Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 6: 20/20 vision

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month six:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 6: 20/20

This post is one of the most important in our series, “Writing The Third Dimension,” so “listen up” (as one of my favorite teachers used to say.)  Employing the following technique can turn an ordinary novel into that book you just can’t put down.

For years this technique was a secret owned by only the most elite bestselling novelists, but then somebody normal – like you and me – figured it out, and now we can all use it to our advantage. Hooray!

File:Conrad von Soest, 'Brillenapostel' (1403).jpg

That secret is to allow the reader to see life through the 20/20 vision of the character’s eyes instead of the one-person-removed vision of the author. It’s all about showing, not telling. Showing is more difficult to do, but every time an author forsakes the showing approach for the easier and quicker I’ll-just-tell-you method, the reader is shortchanged and the story suffers.

Compare these two paragraphs: (Warning: neither one is great literature. I’m just trying to prove my point!)

1) A deep scum-covered pond lapped against the steps of the back porch. The whole house leaned toward the water as though it would someday sink beneath the dark surface. A tangle of willow trees grew at the edges of the pond, obscuring it from anyone on the road.

2) Devon stepped out on the back porch. His throat tightened. The whole backyard was a dark scum-covered pond. Water lapped against the porch steps, and Devon felt his feet slide against the rotting boards. He grabbed the porch rail. He couldn’t swim. If he fell in, he would never get out, and the tangle of willow that grew around the pond was so thick that no one on the road would ever see him.

Paragraph one doesn’t pull you in like paragraph two. Why? Paragraph one is description only. Paragraph two adds the sweet spice of emotion, because the reader is seeing the scene through the character’s eyes.

It’s hard for an author to admit, but characters are usually a lot more interesting than any author ever could be. When my readers pick up one of my novels about Alaska, 7000 B.C., they  don’t want to hear about it from someone who has never been there (like Sue Harrison). They want to hear about it from someone who is living there right now (like the woman Chagak in Mother Earth Father Sky).

I suggest that you practice the writing skill of showing-not-telling by looking through your own manuscript or through a book you are reading. When you find a paragraph of pure description (There are times when pure description is needed – a later post about that!) , rewrite it from a character’s up-close, 20/20, emotion-drenched point of view!

Have fun! Any questions?


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back July 25, 2013, for part 7.


14 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 6: 20/20 vision

  1. Great post! This will come in handy!


  2. Thank you, Erik! I hope your writing is going well for you. Do you have more time in the summer to write, or are you even busier than the rest of the year with all kinds of summer activities?


  3. Another great post, Sue. I remember when I first started writing I didn’t know the difference until I read two paragraphs such as the ones you just posted here and then it clicked! Examples really show the difference as many people don’t understand what “show don’t tell” really means.It’s an important lesson for writers to learn, although I’ve read books in the past that was mostly telling and not very satisfying.


  4. Nicole L. Bates

    Great advice, and thanks for the example Sue! I’m still working on this so I really like the “20/20, emotion-drenched” description. It helps me to think about being in the character’s skin, looking through his/her eyes. Thank you for sharing.


  5. This is an important post! One always needs reminding. Thanks Sue.


  6. I’m like Laura. I was in my early 30s, just finishing years of research for Mother Earth Father SKy, ready to embark on actually writing the novel, and trying to figure out why some novels grabbed me by the throat (or the heart) and wouldn’t let go. Back then people didn’t talk much about “show don’t tell.” But things finally clicked and I “got” it. What a difference in my writing.


  7. Nicole, how is it going for you with your writing?


    • Nicole L. Bates

      Writing is going well, Sue! Thanks for asking. I recently finished a rewrite on my first novel and am back to querying. I’m working on a new, unrelated, novel that’s about 21k words so far, and I’m learning a lot along the way; mostly patience. 🙂 I hope your e-books are doing well!


  8. I always need these little reminders. Thanks so much!


  9. It seems I am a bit late to this post but just the same, it is a great post even weeks later. I love the examples and this is definitely going to not only help my writing but my reviewing as well. Nice post.


    • Summers get busy, Suzanne! Thank you for your kind compliments!


    • Thank you! You’re never too late to comment. I’ve always felt that reviewing books helps my own writing tremendously. Getting down to those nuts and bolts of why a book does or doesn’t work makes me step away from the story and characters and look hard at the book as an artistic expression and also as a form of communication.


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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