioned a book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book helps writers convey emotions in fresh, compelling ways by providing body language cues, internal thought processes and visceral responses related to different emotions. I’ve found this book incredibly helpful and I use it all the time to keep my characters’ emotions at the forefront of my mind. It’s helped me to develop a deeper understanding of emotions and how people express or suppress them in different ways.
This is one way to focus more on showing rather than telling and it makes the detail in a story richer. It’s also nice to see something recognizable said in a new way. Some people think everything’s been said before or that all the good ideas have been used but it’s our job as writers to imbue these universal themes or truths with our own colour and description. I love seeing a new metaphor or a fresh take on writing.
Writing should be effortless but it should also grab the reader’s attention. The reader should see, hear and feel things as if they were there themselves. If we as the writer focus too much on exposition or summarization, we insert ourselves too closely into the work and risk losing the reader’s attention.
This is great advice to keep in mind but very hard to put into practice.