Sept. 19, 2023



One of the worst things that writers do is when they TELL a reader instead of SHOWING them.

In particular, I hate it when an author tells me how a character ‘feels’.

They’re happy, or sad, or tired, or angry.

By doing so, the author separates the reader from the story so much that they remain apart and aloof from the tale being told. If the reader needs to be told such things, it is because they do not share these things with the characters. Usually, when this occurs, it is because the story has become so flat and shallow that even the author realizes that the reader must be told these things because, otherwise, they would not be able to figure them out for themselves.

Oh, such casual summations may speed up the plot of the story, but at what a horrible cost!

It is far better to describe these things using details that allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Instead of simply telling the reader what happens or how someone feels, grab the reader and drag them into the story by describing other things instead, particularly sensory elements.

Indeed, stop talking about the character for a moment and describe the sensations that the character is experiencing. This provides much of the same detail that a simple description would deliver, but it does so by drawing in the reader so that they experience it more closely.

Break down the scene and the action that is occurring. Examine different aspects of that situation or setting in terms of specific sensations and describe each piece.

What does the character see? Highlight details, but maintain the person’s perspective instead of that of the narrator. Is the scene clear or murky? Is the light so bright that it hurts your eyes and makes you squint and blink? Or is it so dark that you have to reach out with your other senses to perceive the world around you?

It is hot or cold? Humid or dry” Describe how it feels. Does sweat form on your brow and drip down so that it stings your eyes? Or is it so dry that the skin feels like dried parchment or that it becomes difficult to breathe or swallow?

Metaphors work well, if not overdone.

Instead of just saying ‘it was cold and windy’, explore specific sensations. How does cold look and feel?

“The naked trees shivered in the frigid winter wind. The travelers huddled almost defensively against the cold. Gusts tugged at the collars of their coats as if tiny, invisible, fingers of ice pulled at them and tried to sneak in any opening in their clothing. Wherever the air reached bare skin, it burned momentarily, as if acid briefly touched them. The travelers flinched with each tiny blast of air from the storm that raged around them but as the onslaught continued, they began to grow numb.”

Instead of simply saying ‘the room smelled bad’, explore the other senses. Is there a faint odor that reminds you of something unpleasant? Or is there a mixture of different scents? The hint of mold, spoiled food, decay, dry rot, dust, or urine.  Or is the smell a cloying stench so strong that you can taste it on your tongue? It is metallic or acidic? Bitter or salty? Does it make you gasp and hold your breath? Or cough or retch? Does it make bile rise in your throat so that it burns the back of your mouth?

Make use of all the senses. Sight, smell, touch, hearing.

With each sense that you invoke, you draw the reader further into the story, until they become the characters you are describing. By drawing on the senses, you establish a rapport and empathy between your characters and the audience.

Note that different senses can overlap. Some smells are so strong that you can actually taste them. Some sounds are so complex or loud that you can feel them. And some images are so intense that they can induce vertigo, nausea, fear, or confusion. Also, don’t forget about other senses beyond the normal five. These include a sense of time, motion, pressure, temperature, stiffness, pleasure, and pain.

If you introduce enough sensory information into your story, you don’t need to tell the reader what the characters feel, because your audience will actually begin to experience these things for themselves.

The imagination is a wonderful thing and the full use of the human sensorium by the author can summon that ability in each reader until they think and feel and envision these things personally.

Never tell a reader how a character feels. Rather, lead your audience deeper into the story and let each reader feel it for themselves.