“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
There is a somewhat overused and underapplied (or as is often the case, misapplied) phrase in writing that speaks to vividness: “Show, don’t tell.”
Simply telling the reader who did what how, when, why, and where is not good writing; the story must be told as if the reader is living in it with the characters (or as the characters), moment by moment. One presents information as a series of external things and happenings unrelated to the reader or the heart of the story; the other brings the story into reality, into the realm of the senses, emotions, and soul.
But one can go too far with descriptions and vividness. The page becomes overridden with colorful prose, devoid of life and movement story-wise. The reader finds themselves lost and confused in the overabundance of sensory inputs. Not only do they lose their place in the story, but also their interest in it.
And the story dies a slow and painful death…for the sake of vividness. Or rather–overvividness.
Here brevity steps in.
In Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the writer is admonished to “omit unnecessary words.” I concur. It does no one good to write or read unecessary words. Eliminate them.
Which words are unnecessary?
The redundant ones. The cliché turns and phrases. The ones that add nothing of importance, move nothing forward, create no response within the reader. The words that hold no meaning beyond its own within the piece. Those that distract from the central message of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.
Yes–even those darling terms and plot twists and descriptions and dialogue and arguments that need not be there. They must be blotted out or rewritten.
But what of vividness and detail and liveliness?
Here we come to specificity.
Our writing is specific when the words we write are the words we mean to have others read and understand. The prose is clear and concise, devoid of distracting, useless words, all the while vividly alive and breathing. What must be told and shown is written; the rest is discarded for the sake of the beauty, strength, and clarity of the words left on the page.
The choosing and using, killing and keeping of words is the endless, glorious, yet daunting work of the writer.
Use those words wisely.