Fluff words or … please don’t tell me, show me

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corr...

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corridor of the Serengeti Deutsch: Löwin jagt Warzenschweine in der Serengeti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know them … the words that tell you what the author sees, but you can’t see anything because the author has not shown you what he or she actually sees. What do you see when a writer says ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘dangerous’ or uses verbs like ‘kill’, ‘loved’, ‘swam’ ? … words that are full of air and no substance. The writer has so much opportunity to portray an image in the reader’s mind that can seem more real than reality itself. You’ve heard the term ‘Larger than life’ – which is what a good writer can do. It is an escape from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Okay, let me demonstrate what can be done. Take the first example word ‘beautiful’. Say the author writes ‘It was a beautiful sunset.’  The author knows what they say, but is it the same as the reader can see, and will the reader be able to use as many of their senses in re-experiencing that sunset? Yes, more words need to be used, but the description then becomes powerful. Consider the following expansion:

‘A warm breeze, filled with the burnt-honey scent of melaleuca blossoms drifted across the verandah as a flock of fruit bats flapped across a golden sky in their hundreds, creating black silhouettes as they flew to their nightly roosts. Shafts of light were cast through the clouds like stationary search lights. I raised a wine to my lips as the sun melted into red and yellow as it sunk into the ocean.’

Here the sunset is not just a narrow visual image but filters across into the senses of feeling (warm breeze), smell (scent of flowers), taste (the wine). It is a much more sensual experience that shows you so much more than a mere sunset. You have a sense of tropical Australia with the fruit bats (flying foxes), melaleuca (tea tree or paperbark) and verandah (Queenslander style house). You can then experience what the author is saying is beautiful.

Let’s move on to the verb ‘kill’. An example: ‘The lioness killed the zebra.’  That’s nice and neat. There’s no emotional involvement for the reader, who can remain aloof and unaffected. But what about this:

‘The lioness lunged out of its crouching position in the grass. All her will was focused on the zebra as it noticed, too late, that it was being pursued. The zebra snorted and ran. It’s heart was pumping rapidly as it tore into full flight. The lioness zig-zagged in step with the zebra’s frantic attempt to elude capture. Long claws dug into hide as the lioness cloaked the body of the zebra, then sunk its razor teeth into the animal’s neck, tearing and pulling until the zebra lost balance and collapsed, tumbling along with the lioness as she maintained pressure …’

The reader finds themselves now as part of the experience. My example may be rough but it does convey much more than merely saying that the lion killed the zebra. You can feel the zebra’s panic and the weight of the lioness as she pulls it down. Notice, however, that I am using a smattering of adjectives. They are like seasoning … use just the right amount and it is agreeable.


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