The reader’s experience

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Hello from Austin Texas! I just finished up a few days at the Texas Library Association’s annual conference (awesome time with awesome folks!) and have moved across the river for the Writer’s League of Texas YA A to Z Writer’s Conference (also awesome!).  As part of my workshop duties here I’ve been given a few opening chapters of manuscripts to critique and one of them has really crystallized something for me (I’ve always said that you can learn as much from reading unpublished work than you can from published).  Basically, I’ve learned that another way to look at the familiar adage of “show don’t tell” is “experience don’t dictate.”

The basic premise of “show don’t tell” is that you should show the reader the character/emotions/action of the character rather than spelling it out.  There are a number of examples such as:

Tell: He was angry and wanted to interrupt.

Show: He dug his nails into his hands, lips vibrating with the effort of holding back.

OR

Tell: The car swerved over the thick ice and clipped against my legs.

Show: The sound of tires losing traction is like the feeling of slipping down the stairs: unavoidable and startling.  And then there’s the rush of the moment as the beast roars toward you, huge and looming, metal twisting impossibly while smoke drifts from brakes trying to hold on.  In the moment my bones shattered I wondered at the noise, at the brilliant sharpness of pain.

OR

Tell: The bar was noisy, making it hard to talk.

Show: My throat strained at the shouting, the vibration of noise stinging under my skin.

You catch my drift.  I feel like I’ve heard the adage, “show don’t tell” so often that it’s almost become meaningless.  Then I began to critique the first few pages of this manuscript.  The writer is good — able to set the scene and unfold the story; however, as I read I found myself feeling as though I was at a movie, watching the characters act out their roles without my involvement.  That’s when it struck me that she was telling and perhaps even showing me the scene… but she wasn’t letting me experience what it meant to be her character.  That’s what I craved: the experience.  I wanted to crawl into the character’s skin, know what she was feeling and thinking, revel in the moment — the noise, the smell, the sights and emotions.

So, how do you do that as an author?  I think it goes back to the basic idea that every character is a unique individual.  When you think about it, we all view the world through a different lens and the same is true for our characters.  If we all walked into the same room, we’d all experience it differently. Some of us would take in the visual cues: the color of the walls, the height of the ceiling; others would take in the tactile: the temperature of the air, the brush of carpet; others would take in the sound: construction through the windows, air conditioning humming; and still others the smell: fresh paint or wilted flowers in stale water.

To that we all add our own experience and emotions: perhaps we remember the last time we smelled stale water and dried daisies — it was two weeks after the bouquet sent in remembrance of a loved one’s death and we hated to throw them away because that would make it final.  Or maybe they were flowers of congratulations and we kept them around because anything — even dying flowers — made the dull office seem brighter.  Or maybe we were just too lazy and the effort of stuffing dead flowers into an over flowing trash can was just one task too many.

Those are all different stories for different characters, different ways each one would approach the same scene.  This is what I think takes writing to the next level — not just showing the scene but letting the reader experience it through THAT character’s point of view.  To do this we have to step out of our own lens and take on that of the character.  We have to crawl under their skin and figure out who they are and how the view the world.  Ultimately, we have to mentally LIVE their stories as we tell them, not just dictate them to the reader.

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11 comments to The reader’s experience

  • Hi Carrie. Your week sounds fun!

    This is an oddly timely post. I caught myself doing this bad-boo-boo this week. Nearly 10 pages of it!

    As many books as I have written and as many cons and seminars as I have taught, I found myself telling, not showing, describing, not letting my character experience. I even tossed in a few improper passive voices.
    (head-desk)
    Now I have either a big rewrite or must toss and start over.
    Sigh…

  • Amy Sandbak

    Last August, I was told pretty much the same thing by an author critiquing my opening chapter. Compelling premise, showed lots of promise, yet it needed to be more “experiential”. It has taken me months to figure out what the author meant. Now, I’m working on describing emotions rather than naming them, incorporating the five senses into the text, and removing thought tags when possible–all to get to a deeper level of POV. Your telling examples are very similar to the way I usually write, and the conversions from telling to showing are how I’m trying to transform my story into an “experience” for the reader. Great post! :)

  • I have often seen the advice to approach writing cinematically, to describe your scene as though you are watching a movie. Although this can help overcome some of the tendency at Telling, it can, as you pointed out, give an unwanted emotional distance from the viewpoint character. Better to think of yourself as being inside the character, some sensory aspect, and to describe what they feel/hear/smell/touch (but not what they think–you have no connection to their thoughts).

    I like to think of it as the parasite approach. :)

  • I used to be able to write short stories (1-2k) and get the whole thing out… now I have no chance at getting the stories I like to tell out in that limited a count… and mostly because I used to spend so much time just telling. Now I’m working on showing…. and my “short” stories get to be between 4k and 17k 😉 Not exactly “short story” short 😉

  • Razziecat

    I have to differ with you, Wolf. When I’ve got what I think of as “a live one” – a character to whom I feel an emotional connection – I not only see, hear and feel what they see, hear and feel (and smell and taste), I also think their thoughts. The trick is to get it onto the page in a way that balances all the senses and includes occasional thoughts, without thoughts overwhelming the rest of the experience.

  • Awesome post, Carrie! I completely agree that the expression “Show, don’t tell” has been used so often as to become nearly invisible. From now on I’m going to say “Experience, don’t dictate” (and claim that I came up with the phrase all on my own… 😉 ) Thanks for this very helpful new way of looking at it.

  • I totally agree with Edmund. I hear “show, don’t tell” so often that it stops having meaning to me. I *know* what it is, but it’s harder to grasp. I like this way of looking at it. Thanks, Carrie!

  • Tom G

    I hate to point this out, but every commenter up to this point (This comment included) has TOLD you how your post affected them. No one has SHOWN you. Just pointing that out. Don’t spam the messenger.

    As for me — Showing and not telling is what I struggle with the most. I have to say (still telling here) that I think “experience, don’t dictate” is a better way to express it.

  • “Experience, don’t dictate” actually makes a lot more sense to me than “show, don’t tell.” Both of the terms “showing” and “telling” come from the perspective of the author. Most of the time, that’s not what you want at all. You want the action to come from the perspective of your characters, if you really want to draw your readers into the experience of the scene. I suppose the omniscient narrator POV would be an exception, but in that situation, the POV itself distances the reader from the story.

    I like “experience, don’t dictate.” Thank you!

  • Those are great examples. It helps to understand the advice a little more. Thanks!

  • Nice post, Carrie. And glad to hear that you’re enjoying your time on the road. When I work with aspiring writers, this is one of the first things I notice, too. It all comes down to point of view, and I think that while writers grasp the notion of telling a story through the eyes of a character, they don’t always make that leap to experiencing the world as that character would. As others have said, “Experience, don’t dictate” is a great phrase in that regard.