As a part of my job, I sometimes have occasion to look into print advertising. It’s one of my favourite things – print adverts are so clever, containing so much information and so many messages, usually without the need for words.
And while it’s almost completely the opposite medium to writing, I think there are valuable lessons that writers can learn from print advertising.
Show Don’t Tell
It’s the infamous adage of writers everywhere, but in practice it can be difficult to know when you are showing and when you are telling, and how to take out those ‘telling’ phrases.
When I was starting out on my writing course, my work was peppered with ‘tell’ phrases. I think it’s partly inexperience, but also driven by a fear that your audience won’t understand if you don’t spell every last little thing out for them. Learning to trust that your audience is clever enough is an important lesson.
But really, audiences aren’t that stupid. Reading the subtle signs that people give off to reveal their emotions is something we do subconsciously all the time. It’s just a case of recognising that we know it. This is where looking into print advertising can help.
Take this example by Panasonic:
There are no words, and yet the meaning is very clear. Forget, if you can, that it’s a dinosaur, and think about the emotion it shows. Its posture clearly shows its shame – the bowed head to avoid eye contact, the generally sagging frame. The woman is strong – hands on hips, arm outstretched in order. And the chaos in the background shows you exactly what the dinosaur has been up to. There’s a whole story in the picture without words, and without movement. It’s a snapshot. And imagine how powerful a scene could be if you emulated the technique in your writing. Rather than spelling it out, show it through telling details.
Less is Sometimes More
This is often stated about character description. Rather than building a complete picture of the character, you give the most key detail, something that shows us who that character is, without overburdening the reader with description.
It’s similar in a way to showing not telling. It again relies on trusting your reader’s intelligence and imagination.
Everyone who reads a book brings their own experiences to the story and characters. It’s not just the writer’s baby any more – as soon as it enters the reader’s imagination it takes on everything they bring to the party. Their ideas, their interpretation of events. No two people will read the same story, which is why some people can love a book, while others hate it. It’s a scary thought, but also the beauty of writing, of art.
I think ‘less is more’ is really important in fantasy and historical novels – it’s the world building part of it that can be overdone so easily. As a writer, you know everything about the world your story inhabits, superfluous details that don’t add anything to the story. It’s so tempting to pack it all in, but a reader can do a lot of the filling in themselves. They don’t need the writer to give them everything – just a flavour. Much like print adverts only give you a flavour of the product they sell, without listing every single detail about it.
This advert by Lego is a perfect example of how imagination can provide the bigger picture when one isn’t given. It’s a simple, elegant advert that suggests so much about the product, without overburdening the audience. It tells us Lego is about creative play, building, imagination. It doesn’t show every single different piece, or even a complicated building – it allows the reader to recognise that so much more can go on in the background, to fill in the gaps with their imagination.
And to recognise that is the point.
It’s a difficult balance to strike in your writing, and something I know I have to think about when writing my fantasy stories. Hopefully I’m getting it right!