Show, don’t tell

Sculpture by Hans-Peter Feldmann. Click on the image for more of his work.

“Show don’t tell” is an important rule in writing, but it can sometimes be hard to wrap your brain around.  I think this is why writers should study visual media.  Reading is, of course, vital to the craft. It trains writers how to put images into words.  But visual media stimulate the imagination to come up with those images that are dripping with meaning.  This is one of the reasons I disagree strongly with people who say all television is a waste of time for a writer.  I challenge anyone to come up with a better tutorial on narrative tension and imagery than episodes of the classic Twilight Zone.  

Painting and sculpture are even better at training the writer’s mind to distill an image.  Look at those shoes.  They are compelling exactly because they communicate a message without saying it straight out. The only cheat a sculptor has is the title; a good title complements the piece instead of explaining it.  But even when the sculptor cheats, the visual still enters our mind first, and we already have a working theory of what it means by the time we read the little placard posted next to it.

So, which is better?  “The standards of beauty tortured her,” or, “she chose the gold sandal heels with the brass tack insole?”

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