What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

I probably know the answer to this question as well as you do: any mention of SEX usually creates a spike in the visitors to any web site, but you can’t talk about SEX all the time. So in between we bloggers have to talk about less stimulating – sorry – things such as genre or structure or titles. Last week’s post about the structure of a trilogy appeared to go down like a lead budgie, even though it was on my mind and I wanted to write about it, so I did. What’s currently on my mind may be unattractive to the average blog reader, but it’s interesting to me, so here goes.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the link between visual images and what I write, and I’m asking myself  “Is my best writing ‘filmic?'”. When  I look at other authors’ writing I most enjoy, they seem to create strong visual images. I can see, not just feel or understand, what the writer is presenting to me. The first paragraph of Dickens’ Bleak House and its depiction of London fog for example, or the opening of The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, about the grasslands of Australia. Just a few nights ago, I dreamed very vividly about the opening scene of book that’s currently taking shape in my head. It was intensely visual, like the opening scene of a film. I could see how the camera would pan, the close-ups and the wider shots. It woke me up, a sign that this scene was in a sense ‘cooked’ and ready.

The problem with the description I’m looking for is that it can cut across the dictum about ‘show don’t tell’. You can’t represent the visual image I have in mind through the speech of one of the characters, without defying every rule of authentic dialogue. A passing by-stander wouldn’t say to herself, or her dog, ‘Look at the green of the samfire and how it’s growing in the mud round our feet,’ or ‘I’m struck by the pale gleam of the rising sun on tide-washed sand’. If the reader is to see the scene as I see it I need to describe it, in my authorial voice, the voice I’m trying to use as little as possible.

Maybe my aversion to this authorial intervention is misplaced and needs to be re-considered. Sadly, I’ve received very little detailed feedback about my writing so far, but  I was once told by an author I respect that what she loved was this – the opening paragraph of Chapter 5 in ‘A Good Liar’.

“August. A hazy Sunday. Breeze from the south, hardly stirring the heavy trees. The land breathed slowly, imperceptibly, as if asleep under the sun. Tides crept up and down shingle and sand, silent save for a creamy whisper at the edge. On the beach the air shimmered over warm stones. Fields and valleys smelled of grass. Sheep crowded into shade, panting.”

There’s no action in this piece, except the movement of the tide. There’s no dialogue. I needed this scene-setting passage to explain a significant encounter for one of my characters. And the opening scene of the new book will need the same sense of place, as the setting is almost a character in itself, influencing both the people and the events of the story. What I really want is to find the words that will share the image in my head with the reader in an unforgettable way, that the reader will want to read again and again and share with others, like a poem.

So maybe I’ll think again about ‘show don’t tell’ and allow myself the indulgence of  carefully worded description every now and then, something I’ll enjoy reading out loud, to myself and to others.


5 thoughts on “What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

  1. One of the joys of reading is to envision new landscapes–settings different from the familiar. Where might I want to travel? What would I experience? How might I feel? These are questions that simmer below the surface when I am reading fiction or place-oriented non-fiction. I agree that place is a strong a character in your novels and I would welcome more experience with that character.

    Also, BTW, I enjoyed your blog about the middle child and I loved the second book! I know what it feels like to write into a perceived void–who is reading? What do they think?–and I applaud your willingness to ask. Whatever else a blog is, it is a conversation, which the reader carries forward in her head. Your blog today reminds us that the blogger might also want to hear the reader’s end of that conversation.

    Thanks for “putting it out there.”

  2. Also, I am not sure that “show, don’t tell” precludes painting a picture with words. I believe you can show “It was a sunny day” without telling “It was a sunny day” if “sunny day” will add to the story. And sometimes “It was a sunny day” especially if it helps to set up a contrast or a causal relationship, can work. I know you are referring to a more in-depth development of setting, which I have absolutely no idea how to do, but It struck me that showing and telling might be interpreted in more than one way. I write only non-fiction, so I am speaking from my experience as a reader, i.e., this is simply an opinion.

  3. I think these writing ‘rules’ are quite dangerous. Rather like those who say you should excise all adverbs and adjectives from your work. Sure, don’t over do them. Same with show don’t tell. No one wants 19th Century literature repeated today. It’s how you get the balance right that counts; the passage you site is fabulous and would be worse (and more importantly lose its impact) if you tried to show it in some way. Having read your trilogy I’d say you have a pretty sound instinct for when you need to tell and when you need to show.

  4. Thanks for that. I’m getting more relaxed about ‘the rules’ as I get more practiced and confident, and there are definitely times when the reader reads a few well-considered ‘tellings’ to get into the spirit of a scene.

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