Writing Secrets: Allow us to feel it too

 In The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

As human beings, we know how it feels to live through intense emotion so, as writers, we want our readers to experience the same shivers and beats of the heart.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But how do you allow your readers access to that emotion? I was recently treated to contrasting treatments of a growing attraction between two people, which demonstrated beautifully that restraint works far better than over-writing.

A manuscript we were looking at contained the following extract in which a woman feels attraction towards the man she has met a couple of times before:

Her stomach lurched. She hoped he couldn’t feel the flash of electricity that had just darted through her.

His thigh seemed closer now and she made sure her leg didn’t touch it. His closeness was unbearable. She could feel his every breath, smell his Old Spice. Every movement he made rippled through her own body. His gentle laugh made her want to giggle like a twelve year old. When he shifted in his seat, his leg touched hers for a second time.

Comes across just a touch OTT, right? It doesn’t tempt me to breathe deeply along with her. And yet, this is what every one of us might be tempted to do if we were writing this scene.

At the same time, I happened to be reading a book about two young men, fighting in the Great War, who developed an attraction to each other.

Their attraction developed so slowly, I was hardly aware of it for the first couple of meetings. The author allowed us to recognise it in the same gradual, and delicate, way in which the men did. At their first meeting, the author showed us the young men speaking easily and making each other laugh.

At a later meeting, the protagonist brushed against the other man. No more than this. On another occasion, he noticed the way a detail of his friend’s grin and the next, the way his hand rested briefly on the back of his neck.

After that, if hand hovered above hand, my own heart beat and I felt the same tension and intensity experienced by the young men.

The thing is (and I’ve said this before), readers are clever. Everything in your narrative is there for a reason and readers recognise this. Mention a touch, we realise it’s significant. It shows us the protagonist has noticed it. If you mention another, it means he’s intensely aware of it, and we feel that tension along with him.

The trick is to make your reader experience emotion, rather than simply be told of it. The way to do that is to restrain yourself. Show us less, we’ll feel it more.


Join Jo-Anne for a bit of literary fun for our Creative Saturday at Casa Labia in Muizenberg on 3 February

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