Letting the Characters tell the Story

One of the challenges I faced when I started out as a writer was being descriptive. I didn’t really understand showing instead of telling.

Telling the audience what the character thinks or feels in lazy writing. Readers don’t want you to tell them flatly what is going on in each scene. They want to be immersed in the story.  They want to feel like they are peeking in a window or eavesdropping on a conversation. And, then they want to put the pieces together as to how the person is feeling, thinking or what they will do next.


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How to Invite Your Reader into the Character’s World? 

One mistake some writers make, myself included, is to either assume their readers should know things or to tell them as if they aren’t smart enough to figure it out on their own. Neither of these things is good and can turn the reader off unless they are really interested in seeing the story progress then they may overlook it or forgive the writer. But, they may not rush to buy your next publication.

How do you show versus tell? The best way is to use the senses to describe the world and the characters emotional state.

The senses are sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. 

Instead of telling the reader exactly how the character is feeling or what is going on around them, you can use their senses so your reader understands how they would react in the same situation or if the character has a reaction that is contrary to their surroundings.

Here is an example of telling:

Naomi walked into the room and looked around. She searched for items that reminded her of her former lover, but it had been stripped of his presence. She felt sad. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked away before looking back one last time as the door closed behind her. 

On the surface, you may think this isn’t bad. You know what happened and the story is being told. But, it doesn’t evoke the connection with the main character that it would if you pull the reader into the story through description and using your senses.

Here is an example of showing:

Naomi felt the floorboard tremble beneath her heel and a loud creak shattered the silence in the room as she moved slowly inside the door. Her attempt to clear her throat with a cough destroyed cobwebs that had formed on the bookshelf in front of her and sent dust flying through the air caught only by the sunlight streaming through the grimy window. It wasn’t the way she remembered it. She searched for some sign of her former lover. Her body shivered as if a cold wind whispered across her neck. Naomi, absentmindedly, rubbed the back of her head. A tear threatened the corner of her eye. She would blame the dust if anyone asked why her eyes were watery, but the ache of disappointment felt like a rock in her chest and a lump in her throat as she choked it back. There was nothing left for her, but memories. 

The second paragraph gives the reader insight into what Naomi is feeling using action, description of the surroundings, and the surroundings mirror her feelings. The depressing view of the room mirrors her feelings of loss. The reader may feel the loneliness, darkness and abandoned nature of the room and Naomi’s attempt to grasp something that feels like home, but only finding the absence.

The cobwebs, dust and creaking floorboard let you know that the room has been neglected. No one has cleaned it or repaired the floorboard. Her rubbing her neck shows her apprehension or anxiety. And, the lump in her throat and pain in her chest are reactions someone has when they are trying to hold back their emotions. These things are communicated to the reader so they can put themselves in her shoes.

There is no one way to write a scene. And, there are millions of ways to use words to describe what is happening. But, there has to be a balance. If you are overly descriptive, you can turn your reader off too. In the revision stage you can determine if being overly-descriptive is interrupting the pace of your story or giving details the reader doesn’t need and prune some of your paragraphs.

Writing Tips:

  • You don’t have to be overly descriptive in your first draft. Get the story out and let the characters move through the story however you need to get it down on paper. Your following drafts is where you can go in and start adding layers of description to the story. 
  • As you are reading over a paragraph, think of your reader as unable to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Let the characters do it for them. Tell the reader how to experience the characters’ world through their senses. 
  • A Thesaurus is your friend. Synonyms can help in explaining and giving life to words. Another good resource I found is the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, it is available on Amazon (I am not affiliated with the book). The book describes how a person would react if they are experiencing a certain emotion. It gives you actions, body movements, and involuntary responses so you can add authenticity to your writing. They have a few additional thesauruses that are helpful. 

Finally, allow your writing to get better over time. You won’t wake up and be able to give lush descriptions or just know the right balance to adding the description or letting the dialogue move the story along. Expect your writing to be clunky. The writing satisfies the author. Revision is where we serve our characters and readers. Every writer has a manuscript in their drawer that will never see the light of day. Just write it anyway. You can always go back later with new eyes and resculpt it into a masterpiece.