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.” 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.
Often a prescription for good writing 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 picture 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.
For example, notice how the two passages below both go far beyond telling the reader that “war is an oppressive struggle”; instead, they both show the drudgery of war in vivid detail.
Passage 1 is an excerpt from a poem about World War I; Passage 2 is an excerpt from a novel about the Vietnam War:
Passage 1: “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
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.
Passage 2: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.
Today’s 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.
Quotation of the Day: When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for themselves. Readers like to be trusted. Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, or think, or feel. Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them. -Gary Provost
1-Quote Investigator.com Anton Chekov. 30 July 2013. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/.