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Descriptive Writing – Show, not Tell

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Purpose: Writing descriptively can help you
  • Capture the attention of your reader
  • Create memorable characters
  • Set or develop a specific mood
Elements in descriptive writing
  1. Appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste through use of selective details.
  2. Dominant use of nouns and verbs (in addition to adjectives) to create an image of a person, place, thing, memory, experience or event.
  3. Use of figurative language: similie, metaphor, personification, alliteration, Onomatopoeia, hyperbole, idioms and clichés.
Examples of Showing, and not Telling

Example 1: To describe a punch
Tell: He got up and punched his friend in a fit of anger.
Show: His face grew as red as crimson. Sucking in a deep breath, he stood up. His right fist flew up and swung swiftly across the cheeks of his friend.
Elements: Use of simile, ‘red as crimson’. Use of verbs ‘grew’, ‘sucking in’, ‘flew up’ and ‘swung swiftly’.

Example 2: To describe tasting spoilt food.
Tell: The food was spoilt.
Show: There was a thin film of moisture on the cooked rice. When I ate a scoop of it, it tasted like a mixture of salt and soured milk.
Elements: ‘tasted like a mixture of...’. Use of nouns such as ‘film of...’

Planning a descriptive essay

During the planning stage, think through the following points:

  1. What aspects of the person, place, thing, memory, experience or event would you like to describe? For e.g. , the size of something, an emotion that was triggered or the impact of an action.
  2. What type of sensory details would you like to focus on – is it the sight, sound, smell, taste or texture?
  3. Have you used a variety of nouns, verbs and figurative language?
  4. Do all the sensory details combine to create an image that can be easily and vividly imagined and understood?
Identify the text which is an excerpt of a descriptive essay

Text A:

The nights were the worst. It then became pitch-dark – not what you call pitch-dark, but really pitch; so black that you really could see nothing. Bilbo tried flapping his hand in front of his nose, but he could not see it at all. Well, perhaps it is not true to say that they could see nothing: they could see eyes. They slept all closely huddled together, and took it in turns to watch; and when it was Bilbo's turn he would see gleams in the darkness round them, and sometimes pairs of yellow or red or green eyes would stare at him from a little distance, and then slowly fade and disappear and slowly shine out again in another place. And sometimes they would gleam down from the branches just above him; and that was most terrifying. But the eyes that he liked the least were horrible pale bulbous sort of eyes. “Insect eyes” he thought, “not animal eyes, only they are much too big.” Although it was not yet very cold, they tried lighting watch-fires at night, but they soon gave that up. It seemed to bring hundreds and hundreds of eyes all round them, though the creatures, whatever they were, were careful never to let their bodies show in the little flicker of the flames. Worse still it brought thousands of dark-grey and black moths, some nearly as big as your hand, flapping and whirring round their ears.

(Source: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin, 1937. Print.)

Text B:

Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate.

He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages, and the other shoe amongst the potatoes.

After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket. It was a blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.

(Source: Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. England: Frederick Warne & Co, 1902. Print.)