Writing Tips: Seeing the Moon for the First Time


“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

For some reason ever since I read this quote it keeps coming back to me in that head-slapping "Of course!" sort of way. There's the obvious encouragement to show not tell in there, but it also seems like there's a bit more bundled up into that sentence.

I think one of the things that writers struggle against is the fact that it's all been said before. A thousand writers have described a thousand moons.  We've described it--and many other things--so much that the descriptions have little meaning anymore. We skip over them thinking, "Right. Moon in the sky. Got it."  It's like a word you repeat so many times that it loses it's meaning. 

What's the purpose of description anyway? Certainly, description for description's sake is meaningless, isn't it? Who cares if there is or isn't a moon in the sky when a scene happens? The literal presence of the moon doesn't matter, what matters is how your description of the moon enhances a scene's mood or action, or metaphorical weight. So if the way we write about the moon causes readers to skip over it  without considering it or feeling it, then the moon means nothing, its just there.

To get around that we need to surprise the reader. We need to make them see the moon in a different way, from a different angle, so that it will mean something to them again, so it won't just be background. In a way, we have to trick readers into really seeing the moon again.

This reminds me of a story I read not long ago (I'd cite it, if only I could remember who said it) about the usefulness of that strange lamppost the Pevensie children encounter sitting out in the middle of the woods in the Narnia books. This writer said that one of the functions of that lamppost was that the strangeness of its presence shocks us out of our familiarity with a forest scene and makes us see it fresh. Again, an unexpected detail, like the moon reflected in broken glass, can make us see familiar things like they're new again.

To dip into my theatre nerd background for a second, this is something like what playwright Bertolt Brecht called the "alienation effect" or the "defamiliarization effect." Brecht wrote that this involved "stripping an event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about it".

Isn't that what we all want to do? Create "a sense of astonishment and curiosity" that will shake people out of their routine and make them see and consider familiar things in new ways?  

13 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

This is such a great tip. It's so important to try to create fresh descriptions and wake up the reader's mind.

Trisha Wolfe said...

Love it! And it's so true. I'm writing today, so this is perfect! =)

Claire M. Caterer said...

I hadn't heard the Chekov quote before, so I had my own head-slapping moment when I read this. I need to tape that quote above my desk! Thanks!

Mflick1 said...

I agree... if the description doesn't improve the story, why does it matter. I point that out to my students frequently. Great post.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Thanks everybody! Glad you enjoyed it

david said...

Interesting post JDH... Start with Chekhov, end with Brecht?!?! Only you could pull it off. Good ol' Bertolt's verfremdungseffekt was intended to keep an audience's emotions as far away from the art as possible so that they could remain consciously critical at all times by prohibiting emotional entanglements. Chekhov is opposite, the details are used to mesmerize in a way, drawing the audience into the experience by activating their emotional life through a fully realized world, supposedly indistinguishable from the real one. Same impetus, different results. Funny how useful a shock to the system can be.

atsiko said...

Great post. I've seen that Chekhov quote many times, but it always makes me smile.

I wonder how many stories you could start based on moonlight on a piece of glass...

Leigh Ann said...

Really awesome post. And I love the one example you cite about CON - whenever I think of that lightpost I see miles and miles of snowcovered forest. It is thrown into relief that way. Just brilliant.

Thanks for the reminder.

mmshaunakelley said...

I like the quote also encourages the age-old "show don't tell"-- let the reader deduce that the moon is shining because your narrator describes its reflection. It makes for much more active reading.

Jamie Sedgwick said...

Great quote, and an awesome post, too. As a music fan I'd also point to Jimmy Page, who is often quoted as saying that a great song is something new with a hint of the familiar. Just like in writing, that displaced familiarity is something that grabs our attention. I should probably print this post out and put it up on my wall.

KennyPeanuts said...

Good post Jeff, my favorite examples of this are from authors who seem to intentionally eschew vivid description but somehow give such vividness to the plainness. I think Coetzee is my favorite example. Somehow he seems to simply tell you that the moon is shining and leave it up to you to see the glint on the glass.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Yeah ken, it's writers like Coetzee, and Hemingway I think, that are so frustrating to other writers. They create these amazing effects and striking images while seeming to do almost nothing. It seems effortless. Jerks.

Tere Kirkland said...

Doing a style revision, so this is extremely relevant to me right now. Thanks, Jeff!

I've been trying to describe things in different ways in part because I've seen the words so many times that they no longer have any meaning to me. Making myself "see the moon" afresh will hopefully help my readers see it, too.