(First posted on Adventures in Text)
Often when we write, we see the story like a movie in our heads. Sometimes the picture is complete; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes only certain elements are in focus. Sometimes it all rolls by in a technicolor wave we can’t hope to do justice to with our meagre writer’s hands.
Whatever that picture is, it’s one of our challenges as writers to transplant it into the mind of our readers. We have to write in such a way that they see what we do. Words are the film and the book is the projector, whether it be electronic or paper.
Actually building an image in someone else’s mind is impossible (at least it is with current, non-invasive technology, so let’s go with it as fact for now). So how do we do it?
Easy: we cheat. We make the reader build the image themselves.
One writer described it as ‘renting space in your reader’s imagination’. It’s your reader’s imagination that you need to speak to, because this is what will do all the heavy lifting for you. All you need to do is give it the right prompts.
When you’re describing something, less is more.
Building an image in a reader’s mind isn’t about describing every single little detail, every tiny shift, and all the spaces in between. The brain is an amazing machine and can operate well on shockingly little information. It’s about giving the reader the right details so that they’ll fill in the rest for you. It’s about giving them enough to understand the scene. It’s about clues and nudges and those key things that you need to bring into focus.
Your reader has a hungry brain, ripe and empty, and it’ll slather all over itself to work for you, so use it shamelessly. Don’t waste a single word.
But where do flowery language and florid descriptions fit in? Readers enjoy those too (or some do!). They have their place and the same rule applies: you don’t need to describe absolutely everything. Describing one perfect plant in a garden might take half a page (or four pages), and that might be all you need for the entire garden; you don’t have to describe each and every plant the same way. Again, with the right cues, the reader will do it without thinking.
This rule of thumb doesn’t just apply to descriptions, either. Action can be picked out in its key moments (do we need to hear about every jarring step, or the angle at which the protagonist slid around three different corners, or just that last slither to a stop when the quarry is within reach?) and the reader will assume the whole journey; reactions can be hinted at (especially when the reader knows the characters well); and background information can be inferred from many sources (avoiding the infodump).
Focus on what’s truly important to your story: that’s what should appear in your words. You are renting space in someone else’s head and setting up spotlights. Your reader will come in and turn all the other lights on. They’ll join all of those dots while you’re busy doing something bigger, and they won’t even realise they’re doing it. They’ll paint the walls and tile the floor. They’ll figure out how to get from one spotlight to the other and sort out the plumbing. They’ll draw patterns and pitch the lighting at just the right level. They’ll know how long the character’s hair is without being told, and know what that curl of the lips means. They’ll hear voices in their head without any aural input. They’ll be dazzled by your stars and colour the sky in between them at the same time.
So don’t worry about putting every detail into your piece: worry about putting in the right details. And trust your readers to do the rest.
+May 22, 2019, 12:02 a.m. 0 Report Embed 0
(First posted on Adventures in Text)
It’s so tempting to look at the book market and think ‘ooo, stories about albino baboons finding their one true banana are selling well, I’ll write one of those!’. It’s also very easy to think ‘I have this wonderful story in my head, but no-one will be interested in it’.
Both of those thoughts are wrong. They will lead you to a sub-optimal outcome and, most likely, a weaker story.
Because that wonderful story in your head? The one that is scrabbling to be written, whispering to you when you least expect it (or are trying to sleep), or growing every time you trip over something in your day-to-day life? That’s the story your heart wants to tell.
When you write it, it’ll be full of all the passion that is pushing it into your consciousness. It’ll carry with it the love you feel for it, even if the story itself is dark and painful, or disturbing, or tortured, or sappy, or playful. It will carry those emotions with it all the way to your readers, like a heady scent.
When a story is forced and not felt, it shows. It lacks the fire of true purpose, and if you don’t believe in it, right down to your core, neither will your readers.
If it makes you laugh and cry and hide under the bed, it’ll do the same for your readers.
Does it mean you can’t experiment and try something different? Does it mean you shouldn’t try to write something marketable? Of course not.
But if you want to write the best story you can, fall in love with it. Find a way. Build in the things that move you. If it touches your heart, that’s a good start. If writing it spills your insides out onto paper, even better.
Writing what moves you will move others, and they will love it even when they’re crying.
+May 8, 2019, 12:03 a.m. 0 Report Embed 1