Show, Don’t Tell – Descriptive Writing Using Imagery

Some time ago I stumbled across the website, Dear Photograph. It works on the simple idea of taking an old photograph of people you know and holding it up against the original backdrop where it was taken and photographing it so that past and present blend into one photograph.

Along with the images, the photographers write a very short piece about the picture they have uploaded. In a combination of words and image, a vivid story emerges that is often far more than the sum of its parts.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I got to thinking about ‘Dear Photograph’ and the prompts it could engender. I’ve often seen photographs as prompts and short sentences, or single words, as prompts; here we have the two together. The pictures and words are poignant, uplifting, and inspirational.

Writing creatively is about conveying story vividly so that the picture that emerges is greater than the language used to describe it. Think about some of the stories you have read that left you with a very clear picture of the characters and the setting. If you revisit those books and look objectively at the writing, you will see less descriptive writing than you thought was there at the time of reading.

Part of this is the ‘show, don’t tell’ aspect of writing – showing an emotion, situation, or scene through the words you use rather than writing a description merely telling the reader what is going on. For example:

  • An endless blue sky stretched overhead and the flower-strewn meadow buzzed with the warmth of the day

rather than

  • It was summer and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky

OK, so that’s a simple example but I hope you get the idea. It’s about getting the reader to participate in your story and to visualise the scene for themselves rather than just writing a description that doesn’t really tell them much. In the example above, the time of year and the warmth of the sun comes from the description of the endless blue sky and the suggestion of bees buzzing around a flower-strewn meadow. I am using descriptors that show you it is summer rather than just telling you it is. Part of what you see in your imagination when you read is what you build up yourself, not what the writer tells you in words. There is a great blog post on Writing Forward that gives more advice on the subject.

So, getting back to the original subject matter of this post – a photograph and a short description can be more than enough to write something from your own imagination. Give it a go. Visit the site and scroll through some of the posts. Imagine what might be behind each post and see if you can write your own story.