The old adage “show; don’t tell” is great advice for new writers. But with practice, writers can master many creative techniques that depart from standard showing. Evocative telling is one of those techniques, and it can add a lot to a story.
What Is Evocative Telling?
In evocative telling, the narrator describes their subjective impressions of the things around them. It’s usually uncertain whether or not those impressions match reality; they might be sensing some unseen presence, or it could just be their imagination. Often, the narrator will assign human-like intent to objects or places or use vivid metaphors to describe their experience.
Because objects are imbued with more meaning than meets the eye, evocative telling can build an atmosphere of fantastical mystery. That makes it a useful tactic for some strongly-themed works.
For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien used evocative telling to create a sense of wonder. Here’s an excerpt from The Two Towers where he presents the hobbits’ first meeting with an ent, a being that is essentially a personified tree.
These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating. They were brown, shot with a green light. Often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.
One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.
H.P. Lovecraft also relied on evocative telling to create suspense in his tales of horror. Here’s an excerpt from his short story, The Book:
The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened. I felt that those walls and overhanging gables of mildewed brick and fungous plaster and timber—with fishy, eye-like, diamond-paned windows that leered—could hardly desist from advancing and crushing me…
When done well, evocative telling makes a powerful impression on readers. But when not done well, it feels like empty hype. That’s because this technique skirts the line between prioritizing substance and style. If your evocative telling crosses that line into covering bland content with fancy words, it will create contrived and melodramatic results.
Carefully Choose Moments for Evocative Telling
Not every story is a good match for this technique. Evocative telling benefits stories with a strong, mysterious atmosphere. It’s probably not a fit for a plucky urban fantasy or an action-packed post-apocalypse. If a creepy or wondrous atmosphere is more important than explaining how things work or inserting humor, then it’s probably a fit.
Evocative telling will get old if used extensively. The longer your story is, the more you have to be reserved with it. Lovecraft could lean on it heavily because many of his stories were so short, whereas Tolkien reserved it for special occasions in his epic-scale novels.
Find the moments in your story that would naturally make a strong impression. A good story will escalate as it goes, so these impressions should become more striking toward the end. Then choose when it’s worth using evocative telling and for how long. For instance, Tolkien’s metaphorical description of the ent’s eyes is very long, even by Tolkien’s standards. That length might be appropriate near your story’s climax. Nearer to the beginning, you might use just one sentence of evocative telling, like this:
At length a silence fell, and they heard the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Almost Frodo fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.
Back It Up With Substance
To avoid making your story elements feel over-hyped, don’t use evocative telling in isolation. It should be paired with things that are strong in substance. The more substance you bring out, the more evocative telling you can justify.
Good candidates for evocative telling are naturally unusual to most people. If you want to describe a room as full of wonder, make it an attic that’s been locked for the last fifty years and contains strange clockwork mechanisms. I don’t recommend introducing the love interest with evocative telling unless that love interest is an ancient and unfathomable being that freaks everyone out.
In Lovecraft’s Dagon, the protagonist falls asleep in a boat in the middle of the ocean. When he wakes up, he finds that he and the boat are in the middle of a huge, mucky island that isn’t supposed to be there. The surprise adds to the striking landscape in justifying a long description that includes evocative telling.
…there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime…
Folklore or backstory can be great tools to build up an element before you use evocative telling. After you tell about the sword that the queen of old used to kill her councilors and then herself, your audience will buy into any evocative telling applied to that sword.
If you want a character to be drawn to something that others consider ordinary, look for ways to give that something more personal meaning for that character. Maybe they find an old book with their family sigil and a drawing of a dead family member. Then you can acknowledge the oddness of their personal reaction by having a friend wave a hand in front of their face. That way readers know it’s the character that’s acting up, and they won’t think you’re trying to convince them that a perfectly ordinary book is super unnerving for no real reason.
Include Strong Imagery
While evocative telling is not illustrating something a character directly experiences, it does use showing as well as telling. It’s just showing things that aren’t really there.
The technique is at its best when it creates sensory impressions not so different from describing the things that are actually present in the scene – except with evocative telling, those sensory impressions can be anything you want. Think of it like your character is having a vision. This vision is metaphorical; it’s designed to evoke the feelings you want associated with the element that’s real. The more visceral your metaphorical imagery is, the more evocative your description will be. Take this excerpt from Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls, which not only describes what the character hears but also provides compelling imagery and a vivid sense of space:
My ears gave me the last fading impression of the scurrying; which had retreated still downward, far underneath this deepest of sub-cellars till it seemed as if the whole cliff below were riddled with questing rats.
If you have strong imagery, the telling layer becomes a powerful complement. You can use that to assign feeling or intent to the surroundings; the sun might glare down with malice or the grass might grow over a grave to erase any memory from existence. You can also speculate about an item’s role or the history of its existence, calling it an ancient watcher or lone mourner. Be free with powerful adjectives like vast, unyielding, or effervescent.
