Tuesday, September 22, 2015

It's Alive!

What makes a story come to life? Not Pumpkin Spice Latte, but I'd argue that it helps in the process.

I believe there are many things that work together to make an experience for the reader, something they feel and not just know. Behind the scenes elements are important. Can the text be understood? Are the verbs strong? How's the spelling and grammar? But really, the reader doesn't know or care about writing dos and don'ts. I know I never recognized 'I was running.' as weaker than "I ran" until I studied how-to-write books.

So what exactly is 'it'? What is the thing that engages a reader?

As an editorial assistant, I often sound like a broken record. "This scene is not immediate. I'm not immersed in the story." Too often, instead of getting sensory details and emotion I get a flat list of events. I know the 'show don't tell' advice has been repeated so often that it's easy to dismiss, but don't be too quick to ignore it just because everyone says it. The advice is the core of immersive storytelling.

Here's an example of what I mean:

"Melissa went to Barnes and Noble every Tuesday and sat in the Starbucks where she would enjoy a seasonal cup of coffee while working on her computer. Some days she wrote, other days she reviewed, but today she wrote a blog post because she was determined to put one out every weekday."

Not bad. Not really. The reader gets an idea of what Melissa is doing. Great. The sentences are clear. Nothing technically wrong. But do you care? Do you really? Heck, I'm the main character here and I'm about to go to sleep.

Let's see if I can take the same scene and make it something a bit more engaging.

Melissa limped into the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble, her computer bag bumping against her hip. She shouldn't have run last night-- pushing herself to run a 5k had led to a knee injury. Urgent Care would be her best bet, but she wouldn't have time until Thursday.

"Hey! How are you doing today Melissa?" 

She came in every Tuesday to review and write while her youngest was at dance class. Smells of coffee made this corner of the bookstore feel more welcoming. The barista, Mike, smiled extra wide. "You gonna have Pumpkin Spice today?"

"Sure thing. Thanks." After handing over a five, she plunked down in her usual chair and opened her laptop. For a long moment she let her hands rest on the keyboard with her eyes closed. Reviewing may be impossible today. She didn't have anything nice to say. And writing? Blah. The hum of the cooler holding drinks drowned out the canned music coming over the speakers but she still wished she hadn't lost her headphones.

Mike sat her latte next to her computer. "Here you go. I hope you have a good day."

"Thanks, you too." She took a sip of her latte and opened a new blog post. She had said she would go the extra mile and while she couldn't do it literally for a while, she could keep her word and do a new post.

The second way is longer but offers detail that the first didn't: the type of drink, the price, the barista's name. Showing also allows the mindset and emotions of the main character to come through (Injured knee, grumpy, not wanting to write). Instead of listing the basics of what happened, I did my best to take the reader there.

This is an example of the difference showing and not simply telling can make, but there's another element that is needed for the reader to be engaged. We have the body, but is it alive yet? 

No, we need some conflict. An immediate scene puts the reader there and feels alive, but conflict keeps them engaged and reading to see what happens next.

I'm out of time. Dance class ends soon. To be continued tomorrow... with conflict.


  1. I find I do a lot of writing while "waiting" for my kids too. You're doing awesome with these blogs! Keep up the great work! Can't wait to see conflict tomorrow :)

    1. I can't thank you enough for your encouragement! It means a lot to me. :)


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