Why does some writing bring us to tears while other writing leaves us cold? One of the most important lessons for us as poets and writers is to capture the image– or the scene.
Another way to put this is “show, don’t tell,” which I am sure we’ve all heard often enough. While the concept might be fairly easy to understand, it’s a challenge to make effective images in our writing. It’s a challenge to be descriptive in ways that will touch people.
First, we must kill the generalities in our writing. Here is a little list to help illustrate:
The day was beautiful. (How was it beautiful? Was the orange balloon of the sun perched overhead? Did the heat shimmer off the pavement? Could you taste the salty sweat on your upper lip?)
She loved the long-eared hound dog. (Okay, well that’s nice, but why? And how? And what did she do to prove that? Did she whisper secrets in his ear? Did she put her arms around his pudgy body like her father used to hug her?)
He was smoking a cigarette. (We get that, but what does it mean? How can we see this picture? Does he suck hard on the filter and blow smoke out his nostrils? Is there a burnt sharp smell that follows him around? Are his stubby fingers stained yellow?)
Be specific in your writing. Name things and describe experiences. Be clear about details and use your five senses. You want to aim your writing at your reader’s heart rather than head. Readers are smart. You can point them at a particular experience (or image or sensation) and they can enter your poem or story right along with you.
To say that a person’s hair is brown is accurate, but to say that her or his hair is dirt-colored or the color of cafe latte creates a big difference in how that person is perceived.
Don’t be discouraged if you continue to find generalities when you are trying to form vivid images. Keep reading your favorite writers who do it well. Keep practicing. Like any art, to write is to practice.
This is our lesson. This is our frustration… and our joy.