Don’t keep your distance – capture the experience

Describing physical or emotional feelings can be a minefield and writers can easily become abstract, which distances the reader. Don’t be afraid of finding a simile or metaphor

The main character in my forthcoming novel* has an ailment of mysterious origin that causes her pain in her hands. So I have my work cut out to find vivid ways to describe it and keep it in the reader’s mind.

First problem is variety. So I deployed all the interesting adjectives. Throbbing, pulsing, lancing, searing, burning, nagging, agonising… Nouns too: stab, spasm, twist… you get the picture.

But I’m not there yet. Those synonyms flex the lexical apparatus but they don’t let the reader in. They are abstract. They don’t make the experience real. They’re telling, not showing.

My favourite quote this week from all the posts I’ve shared on Twitter is this, by Alain de Botton – ‘Writing is about capturing experience’ .

That’s what I needed to do. Bring alive the experience, not plunder the thesaurus.

:) for similes
Early on in a key passage I slung in a simile.
‘In medieval times there was a kind of torture where your hands were bound in soaking cloths. As they dried they squeezed your hands like little birds in a vice, an inescapable ache hammering in the bones. If I carried an umbrella for half an hour, that’s how it would feel.’

A metaphor did the trick in another early passage:
Sometimes I woke in bed at night, imprisoned between long gloves stroked by lightning.

Of course the poor lamb has some nasty medical tests. All praise the simile again:
‘When the switch was thrown, an electric current fired down the main nerves and the doctor watched my thumbs twitch. It was painful and peculiar in a sickening way, like grabbing an electric cable and not being able to let go. Not the million volts they use to fry murderers in Alabama, of course. This was a spider-leg scratching, an electrical rasp, a dance of millipedes under the skin that you felt could do bad things to your heart but only if given the long leisure of a professional torturer.’

A few other details to show how the pain limits the character’s life (which the umbrella example gets a second tick for), and I was all set. For most of the time, when I needed to remind the reader, my supple synonyms could be offered with confidence.

Telling, showing, aargh
Most writers I know wage a constant battle between telling and showing. We know the character’s pain is agonising, so our first recourse is to say that, or find a synonym. But that can be too abstract and distancing. Although similes and metaphors can be overused, like any figure of speech, they can be just what you need to bring an experience alive.

Handle with care
But similes and metaphors have to be chosen with care. The wrong one can be academic and distancing. You always have to ask yourself: how does the experience feel and how would somebody who had it tell me about it?

Here’s an example. A friend who lives in Australia was telling me she found an enormous spider. She didn’t say ‘It was as big as a plate’, although that would be accurate. She said: ‘hold out your hand, it was that big’.

Sometimes a simple description will do.

That’s what we do as writers. We try to capture the experience.

Thank you for the picture, Juliejordanscott on Flickr. Do you have trouble showing instead of telling? In what kind of scenes? Share in the comments!

*My Memories of a Future Life will be available from August 30

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  1. #1 by Sally on June 26, 2011 - 1:45 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Hmm … you’ve got me thinking about how often – or not – I use similes. I too have a character who suffers from pain, in the form of ongoing headaches caused by an implant. The only simile I’ve used is ‘like a vice on his skull’. Highly imaginative it isn’t. :) It’s actually quite hard to use similes even though of course they’re much more effective than adjectives. (I really like your use of ‘electrical rasp’, by the way. Nice.)

    Me, I find my similes sound contrived at times. Definitely not my strong point.

    • #2 by rozmorris on June 26, 2011 - 6:11 pm

      Hi Sally! Glad you like the examples! Sometimes I have to be in a particular frame of mind to get a simile that fits – and I throw a lot away before I’m happy. Writing is rewriting, huh?

      • #3 by Sally on June 26, 2011 - 6:46 pm

        Very true – and not just for similes.

        Interesting you mentioned poetry to Marcia. I might try that!

        • #4 by dirtywhitecandy on June 26, 2011 - 7:06 pm

          I’ve got a lovely anthology next to me at the moment – Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, published by Faber & Faber. Perfect for the timbre of my novel.

  2. #5 by Glynis Smy on June 26, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    Roz, we are on the same wavelength! My latest post touched the dreaded show/tell syndrome. I love your descriptions and envy your talent.

    A spell in a pain clinic might be a great resource centre. When I was a nurse patients often came up with unusual descriptions to share with us their level of pain.

    • #6 by rozmorris on June 26, 2011 - 6:19 pm

      Thank you, Glynis! (Very much….) I’ll have to check out your post – good pieces on show not tell are always worth a read.

      So you were a nurse! So interesting when we discover fellow writers’ alternate lives… That’s so interesting about your patients’ descriptions. I’ve worked on a medical magazine for nearly 20 years, on and off, and always found the articles about pain management to be fascinating. Medicine is so emotional as well as physical.

      I remember seeing an exhibition of paintings by migraine sufferers of their attacks. Disturbing and beautiful.

  3. #7 by alberta ross on June 26, 2011 - 2:58 pm

    Always so difficult – to find a new way to describe – when done so well and so often before – a nightmare!!!

