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Friday, April 29, 2016

writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 5

5. Trust your reader to understand context clues

If I said the following, would you know what season it was?

Salt-stained streets
Leaves crunching underfoot 
Heads of crocuses popped up through cold mud
Everything smelled of coconut-scented sunscreen

OF COURSE you would. So trust your reader will as well.

This is where I think the infamous "show, don't tell" advice helps a great deal. Beginning writers (even experienced writers) are frequently told to show the reader something, don't tell the reader something. This will immerse your reader in your story, instead of keeping the reader at a psychological distance. And when it comes to writing description, I think the easiest way to remember how to "show, don't tell" is to play Taboo with your reader.



Remember Taboo? It's that game where a person gets a card with a person, place, or thing written at the top. For example, "Christmas." You need to get your team to guess that your card says "Christmas" without using the five most obvious clues listed underneath. If you say those clues (let's say "snow, carol, Santa Clause, gift, tree), you get buzzed out. If you cheat and start saying stuff like, "Rhymes with..." you get buzzed out.

Need an example? Check out Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL for an excellent one. Background information: Cath is coming home to visit her Dad, an advertising copywriter, from college. This is the scene she witnesses when she comes home.
“The papers in the living room had been sorted into sections. ‘Buckets,’ he called them. They were taped to the walls and the windows. Some pieces had other papers taped around them, as if the ideas were exploding. Cath looked all over his ideas and found a green pen to star her favorites. (She was green; Wren was red.)

The sight of it—chaotic, but still sorted—made her feel better.…

By Sunday night, the whole house was covered in onionskin sketch paper and burrito foil. Cath started another load of drinking glasses and gathered up all the delicious-smelling trash.”


Rainbow Rowell doesn't need to explicitly say, "Cath's dad has bipolar disorder. Cath is very used to his manic episodes, which means they've been happening for a long time." All of this information is implied by the scene (ideas taped up on the walls, multiple loads of dirty drinking glasses that need to be washed by a visiting daughter tell us about the mania; Cath nonchalantly wandering around the room to star her favorite ideas, the fact that the sight makes her feel better tells us that this has been happening for awhile).


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