Monday, April 30, 2012

Writing Craft - Show Don't Tell

One of the hallmarks of skilled writing is the ability to draw the reader into the world you’ve created.
The reader wants to have sympathy for your character. He wants to feel what your character feels and experience what the character experiences. One of the primary reasons for recreational reading is to escape from reality and be somewhere else.
If your story doesn’t draw the reader in quickly, he will lose interest. Your story must pop with experiences that use the senses. Immerse your reader in sensory experiences. He must be able to touch, taste, smell, hear, and see the world you’ve created. Your job is to find words that convey those messages.

Here is an example:

  • “… the sky was overcast, when all of a sudden, lightning struck the ground not too far from where they were riding. The whole sky lit up, and thunder clapped all around them. Then the rain came down in torrents…”
Now let’s take it apart and look more closely:

  • …and the sky was overcast…
    • The author tells the reader that a storm is coming.
  • “Seth glanced at the sky, nudged his horse forward and muttered, “We better get goin’. Them’s nasty looking clouds.”
    • Seth has made an observation and is talking to the reader and his companions. Much more interesting than telling...
  • “…when all of a sudden, lightning struck the ground not too far from where they were riding.. The whole sky lit up, and thunder clapped all around them…”
    • The author tells the reader that lightning struck the ground. Sounds like an impersonal third person report.  No sensations for the reader to experience.
  • “Static electricity ripped through the air as lightning shattered a nearby pine. Their tongues tingled. Ears ringing and eyes blinded, the four riders struggled to restrain their hysterical horses. All experienced riders, they pulled hard on the reigns, trying to turn their bucking mounts.”
    • The author gives the reader the experience of a sudden storm. Lightning crashing nearby, ears ringing, eyes blinded. The reader experiences the danger of the storm by the shattered pine tree. Plus, there is the issue of struggling with terrified horses.
  • "Then the rain came down in torrents…”
    • Again, the author tells the reader what is happening. It is merely a report. It is up to the imagination of the reader to fill in the details. 
  • “A few fat icy raindrops were their only warning before the skies split. No one had time to respond as tiny frozen daggers drenched their clothes and pelted their skin.”
    • Through tactile experience, reader is made aware of the suddenness of the storm, the extremely cold rain, and the intensity of the storm by their clothes being drenched before they can begin to respond.
Honing Your Skills:
One organizational tip is to set up an excel sheet for those tactile experiences. I like using excel sheets because it’s easy to rearrange the data for easier access.  Just give a column a heading and jot down key words and short phrases. When I’ve been brainstorming my list, I go back and alphabetize them.  Later as I add more phrases, with a couple of clicks, they can be rearranged into the proper order.  Makes for easier access down the line.

Head your sheet “Sensory Perceptions”
Then make a column for each of the following:
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Hearing
  • Sight
    • Color
    • Light
Under each heading, start listing as many words as you can find. Use a good thesaurus if you need to. As you are reading other books, make a note of the words they use.  The more words you can list, the better your chances of finding that wonderful phrase that captivates the reader and draws them into your world.

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