Something of Value

Stories are never really about what happens but about what it feels like when something happens. We don’t really care that our heroine is being chased by a killer, we care what it feels like when she is being chased. If she is an off-duty police officer, she will feel one way; if she is a cheerleader, she will probably feel another. In this way, all stories are really a trace of emotion conveyed through characters in conflict. And nothing amplifies a feeling more than specific details. There is no heat in the sentence: Holly was angry. In many ways, it is as emotionally neutral a sentence as: Holly was a mother of two. There is much more heat if I write: Holly came home and dropped her purse on the floor and sighed. Even from the front door she could see a sink full of dishes. Two sons home from school for the summer and a husband out of work, and cleaning every square foot of the house still fell to her.

This is why writing teachers implore their students to fill their stories with specific details. This is why it is usually better to say a character arrived at the meeting with one shirttail untucked and a pear-shaped stain on his pocket, than looking disheveled. Writer and reader alike want to feel this imaginary world as completely as if they were living in it, which, for the duration of the telling, they might as well be.

All of this detail-choosing and showing-and-not-telling is done not the name of good writing, but in the name sharing something of value. As it happens, all that humans actually value is what they feel. Everything humans think they value, they value only because of how that thing seems to make them feel. This is good news for storytellers. We have nothing whatsoever to offer the world but pages filled with feelings caged in words, feelings loosed when opened by reader’s imagination.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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