“Do not simply tell the reader that it was exciting. You need to describe the event in such a way that the readers get excited. Do not simply state that it was hot. Provide a description so that readers think that it is hot.” Revision suggestions in margins of student writing often ask writers to “describe.” A general comment also is to “show, not tell.” What exactly does that mean?
Like many rhetorical strategies for writing essays, such as comparison, causal analysis, and even narration, description rarely stands alone. You can’t compare two items unless you describe them. You can’t illustrate abstract concepts or make them vivid and detailed without concrete description.
We have five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. So, what does it look like, feel like, smell like, or taste like to be hot? “The sweat mixed with its salt stung my eyes, and it dripped from my forehead and slid down my brow.” In concrete “show, not tell” description, leaves are not “soft” but “velvet”; sirens are not “loud” as much as they “start my Labrador to howling and vibrate the glass panes in my front door.”
The following progression illustrates a progressive improvement in description:
- My friend is overweight.
- My friend Jamie weighs 260 pounds and is 5’8”.
- Since he would never let me risk danger on my own, Jamie scrunched his 5’10’’ frame and all 260 pounds through the narrow cave entrance and into the black tunnel behind me.
Descriptions when using abstract words or concepts are even more important than when using concrete objects. For example, your instructor crooks her arm and cups her right hand, stating, “Pretend I am holding a grapefruit. Describe it.” You and your classmates shout out words: “yellow,” “juicy,” “softball-sized,” “pink and pulpy,” and so on. She then cups the left hand and says, “Pretend I am holding love. Describe it.” What would you say? And how do you qualify love and make it distinct? Yes, love is “patient” and “kind,” “sexy” and “luscious,” but these are still abstract words that can have differing meanings to different people. Does love “warm me like a cup of hot chocolate by a fire”? Does it “get up first on a cold morning to make coffee”?
Description is about creating pictures; words are your paint.
Organizing the Narrative
The two most common styles of narratives are the “essay” and “short story” forms. The essay form has an introduction and conclusion that frame the key events of the story. Alternatively is in medias res, which is Latin for “in the midst of things.” This form works much like a movie or television drama, diving into a critical situation as it is happening in a chain of events. The narrative then continues sequentially, and any back-story is provided as flashback or explanation as the story evolves. Your instructor should identify the preferred style.
In either narrative style, the body of the essay is organized by key event or action. This is where inexperienced writers can get confused and ask when to begin a new paragraph. Paragraphs shift at changes in place or action. Dialogue needs its own paragraph, and each new speaker begins a new paragraph.
Narratives are sequenced in a variety of ways, most commonly chronological order. However, other sequences exist, including final event first, summary opening, and flashback. Place is also important in the narrative. Be sure to ground the event so that readers can picture what happened. If you experience a significant event but only explain “how x made me feel,” you have missed an opportunity to tell the story.