The Reader’s Experience

“If I just say ‘poverty is horrible’ you may agree, but if I show you a picture of children digging through the trash, you will feel something.” In her presentation for the January Pensters meeting, Dr. Charlotte Pence unpacked the “show don’t tell” mantra so often spoken in writers seminars. She offered attendees two techniques to give readers an experience, rather than a description: imagery and specificity.

To illustrate the process, Pence led the group through an exercise aimed at extracting the details of an experience while discarding any reactions. This allows readers to fill in their own emotional responses, rather than be told how the writer or characters feel.

For the details that remain, specificity is key. During a second exercise, attendees replaced general statements like “she ate lunch” with distinct descriptions. Pence noted “the person with a Pastrami sandwich and cream soda is very different than the one eating yogurt and a quarter cup of diced kiwi fruit. By substituting just one phrase, readers can begin to form a picture of the character.