Pep Talk from Mitali Perkins

photo of Mitali Perkins

Dear Writers,

By now your hair needs a trim, your room’s a mess, and your Facebook friends are worried you’re dead or in a monastery. At this point in a story, voices in our heads whisper that we’re wasting time.We should be doing something more valuable, right? Why are we spending hours alone in front of our computers? How does that help a hurting planet?

Don’t listen. Storytelling is a powerful act. Stories have the mysterious power to widen hearts and change minds. The human psyche is never quite the same after receiving a story.

In some ways, novelists have even more storytelling power than the best Hollywood directors. Unlike Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson, we share the direction of our story with our readers’ imaginations. Together, an author and a reader cast the characters, create setting, and decide on pacing. Because written and oral stories require more audience participation from story consumers, I think they embed more deeply into the psyche.

We novelists also get access to all five human senses. Moviemakers can provide a top-notch experience of sight and sound, but that’s as far as they go. Since our co-director, the imagination, resides within the reader’s mind, we also can engage the senses of taste, smell, and touch.

As you’re writing, here are three tips to empower your co-director.

First, step back and imagine with all five senses the setting of your story. Add details and strong nouns to help the reader see, taste, touch, smell, and hear what’s happening in scenes.

Second, cut the emotional labels in your story—words like “happy” or “scared.” Those are heavy-handed words that take power away from readers. Use place instead to convey emotion. How would the weather and sky look to your main character if she’s cheerful or terrified? How would the air smell and feel? Sensory details reveal or emphasize her emotional condition so that readers feel it themselves.

Third, remember the common advice—show, don’t tell? Telling in writing can be a bossy act. Showing gives your reader more space to control the story. For example, don’t write that Jonas is sloppy and always late for work—write instead that he grabs a handful of stale Cheerios before racing to catch the train. Respect your reader to infer from this detail that Jonas is somewhat careless and disorganized.

So keep writing, leaving plenty of room for your readers’ imaginations to shape the story. And don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. You’re a storyteller, and you change the world.

– Mitali Perkins

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Mitali Perkins was born in Kolkata, India, and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was in second grade. She has written nine novels for young readers, including Rickshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years) and Bamboo People (an American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults, starred in Publishers Weekly as “a graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship.”). Mitali graduated from Stanford University in Political Science and received her Masters in Public Policy from U.C. Berkeley. After spending 13 winters in Boston, Mitali recently moved back to California to live and write in the San Francisco Bay Area.