THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 29

Subject:  Vivid Imagery – Chekov’s “broken glass”

Event:  Birthday of Anton Chekov, 1860

Today is the birthday of Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Chekhov began writing as a way to support his family when he was a teenager, selling stories to newspapers.  Although he is today recognized as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, Chekhov’s first love was medicine.  He described his relationship with medicine and writing with an apt metaphor:  “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”  

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Osip Braz (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, Chekhov had barely started his career as a doctor when he contracted tuberculosis, which took his life when he was just 44 years old.

We look to great writers like Chekhov to find the secret of transforming our thoughts into words — words that in turn will allow our ideas to come to life in the minds of our audience.  One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “show, don’t tell.”  This is great advice, and the three-word maxim is an excellent example of concise writing; however, the irony of “show, don’t tell” is that the statement itself does more telling than showing. For a better, more illustrative version of this advice, we can turn to a quotation that’s often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Here we have an example of the kind of concrete language that creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind.  Concrete language engages the reader’s senses, allowing the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste vicariously.

Although the “glint of light” quotation is consistently attributed to Chekhov, an investigation by Garson O’Toole has determined that it’s more of a paraphrase than a direct quotation.  

At his website www.quoteinvestigator.com, O’Toole reports that the source of the quotation is a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander in May 1886.  As we can see by Chekhov’s advice to his brother, sensory imagery is a must:

In descriptions of Nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball (1).

Too often writers don’t follow Chekhov’s advice.  It’s okay to talk about abstract ideas like love, war, freedom, or failure, but to truly show and to truly evoke images, the writer must use concrete language that engages the reader’s five senses.  This is the type of language that creates a dominant impression in the mind of the reader.  

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell describes in detail the thinking process that happens when we write.  In this description, he shows how our thinking can go wrong, but more importantly, he also provides an antidote:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. 

As an example of a passage that both Chekov and Orwell would approve of, here is an excerpt from Wilfred Owen’s poem about World War I, “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  Notice how instead of telling us that “War is hell,” it show us:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What does it mean to “show, not tell” when writing, and what kind of thinking must a person do to apply this principle to their writing? 

Challenge – Show Me the Details:  How can you support a generalization with strong imagery and sensory details that create a showing picture for your reader? Support a telling generalization with specific showing details that make a dominant impression on the reader.  Select one of the generalizations listed below or generate your own.  Then, use sensory language that engages your reader’s senses, by including details that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and/or smell.

-Learning a new skill can be difficult.

-Persistence is an essential trait for successful people.

-Failure is often a springboard for success.

-Procrastination is a major problem for students.

-Summer is the best time of the year.

Sources:

1-Quote Investigator.com Anton Chekhov. 30 July 2013.