How is it that some novelists create stories that live and breathe in the minds of readers? Multiple factors come into play, certainly, but one of the greatest is a simple tool you can use to make your writing come alive. I feel particularly qualified to teach on this topic because reviews of my books often mention that readers felt pulled into the story. Some describe reading my books in one sitting. Not to toot my own horn but rather to give you an idea of what I mean, here are a couple of quotes from the reviews of DawnSinger, the first book in my Tales of Faeraven trilogy:
The detailed description of her world caught me into the story and I pictured myself riding along with Shae and Kai. ~ Jennifer Hallmark
I highly praise Janalyn’s addictive writing style- she really sucks you into her fictional world….I didn’t want to leave! ~ Jo Jo’s Corner
Her words awaken the senses until you hear, see, feel and smell the story she weaves. ~ Sharon Coleman
Every writer dreams of touching readers in just this way. To demonstrate one of the best techniques I use to breathe life into my writing, let’s look at a simple example:
The man walked home after work.
This sentence raises more questions than it answers. Who was this man? How did he walk? Which direction was he headed? What surface was he walking on? Details fill in the missing information and pull readers into the story world. Here’s the sentence with more detail added:
Henry shouldered his hoe and limped homeward along the rutted track as fading sunlight angled through the sycamores.
Details Make Your Writing Come Alive
The difference between the two sentences is worth noting. Both describe the same event, but it should be clear that the second sentence is superior to the first. Here’s why:
- The man now has a name and an identity. Even if the man needed to remain nameless, I could set him apart by describing his shaggy hair, lined face, or perhaps a hat he might be wearing.
- The fact that Henry is limping lets the reader see his movement and also adds interest. Walking is a nondescript word to which we often append an adverb for clarity (quickly walking, walking fast, walking without sound, etc.) Because of this, it’s usually not the best choice for describing movement.
- The light slanting through the trees shows rather than tells the time of day. Specifically naming the trees along the track brings them into sharp focus.
Why Writers Should Never Explain
Adding specific details is the secret sauce that makes your writing come alive. It’s that simple, but be careful you don’t go overboard. Piling on the sauce can overwhelm the dish. The reason the second sentence in our example succeeds is that it uses the power of suggestion. Nowhere do I state that Henry is a farmer, but the hoe at his shoulder and the rutted track he walks are strong indicators of his occupation. Light slanting through the sycamores suggests a plethora of other details. Maybe there are frogs thrumming in a ditch, the pungent aroma of mud from puddles in the road, or sunset colors blooming at the horizon. The possibilities are endless.
Your readers should be active participants in your story. Giving them just enough details to imagine the rest is an art every writer should master. Do your readers the courtesy of allowing them to flesh in with their imaginations more details than you could ever write. This is why it’s so important for writers to resist the urge to explain.
The judgmental application of detail will make your story come alive for your readers while still allowing them the ability to create their own story world from the one you suggest.