If you want to be a good writer, it doesn’t matter whether you write stories or poems, the basic rules are the same for all creative writers. And the first rule for any kind of writing is very simple: Show! Don’t Tell.
You may have heard this rule before and wondered what it means. You may have been puzzled as to how someone could write anything without telling. After all, isn’t that what most writers do? Tell stories and describe events or things?
Yes, they do, but the rule of Show! Don’t Tell means we don’t want to be bossing our readers around. We don’t want to be telling them how to feel or what they should think. We want them to make up their own minds about what to believe or feel and the way we do that is by creating believable places, characters, and emotions in their imaginations. In other words, we want to write in such a way that our stories and poems become “movies of the mind.”
The first step in building a believable character or place is to be as specific as possible. Instead of saying “there was a bird outside her window,” try something like “there was a one-eyed blue jay outside her window. That is a lot more specific than “a bird” and very different than if we had written “there was a newborn robin” outside her window. What kind of feelings do you think your reader will have for the blue-jay? The robin? Are they different? What if the bird had been a vulture? Or a nightingale? Do you see how different and how clear our “movies of the mind” can be if we are specific rather than general?
However, sometimes, when we try to be descriptive and specific, we get carried away and use too many adjectives or adverbs. We need to remember that adjectives and adverbs are “helping words”—assistants to the big chiefs. Adjectives help describe nouns or pronouns; adverbs help describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Such words are not the powerful words that stand on their own two feet.Those would be nouns (persons, places, things or ideas) and verbs (actions).
Good writers try to focus on using specific nouns and strong verbs in their descriptions. For example, read the three descriptions below. They all describe the same characters and actions, but notice how different they are. Notice how the first is very general and vague. The second has a lot of adjectives and adverbs. But the third uses specific nouns and strong verbs. Which one do you think works best to create a “movie of the mind?”
- The boy walked with his dog across the street.
- The very little boy walked very fast with his giant brown dog across the busy street.
- The Great Dane dragged the toddler across the highway.
For practice in being specific and “showing” rather than “telling,” try doing these exercises:
Exercise #1: List 5 or more stronger, more specific nouns for the following general ones: car, bird, toy, vegetable, tree, water, house, flower, road, and tool.
Exercise #2: List 5 or more stronger, more colorful verbs for each of the following general ones: look, eat, talk, see, make, hold, run, sit, lie, and work.
Then, use some of these specific nouns and strong colorful verbs to write a story or a poem. Send it to Magic Dragon. We’d love to see your work and might even publish some of the best.