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Show don't tell is what people say poet advise you to do, but how can you say that a land is desolate without using the word desolate, lonely or any synonym? Is there a way to do this?

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  • 16
    I feel like this question boils down to 'How do I write poetry?'... Feb 28 at 10:09
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    @DM_with_secrets, you could be right in your assessment, but we always have the freedom to interpret any question as liberally as we chose to. While people post questions to seek information, the answers are more often than not, provided to test ourselves, to take a risk, trying to see if our understanding rises to the level of useful to someone else.
    – EDL
    Feb 28 at 20:05
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    I'd start with "Punctured bicycle, on a hillside ...."
    – James K
    Mar 2 at 0:14
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    The same way you would describe your living room, without saying "it's a living room" Poetry is about describing things indirectly. You can do this using any indirect technique you desire. The indirections allow you to emphasize what you want, and diminish the rest.
    – Edwin Buck
    Mar 2 at 14:06
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    "Show, don't tell" is taken way too literally.
    – Sigma Ori
    Mar 2 at 17:18
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What kind of land is it?

No man is an island, and no desolation is empty.

  • The moon will be stark black sky against endless grainy grey wastes of fine dust and rock.

  • Deserts will be hot and dry, with blowing sand and dead brush, dried up river beds and alkali lakes.

  • A steppe would be open, with grass matted down from perpetual winds.

  • The artic would be bitterly cold, with permafrost dotted by tiny plants poking through snow.

  • Radioactive wastelands will be littered with trash and debris, dead plants, animals and bones.

  • Volcanic wastes will be littered with pumice and cinders, black rock and fissures seeping acrid fumes.

  • The land of Mordor would be all fire and smoke, rock and ash, filth left by orcs and lava flows from mount Doom.

Nothing is truly desolate, except the recesses of the human heart.

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  • When you've seen in the mind's eye the surface of Neptune you will understand the meaning of desolate.
    – Joshua
    Mar 1 at 1:23
  • @Joshua I'd love a reference, since I thought the surface of Neptune (defined as atmosphere at 1 bar) was quite dynamic and stormy. Do you mean the rocky core? I prefer not to be turned to flaming jelly from pressure and heat, although in the mind's eye, it sounds interesting-ish. universetoday.com/22070/surface-of-neptune
    – DWKraus
    Mar 1 at 6:15
  • Yeah I mean the surface of the rocky core.
    – Joshua
    Mar 1 at 16:00
  • Or it could be described through simile. This leaves room for comic effect. ("As dry and unpleasant as a camel's fart, the wasteland continued for countless miles in every direction. ") Mar 2 at 8:25
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Let’s start with ‘Water, Water, Everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’ from the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It provides some simple essential facts — surrounded by water — followed by something a little bit surprising and counter intuitive — that the water is undrinkable. Our imagination searches for reasonable reasons to explain this, and we intuit some reactions from the language since it communicates that this absence of water is a problem — otherwise why mention it.

Spoilers ... this is a classic line describing a sailor being lost at sea expressed from that sailor’s POV and communicates the sense of danger or peril the sailor faces and suggests the need to slake their thirst, which is frustrated by the environment.

For your desolate land, you can work backwards — enumerate the physical qualities of the place you want to describe — hot, dry, barren, sandy, cloudless, or Mars like.

Then, select your POV. Is this the person experiencing it? Or is this someone finding the bones of someone who died there? Or is this some imagining someone there, who might be themselves at some point in the future or was the, in the past?

Then, identify the experience the person has in that place, make sure to consider physiological and emotional experiences and reactions or consequences of those experiences.

Once you’ve assembled your properties of the landscape, your POV, and the experiences imagined from that environment you start writing

e.g. “Mars is not a place to raise your kids. In fact, its cold as hell.” (misquoting since I don’t have Sir Elton’s permission to reproduce his lyrics.)

or

“Booze, pills, needles, awash in the unwashed and unwanted, broken bottles slice my feet, but not my wrists, adrift and alone in a world too full of itself with no room for me”

or

A trail of armor ends in a drift of bones, crushed by teeth, marrow licked clean, etched smooth by sand

or whatever.

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    I went all poetic, because that's where the OP was asking, but in the strictest terms your answer is admittedly more complete.
    – DWKraus
    Feb 28 at 18:09
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    @DWKraus, I was going for showing how to solve the problem rather than demonstrating solutions. I quite liked yours and up voted it
    – EDL
    Feb 28 at 18:20
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    By the way, quoting a single line from a song for the purposes of parody (humor) and education (explaining how to write well) with no commercial gain falls clearly under fair use in US law, and if it did not, a slight rephrasing would not be enough to avoid legal issues.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 1 at 14:28
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    @Obie2.0, I imagine It was the Same as it ever was, Once in a lifetime, but its best to just Shake It Off, Shake it Off, eating barbecued iguana on Mexican Radio
    – EDL
    Mar 1 at 15:04
  • I suppose so? I am not really sure I understand.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 1 at 15:06
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I know little about poetry, but your question reminded me of Sheep in Fog, a poem by Sylvia Plath. I think her description of desolateness works because of several techniques:

  1. She uses very few words, so that you can actually hear how quiet the hills are.
  2. The opening line immediately paints a slow, still landscape.
  3. She describes very singular details: the trail of smoke from a train, a single flower. It's almost as if this flower stands out very clearly, because everything else is so uniform and lonely.

I hope this helps!

Sheep in Fog, by Sylvia Plath (no copyright intended)

The hills step off into whiteness.

People or stars

Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.

O slow

Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -

All morning the

Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

My bones hold a stillness, the far

Fields melt my heart.

They threaten

To let me through to a heaven

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

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My first thought was Ozymandias, but Shelley uses "desert", "bare" and "lone". But, on its own, something like "level sands stretch far away" draws the mind's eye to an empty horizon.

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