In a previous post on the five reasons perseverance is the most important quality for a writer, I said that writing wasn’t finished until it was read, that having someone read your writing and draw meaning from it is the entire reason for writing in the first place. Someone on social media pointed out that writing can be a purely personal thing, that someone can enjoy the act of writing solely for themselves without another person ever laying eyes on their words. I suppose this is true in personal cases, like writing a journal, or even when you’re taking your first tentative steps into the waters of fiction writing.
However, I would argue that if you want to take your writing to the next level, if you want to have your writing published and find an audience who actually wants to read it, then you must forget the idea of writing as a self-imposed lock down in solitary confinement and instead consider writing as a partnership between the writer and the reader. Even though you may never meet the person who reads your words, at least for the duration of the story, you and that reader are a team.
Consider this question: When you’re reading a story where does that story take place, the writer’s head or your own?
The answer is, of course, that it happens in your head. Writers like to talk about building worlds and bringing their characters to life but the truth is they don’t, the reader does. The author provides the scaffolding, the clues, the guidance, but it is within the reader’s imagination that characters walk and talk and the world is born. As writers our words are thought instructions, they are sensory and emotional cues for another person’s experience.
The Real Meaning Of Show Don’t Tell
‘Show don’t tell’ is probably the most well known piece of writing advice. We want our readers to feel as if they are discovering the world of the story on their own. It is at the heart of the reader/writer partnership. Readers enjoy stories the most when they experience them, when the carefully planned twist subtly sneaks up and hits them, when the actions of a character make them angry or sad or happy, when they discover the meaning of our work on their own.
A mistake writers make, I have been particularly guilty of this at times, is thinking that in order to draw a reader in they need to lace every scene with detail, paragraphs of description to paint a picture in readers minds. In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true. As writers we should pull back on description, reign in our desire to write about every article of clothing a character is wearing, the colour of their hair and eyes, the angle of every wrinkle on their face. Instead, detailed description should be deliberate and restrained.
Of course we don’t leave our writing bare of detail we are simply being smarter about where to add that detail leaving the reader’s imagination to work. There are three places we should add detail:
- Detail for character – we describe details that are important for understanding a character, either physically or emotionally, or some aspect of them that will be important later.
- Detail for setting – we add enough detail that the reader knows where they are, that it feels familiar enough that their imagination can run on from our description but also they are aware we are taking them somewhere new.
- Detail for tension and tone - we add details when we want to add to the tension or tone of a scene. Perhaps when a killer is creeping down a hallway and our protagonist doesn’t know they’re coming we want to slow the perceived passage of time to draw out the suspense, we do this through adding detail.
What we have is a porridge problem, it’s important we be aware of what is described and what is left for the reader’s imagination, not too hot, not too cold but just right. Overuse of description removes power from the reader. That’s what I interpret as the real meaning of show don’t tell, you should be the guide, not the traveller. Don’t tell the reader someone is angry, show them why, but more importantly do your upmost to have the reader discover the anger on their own, to feel it as the character does.
How Your Language Generates Your Reader’s Thoughts
It’s not necessarily the language itself that determines good writing from bad but rather the emotional and intellectual response a reader has to that language. The writer’s job is to carefully control this transfer of meaning and emotion, to structure words so as to draw out the intended response. Essentially, during the act of writing we as writers are transferring our thoughts and emotions directly into the head of our reader.
I write both prose and comics. These are different mediums with different strengths and weaknesses. Both are great in their own way but I think prose has an advantage in the delivery of emotion over comics (or film and other forms of visual narrative) in that it is written directly in the language of thought.
Language shapes our thoughts; in fact it is language that allows us to think at all. There are two schools of thought in psychology about the interdependence of language and thought. Either we are born able to think before we develop language or we develop language and this allows us to think. Without going too deep into this the end result is ultimately the same. As we grow older, language becomes the way we conceptualise our thoughts, it is what allows us to imagine things and express ourselves. When you think you do it with language, this language generates emotion and understanding. So when storytelling is in its most pure form, that of spoken or written language, as writers we are directly shaping the thoughts of a reader.
So what does this tell us about the partnership between writer and reader? Well, it highlights the need to consider the reader from the get-go. When we set out to write a scene we should be mindful of the way we are trying to generate emotion. We include the reader in our writing process by:
- Beginning with an imaginary reader in mind - from the start of the writing process consider a target audience or even a specific person you're writing for.
- Being aware of what we’re trying to convey - in every scene ensure you understand the actions, emotions and motivations of your characters, without this understanding it's difficult to be clear in what the reader should experience.
- Writing for our reader to experience this - attempt to write in a way that generates the emotions of our characters not just in ourselves but in our imaginary reader who doesn’t have our understanding of the story.
With every sentence we write we should be thinking about the reader. So next time you sit down at your desk ready for the solitary slog we call writing try and remember that you’re not alone. You’ve got a partner in this story, a tourist that’s relying on you to be thoughtful about how you guide them through this world you’re creating. Do them the favour of thinking about how they’re involved.
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