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