Who has not been inspired by the media coverage of the Paralympics? Such uplifting stories, such an astonishing plethora of challenges faced and overcome. Utterly inspirational. And yet, despite the range of Paralympians, sports, and challenges, the question most often asked by reporters starts ‘How does it feel…?’ How does it feel to win gold/silver/bronze? How does it feel to achieve a personal best? How does it feel to have the whole world watching at this moment? How does it feel to be here?
And the athletes respond, with grace, from their excitement and commitment and courtesy – It feels amazing. I feel so excited/ grateful/ humble.
But I look at the images of those extraordinary athletes, and I wonder what, really, it does feel like? Because this is, of course, what we do want to know. We want the vicarious experience; we want to share all the sensations of the moment of glory, preferably without all the years of pain and struggle and hard choices that have led to this moment.
What does it feel like? may be the commonest question, spoken and unspoken, in human experience. And the answer is what your readers expect you to deliver in your writing, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.
Your task is to show the reader what each character is feeling. So what is meant by ‘feeling’? There are several aspects to this word – there are the physical sensations of hot/cold, comfortable/uncomfortable, and so on. There are the emotional sensations of lonely, happy, aroused, excited, miserable, and so on. And the more spiritual or metaphysical aspects such as peaceful, disturbed, depressed, melancholy, uplifted, and so on. These lists are endless. So how do you show this to the reader?
The short answer would be to simply tell it to the reader.
Sam felt excited and optimistic as he led the team onto the football field.
Chloe felt miserable as she stared at her bank balance.
Jo felt hungry, because it was well past his usual teatime.
This technique is quick, and it certainly tells the information accurately. But writers know that every guide to good writing insists that the writer must SHOW NOT TELL.
So what is wrong with telling? Well, it is very limiting, in that it is all about you, the writer, and your experience of this story. But your reader does not want, or even care about, your experience. Each reader wants to experience it for themselves. And since this is not possible – after all, you are creating a fictional scenario here – the reader wants to vicariously experience everything the character is experiencing. Your telling of the event is not enough. You must create that vicarious experience for the reader. And the good news is that this is easier than you may have imagined. All you need to do is to carefully:
- identify the senses involved,
- recreate this sensory experience for the reader.
This means writing the physical sensations of the character – what she or he could see, smell, hear, taste, touch. This almost always takes more words, and also takes longer to create and write. For example, consider this sentence:
Barry felt very excited as he watched the postman coming along the road, because he was expecting his exam results in the mail.
This tells the reader of what is happening, in a cool detached, factual manner. There is no attempt to engage the reader’s interest, to have the reader feel the experience, to see, hear, taste, smell or touch as if the reader were the character. That is a perfect example of the dead limitations of telling. Now look at a second example, one which shows the same information.
Barry peered along the dusty road, shading his eyes from the hot morning glare. Silence. Surely the postie was due by now? He glanced at his watch again, and held it to his ear; maybe it had stopped? No, there was a faint ticking. Or was that his heartbeat? He rubbed his hands together, a thin papery sound in the silence, and grimaced at the slow curl of dread in his guts. This was too cruel, waiting for the exam results. If only he had more confidence in himself… But the last results had been so disgraceful, so disappointing. He felt again the hot flush of shame even now, a year later.
There. A faint buzzing, the mailman’s bike. Only a minute or two now…
The second example pulls the reader into the story, by using the sensory perceptions of hearing, temperature awareness (external and internal), sight, emotional memories with physical links. And suddenly, Barry is a real person, one with whom a reader can identify and care about.
So ‘show don’t tell’ is a very powerful technique to inject life and energy into your story. Unfortunately, it is also the easiest to forget to use, because you are in a rush to tell the story, you are excited and want to get to the punch line. SLOW DOWN! As you write, imagine you are watching the story as if it were a movie, and be sure to include tiny details of sensory perceptions, to give the reader that vicarious experience.
And allow your reader to vicariously experience the answer to their eternal question ‘How does it feel?’