~ K. L. Schwengel
Every writer out there is familiar with the concept of Show, Don’t Tell. You all know how it works.
Tell: Frederick was wet and miserable.
Show: The rain plastered Frederick’s hair to his head and soaked through his heavy cloak making it hang across his shoulders like a giant’s arm. Cold rivulets of water trickled under his tunic, slithering down his back and sending a shiver through him. With every step his feet squished in his sodden boots. If he were meant to be this wet, he’d have been born a duck.
That may not be the most masterful writing, but you get the idea. Showing raises the level of intensity by putting the reader in our character’s skin, making them feel, smell, hear, see everything our character is.
But where do you draw the line? When does it become too overwhelming?
There’s no right answer to that question, by the way. It becomes a matter of personal preference. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Personally, I like gritty — or what I’ve recently seen referred to as “grimdark”. I want to read stuff that makes me squirm if it’s making the characters squirm. Not everyone does. Some fantasy authors take that to the extreme and then get dinged for it in reviews. I got dinged for it in First of Her Kind and I didn’t think I was even being all that gritty.
Art must be fearless. That’s the tagline of friend and fellow author Devin O’Branagan and it’s something I tell myself anytime I feel like skimping on the details. If my character is a prisoner in a damp, dark cell, telling my readers the straw strewn on the floor smells bad is . . . well . . . weak. Bad like what? If, as a reader, I wrinkle my nose at the author’s description of what that straw smells like, I’m going to really empathize with that character a whole lot more. As a writer, I want my readers empathizing because that leads to caring.
Fantasy is definitely a genre with several camps. On one side we have the light-hearted, sometimes humorous, epic romp that has the Happy Ever After ending and doesn’t make us squirm in our seats. On the other is the brutally honest, face in the dirt, bugs in your teeth, hard-hitting, pulls no punches type. In between, a mix of the two. As a reader, I definitely lean toward the hard-hitting side. As a writer, I try to find a balance. I don’t want the violence, sex, or realism to ever be termed gratuitous but I realize that is also in the eye of the beholder reader. As long as it is essential to the plot and the character, and happens naturally, then I don’t consider it to be gratuitous
So how far do you go to sink the reader into your character’s skin? As a reader, how uncomfortable are you willing to get? Are there any particular authors you think handle this well, or not so well?