Someone comes and tells you that your writing does not hold her attention. ‘There isn’t much happening’. ‘Your language is nice, the story is good, but … I could not engage with it’.
Huh? But you have put in action. And scenes. And interactions. Then? What the heck?
Maybe this could be because of that perennial Writing Workshop trope. You tell a lot, and show little.
Writing, for the lack of a better description, is a dramatic art. You have failed as a writer if you could not make your reader engage, rather than merely scan. It is your job to paint a picture, to create a scene in her mind. When you are creating the environment and asking the reader to deduce the information (and succeeding, of course), the reader is playing along and participating in the events that unfold, with you.
If you have been able to do that, you have got the reader hooked.
let me try my hand at a couple of examples:
Jack was a handsome man.
Kind of a meh statement. Okay, I understand that you’d probably rather write about what Jack does with his handsomeness, so do not want to spend the time describing the handsomeness, but this kind of meh statement is unpardonable. How about the below one? Short and simple.
Jack had the kind of features the few women could resist the urge of taking a second look at.
The reader is in the thick of action immediately, taking a second look at Jack.
It was an old, crumbling house.
I like the word ‘crumbling’, you know. It is a nice, action-oriented adjective – which is wasted on your bland sentence. Not a poor statement, mind. Just a bland one. How about this?
The house gave the impression of a giant machine that has had years of unused, rusted desolation. Creaks and crackling noises could be heard from corners, branches would be coming out of cracks and crevices, and the place gave a general sense of immitigable disrepair.
Better? [Edit: Does sound rather wordy and pompous though, and I don’t like wordy-for-wordy’s-sake]
Okay, now that you have a hang of it, let’s try a more complicated one.
My father was apparently very strict, but he was also affectionate and could look at the lighter side of life. He also liked football.
Do you see the problem with the above sentence? This sentence is okay for a thesis paper, but if your plan is to engage the reader’s senses, you have failed. The reader requires proof, and you have not given it to them. You are asking her to trust you. Why should she? So let’s try to do some showing. Let’s try a different trick. Let’s try a sequence this time, with some dialogue.
I checked my watch. Thirteen minutes past seven in the evening. I knew that I was in for a scolding today. Maybe I will get grounded for a week. Maybe there will be no dinner for me today. Maybe …
As I pushed open the large iron gate and entered the courtyard, Father’s voice came to meet me. “Thirteen minutes late, I hope you know”.
I lowered my head and stood in front of him, not uttering a word.
“Who won?” he asked.
“Who won the match? You were playing St. Patrick’s today, weren’t you?”
I hesitated, then said “We won, Father. 1-0.”
“If I will have to ground you for a week, this will be the reason for it. We beat them 3-0 during our final year. I even scored a goal. How can my son not improve upon my record, huh?”
I looked up at him. His face was still set, but his eyes were smiling. “Go inside”.
“Thank you Father.” And as I was about to run past him into the house, I heard his voice again.
“Your knees, young man. Put some tincture iodine there after you have washed up.”
Note: Most of my writerly knowledge come from a workshop I attended about two years back with the Bangalore Writers Workshop with two amazing ladies, Bhumika Anand and Rheea Mukherjee, as our facilitators; and the most brilliant of batches, the Yaks, as classmates.