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Visceral Description: Show, Don't Tell

May 10, 2008
We don't hook a reader with logical exposition, flat narration or argument. We must get to the part of the reader's life that is involuntary, automatic: the five senses and mood/emotion. In that way we convert "tell" into "show."

The visceral approach to description brings a story to life. It shatters the time tired cliché. In far less than a thousand words, good "visceral" description outperforms the best lifeless photograph. It grabs your reader and pulls her along as it creates additional recognizable personal dimensions that suck her into your story to the point she can't wait to learn what's coming next.

Start by simple and direct visual description Describe a thing or a place. Then go back over it and layer in perceptions of the other four senses. This done, blend in the predominant emotion or mood.

For example, we can narrate, "There was an old tattered armchair in the dark little room. It had belonged to Lorrie's grandmother."

Or we can show a character's "visceral" response to the chair and elicit a involuntary meaningful response in our reader. To wit: "Lorrie entered the dark little office. Her heart seemed to stop, then pound (emotion.) Out of the corner of her eye (vision) she recognized the old upholstered wing-back armchair that her grandmother sat in most of the day as she knitted -- when Lorrie was a child. The green floral print fabric, now smudged, soiled and threadbare, still had a cigarette burn on the right armrest. Grandma smoked incessantly and left its permanent signature on everything she touched.

"Lorrie fought off tears. Cautiously, she eased herself into the chair. Her weight set off a brief creak (hearing) of old, rusty springs. The fabric felt scratchy on her naked arms (feeling) and a broken coil probed at her low back (feeling.) An odor pervaded her like an aura. It was both musky (smell) and a mixture of ancient dust and involuntary urine. It reminded Lorrie of the waft that surrounded the public toilet in the Greyhound bus station. As Lorrie's mood crept in stealthy steps from fear to grief (emotions), metallic and salty tasting saliva moistened her mouth. She recalled the taste of the smoky ham bone in grandma's split pea soup (taste.)"

Now your reader is curious and wants to know more about little old grandma and why she left such permanent scars on Lorrie's life.

But have you finished. Sorry, you can still make it better. Good writing is thoughtful and skillful use of words. Re-read and rewrite with your brain.

What of your nouns? Are there better synonyms, more colorful, exciting?

You wrote "Table." Can you substitute "stand, slab or counter?"

Next review all your verbs. Are they flat and lackluster? "I went to stand next to Jill." vs. I "slithered," "snaked," or "sidled" "through the crowd to surprise to Jill with a firm and fuzzy hug from behind?"

How many adverbs did you write? I don't have to see the manuscript to know you probably slowed, and tarnished your description with most of them. The strong noun and exciting verb will permit you to eliminate the adverbs. Do so as often as possible.

Finally, see where you can describe by simile. Everyone reacts personally to good similes and they make your writing great.
About the Author
Melvin M. Harter is a retired physician. He specialized in evaluation of the causes and extent of injury and disability. He has become a freelance writer and author of the novel, Some Kind of Angel. This sci-fi thriller explores the world of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and genocide. For more, visit Some Kind of Angel and view the video trailer.
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