But this isn’t a free pass to tell things that are better shown, such as the emotion your viewpoint character is experiencing. Lovecraft is not a good role model here. In the same section of Dagon I previously quoted, he says, “the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.” The “fear” part is the weak piece in this quote, held up by stronger imagery. Instead, he should have given his viewpoint character some fearful body language, like cowering or shaking.
Show While You Tell
Look for opportunities to use showing to emphasize the impression you want your evocative telling to make. However, because one of the chief goals of evocative telling is to add a sense of mystery, you don’t want to show too much too early. It’s no good if the first time the sword the ancient queen used to kill her councilors is introduced, it rises up on its own and starts slaughtering everyone nearby. That will convert the mystery into an open threat.
On the other hand, sometimes threat is what you want. Evocative telling is a good way to give threats additional meaning, but it’s not as effective at creating threat. If you want to give your readers a feeling of immediate danger, you need to show how something can harm your characters.
To show in ways that enhance the mystery that evocative telling provides, think of minor events that could be interpreted in multiple ways. Instead of having the queen’s sword come to life, your characters might turn their backs to it as they mention the name of an ancient hero. Then they are interrupted by a loud clang as the sword abruptly falls off the table they left it on.
For example, Tolkien has a segment in The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits wander into a menacing forest. To support the evocative telling, he shows their traveling through the woods in ways that make it seem like the trees are taking action.
As they went forward it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. There was no sound, except an occasional drip of moisture falling through the leaves. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow.
There was not as yet any sign of a path, and the trees seemed constantly to bar their way.
Evocative telling doesn’t have to be used in one chunk. Mix it in with your regular description. Just keep up the mood; don’t take an intermission from your evocative description to do some slapstick comedy.
Workshop: Fixing Flawed Description
To demonstrate how to use evocative telling, I’ll workshop a piece of Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. Brooks was clearly trying to flavor his work after Tolkien, but he didn’t have the wordcraft skill that Tolkien did.
In this excerpt, the character Flick is in the woods when another character tells Flick to run and hide in the brush. He then gets a frightening glimpse of what is probably some kind of evil dragon. Here’s the original excerpt.
… the sky was suddenly blotted out by something huge and black that floated overhead and then passed from sight. A moment later it passed again, circling slowly without seeming to move, its shadow hanging ominously above the two hidden travelers as if preparing to fall upon them. A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward. Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath. A vision passed sharply before him of a black image laced with red, of clawed hands and giant wings, of a thing so evil that its very existence threatened his frail life.
Brooks is using the metaphorical imagery to describe Flick’s feelings instead of describing what is making Flick afraid. Combine that with blatant telling of Flick’s emotions and generic labels like “evil,” and the result is melodrama.
First, let’s consider what impression this creature should make. Judging from this excerpt, Brooks wants it to be absolutely terrifying, but this is only the first chapter of the book. To leave room for the work as a whole to escalate, I’ll go for unnerving but not terrifying. Doing that will require standard showing, but we’ll use evocative telling to make the overall impression creepier. These effects will provide a strong enough hook for a first chapter.
Next, let’s consider what to show before dressing it up with style. We want this dragon to be scary, and that will be hard if it just hangs in the sky doing nothing. It needs to do some damage. Before seeing the dragon, Flick will encounter some livestock that have been slaughtered. Then as he stands over the livestock wondering what happened to them, he’ll see the creature in the sky. It will come closer until he dives into a small shed nearby. We want to keep the creature mysterious, so he’ll cower facing the back wall of the shed instead of looking at the creature as it appears right outside the shed’s open door. Then to maximize tension, the creature will hang out in the air behind him for a moment before it flies away.
I’ll write some evocative telling for two parts. First, when he sees the dragon in the sky. It’s his first impression, and it will set the tone for the rest of the scene. Second, when it’s hovering behind him, because that’s the scene’s climax.
Because it’s easy for a dragon in the distance to look like a bird or another normal animal, I’ll emphasize how unnatural it is.
He blinked, trying to wipe the strange blot from his vision. It was as though someone had pricked the sky, leaving a tiny hole in the distance. The sky slowly ripped further, opening a growing rent to the night beyond. But it couldn’t be a rent, as it cast a malignant shadow over the nearby hills, a shadow that was fast approaching. Then the fragment of night solidified into a creature of great wingspan. Its eyes locked on him as it plummeted.
And now I’ll do the description for when he’s in the shed, and it’s hovering just beyond the open entrance behind him.
He slammed against the back wall, burying his head in his knees and murmuring what prayers hadn’t fled him. But prayers could not block out the deep, slow beats behind him and the warm, pungent wind that stirred his hair. It seemed he was in the heart of a boundless being, a vast presence that sickened the hills beneath and clouded the skies above, observing his tiny trembling with eager malice.
Then the creature will fly away, leaving the hills looking perfect but Flick feeling chilled.
Evocative telling captures the imagination of readers and writers alike, and for good reason. It’s fun and exciting to wield, but if you want great results, wield it with care.
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