Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Verbs show, adjectives tell

We've all heard the phrase, "Show, don't tell" for writing. Don't tell the readers what's going on, or how someone feel, or who someone is, show it.

Like many rules (forks on the left, spoons on the right; balance your checkbook; wash behind your ears), this one is so common I almost don't see it anymore. It had been filed away with other abstract, pithy, and seemingly meaningless catch phrases.

Show, don't tell, I thought. Well, of course. Next?

Then I came across Stephen King's point, though he may not have been the first, that adverbs weaken prose. They're escape pods, slippery little excuses when you can't find the right word, or the right phrase, or the right scene to -- you guessed it -- show rather than tell.

Again, I thought: No adverbs. Check. Next?

Then somewhere I read a similar rant against adjectives. They are weak excuses, poker chips that stand in for bigger and better things. No adjectives? quoth I. How can that be? How can you describe anything without adjectives?

The ball was red. The ball was the color of an October leaf. That's how.

Then it hit me. These two bumper-sticker slogans came together in one of my (all too rare) inspirations. Ready?

Verbs show. Adjectives tell.

Telling: Achilles was sad.
Showing: Achilles wept. Or sobbed. Or collapsed to the ground, his chest heaving.

As writers we don't just report on emotions. We have to transmit them. The story should be a vehicle for emotion. And for some reason, whether it's an obscure psychological tendency or a quirk of language, a rule of semiotics or a footnote in some literary critic's dissertation, verbs have more impact than adjectives.

(Note that I'm leaving adverbs out altogether, useless distracting slippery things.)

So who cares about reporting that someone is sad, or angry, or confused, or determined? Instead of telling those things, show them. How? Pare down adjectives to a minimum, and increase verbs.

Somewhere I read that someone (come on, brain, give me specifics!) counted verbs per written page in an attempt to maximize them. Presumably adjectives were minimized and adverbs were dragged out back and shot.

Maybe it's just me and this emphasis on verbs as the tools of showing is just one more platitude everyone's already heard of. But I tell you what, no exaggeration, it has changed the way I write.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I'm drawn to writing that let's the reader use their imagination to create images. However, if you leave too much out, there is nothing to with which to create an image. I'm torn too because I think there is nothing more pleasing to read that an incredibly descriptive sentence that flows like warm syrup over a piece of hot french toast.