Lately I’ve had the opportunity to read and comment on some stories written by new writers. What I’ve noticed is these writers are so eager to get their stories written, they end up TELLING the story rather than drawing the reader into the story. Often what we tell these writers is you need to SHOW not TELL, but new writers don’t always know how to do this. And, of course, there are many ways to SHOW what’s going on. One way is to allow the reader’s knowledge to help paint the picture. We do this by creating a world that’s “familiar” to the reader. Words become our “paint brush.”
What a writer strives for is verisimilitude. The word comes from the Latin verum meaning truth and similis meaning similar. Even though the story may be fictional, we want the reader to feel what’s happening and where it’s happening is real. Writers do this by including items that most people either know about or can visualize.
Write a dog came running up, and I have a partial picture. Write a coon hound loped across the grassy field and I not only have a more complete picture, I know a little more about the setting and the characters. (We’re definitely not in a city and at least someone in the story either likes to hunt or likes hunting dogs.)
Take this opening line from David Morrell’s The Shimmer: “From fifteen hundred feet off the ground, the blue pickup truck looked like a Matchbox toy.” He could have simply said the truck looked like a toy, but by adding the word pickup, we immediately know what that truck looks like (he also gave us the color), and by using Matchbox to describe toy, we know the size comparison (this gives us a better understanding of what things look like from fifteen hundred feet off the ground).
In the initial process of getting the story down a writer might simply write dog or truck, but once that rough draft (be it a scene or the entire book) is down, it’s time for the writer to consider how important the information is and how it might be used to SHOW the reader setting, time period, or character.
Using familiar items eliminates the need for lengthy (wordy) descriptions. If I write: She drove up to the house, you know what she did but little else. If I said: She drove up to the colonial-style house, you have a better picture. Or maybe: She drove up to a McMansion. I don’t have to use a lot of words to describe each. Maybe I could add that it’s a two-story colonial-style house or a McMansion surrounded by dozens of other McMansions. Each addition increases your visual image of where “she” is.
Verisimilitude is cultural. We use places and objects that are familiar to our readers. When our books are translated, it’s often the job of the translator to use images that would be familiar to that culture. (Though with our American movies and TV shows now viewed in so many countries, many of the words/images that would have been foreign in the past are now known to all.) Years ago I had a case where one of my Harlequin Temptations (The Law of Nature) was translated into German. The story took place at a Boy Scout camp in Michigan Upper Peninsula. A coworker of mine at the time happened to be German, and I gave her the foreign edition of that book. She told me, in her edition, the story took place in a work camp. Why? Probably because at that time the German readers would not have been able to visualize a Boy Scout camp, not like they could a work camp.
So once that rough draft is finished, go through it and see if you can make your writing more “visual.” Make your story “seem” real.
(By the way, this topic must have been floating around lately because after I wrote this, I came across this blog that basically touches on the same subject. Catherine does an excellent job of explaining how to SHOW.)