    • #8 by rozmorris on June 26, 2011 - 6:19 pm

      It’s hard to be different, isn’t it, Alberta!

  4. #9 by Carol Riggs on June 26, 2011 - 3:26 pm

    Great stuff here. And like you said, the key is balance. I LOVE using similes, but they’re easy to overdo and get wrong. Like a seasoning in a pot of stew, just enough to flavor. What I hate is when a character gets injured in a book and four pages later they’re hopping around like usual, and I’m thinking eh? didn’t they just get hit on the head, or have their ankle twisted? But a reader wouldn’t want a constant reminder either. The throbbing, aching, stabbing, etc. would get old after a while.

    I enjoyed your examples! Well-written, especially the medical test one. :)

    • #10 by dirtywhitecandy on June 26, 2011 - 6:21 pm

      ‘Like seasoning in a pot of stew…’ good simile, Carol!

      And the medical test example came from personal experience, unfortunately. Very weird indeed.

  5. #11 by James Kelly on June 26, 2011 - 3:49 pm

    Hi Roz! Also, there’s the real and imagined pains of social rejection, of reflected pain, or surrogate pain, of frustration, longing, rage and despair. All the subtle and playful ways chronic disability can torture the brain and ego.

    • #12 by dirtywhitecandy on June 26, 2011 - 6:24 pm

      Hi James! Absolutely – and those are some of the aspects I’m interested in in this novel. I do hope I’ve done it justice.

  6. #13 by Dave Morris on June 26, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    Some great examples of what you’re talking about:

    “The dawn comes up like thunder…”

    “Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood…”

    And the incredible opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities…

    All words that remind us why this form of storytelling beats theatre, and cinema, and comic books – because prose can let you know how it really feels.

  7. #15 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 26, 2011 - 6:17 pm

    I really love Showing-While-Telling–slipping evocative figures of speech into the kind of narrative that includes, indirectly, a character’s thoughts

    A possible example: “John knew that he’d hate being there–what value was a walk through Ellen’s deranged version of an exclusive studio, an attack of miscreant taste. He decided he would rather swallow a leper’s hand…”

    • #16 by dirtywhitecandy on June 26, 2011 - 6:26 pm

      Hi Alexander! ‘Rather swallow a leper’s hand…’ WHERE did you dream that up?!

      • #17 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 26, 2011 - 6:35 pm

        Well, I wanted to create an example for my comment and my Muse slipped that into my conscious mind. She gets real mean if I don’t use her ideas :-)

  8. #18 by Marcia on June 26, 2011 - 6:24 pm

    Great metaphors, Roz! I do have trouble with it. In one scene, the 16 yr old boy, eldest and moved loved child, dies from an illness. The mother cannot get past the grief. She is so tortured by it, she lets the rest of her family slip away, emotionally, gradually. I’ve spent time trying to put myself in her place and still have not come up with a description I’m happy with and that truly makes it clear how bad things are for her. I’ll go back and play with some more metaphoric phrases and se what I can do. thanks for a great post!

    • #19 by dirtywhitecandy on June 26, 2011 - 6:30 pm

      Thanks, Marcia! What a task you’ve set yourself, but if you pull it off it could be deeply moving. As I said in my answer to Sally above, I find it takes time and a lot of experimenting to find the right phrase and I throw a lot of nearlies away. Reading poetry helps to delve into the deeper truth.

  9. #20 by Marcia on June 26, 2011 - 6:43 pm

    Poetry is a great idea! Thanks, Roz. I’ll try that!

  10. #21 by e6n1 on June 28, 2011 - 7:55 pm

    Interesting and thoughtful post. Describing pain and emotions are tricky because both are easy to over-write. However, a lack of telling can veer towards minimalist Raymond Carver territory (not that I have anything against Carver’s style), As if the story is taking place in an undefined room and the dialogue is hanging in the air between the characters.

    • #22 by dirtywhitecandy on June 28, 2011 - 8:27 pm

      Eeleen, ‘the story in an undefined room and the dialogue hanging in the air..’ That is a brilliant description of the dislocation the reader can feel if there is too little scene-setting. I always have to over-write first and then trim.

  11. #23 by kailash srinivasan on June 30, 2011 - 5:43 am

    loved this piece. thanks so much for sharing.

  12. #25 by Deanna Schrayer on July 11, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    “This was a spider-leg scratching, an electrical rasp, a dance of millipedes under the skin that you felt could do bad things to your heart but only if given the long leisure of a professional torturer.’”
    I love that line Roz! As one who experiences a lot of physical pain, (I have fibromyalgia), I can tell you this is a perfect description, (even if we’re talking about a different source of the pain).

    One of the best authors, in any case but especially with this sort of description, is Joyce Carol Oates. Reading her has helped me immensely to write better description using such analogies.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • #26 by rozmorris on July 11, 2011 - 7:17 pm

      Thanks, Deanna – glad my description hit the spot, though sorry to hear the reason for it :)
      And thanks for the reminder about Joyce Carol Oates. She’s one of those writers who manages to make her descriptions transparent so that you forget you’re reading print on a page. I must go find some more of her.

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