“Say what you mean. Say what you see. Make a photograph, if you can, for the reader.” -Stephen King
Stephen King is a great exponent of show and tell, by which I mean, don’t explain what a thing is, but instead show what it is. The difference is profound.
According to Wikipedia:
The horse (Equus ferus caballus) is one of two extant subspecies of Equus ferus. It is an odd-toed ungulate mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae. The horse has evolved over the past 45 to 55 million years from a small multi-toed creature into the large, single-toed animal of today.
You can continue to read this and learn lots of interesting facts about the horse, and then take it further with reading about the anatomy of the horse, its breeding and care, and thus aquire a whole range of knowledge about the species.
But standing next to a horse gives you the knowledge on a wholly different level.
I remember being at a racecourse, and as one race ended I walked towards the grandstand, pausing briefly at the rail just as one of the losing horses came to a stop next to me.
He was steaming from the exertion of the race, and his breathing was heavy. His ears turned back and forth, and under his skin you could see the muscles twitching as he flexed his legs and neck. He turned towards me, and for a moment our eyes held each other’s. I am not a horse person, I’ve never ridden one nor had much to do with them, but at that moment I felt a connection between us, an understanding of one creature for another. I could feel his exhaustion mixed with the tingle of exhilaration from the hard fought race. He was real to me in a deeper way than simply knowledge; he existed in the same space as me.
And then, after less than a few seconds, his rider pulled on the reins, and he was off to the paddock, the moment broken.
There is a place for knowledge, a place for learning about horses and how to manage them. This knowledge is essential to those whose responsibility it is to look after them. But the full understanding of a horse is more complex than that, and yet simpler, because we can connect on a more animalistic level.
And it is this level of feeling that I believe Stephen Kings is getting at here, and the analogy of a picture is a striking one. Image that you had never seen a rose. To describe it in words would take many paragraphs and the use of many descriptive phrases. But a picture of one would convey more information on a more profound level.
When we write, therefore, we need to try to not just say that the weather was warm or cold, but paint a picture of the heat haze as we reach the brow of the hill obscuring the distant town, or of frost sparkling on the bushes and grass as the early morning sun breaks through the cold of night.
A picture paints a thousand words, but words can paint a glorious picture.