From Brain to Page – A blast from the past

(The next several weeks are going to be hit-or-miss for me on the blogging front. Today is a miss. So here’s a blast from the past from 2015. The post may be a rerun but the advice and opinions are still valid.–ASG)

One of the biggest challenges we face as writers is getting what we see in our heads onto the written page. We live with our characters and settings for so long as we plot and plan and then get down to the actual writing. Our characters are alive to us and we see the world through their eyes. That’s a good thing except when it’s not.

It’s a good thing when we let ourselves listen to those characters and yet we still hold enough control over them to make sure they tell us everything the reader needs to know as the story progresses. That doesn’t mean we have to lay everything out on the first page. But it does mean we have to sprinkle cookie crumbs of plot throughout. The last thing we want is to make our reader mad because we suddenly pull a rabbit out of our hat and reveal the killer as someone who has only walked onstage once, and in such a way as they were forgotten. That is when the book — or tablet — go flying against the wall and none of us want that.

But there is more to making sure we get the details down on paper than just making sure we don’t pull an ending out of nowhere. We need to paint a picture of sorts for our readers that lets them know not only what our characters are doing and thinking but where and when they are as they do it. We need to let them see what our characters are seeing just as we need to let them feel what our characters, at least our POV characters, feel.

Sarah beat that lesson into me — and, unfortunately, it is one I sometimes forget — early into our friendship. I’d made the mistake of telling her that I sometimes wrote. When she finally pressured me into sending her a sample — yes, pressured, complete with pointy boots — I waited in fear, knowing she would tell me my writing sucked eggs. Part of me even wanted her to because then I could go back to just writing for pleasure and then throwing it into a drawer or under the bed.

What she did instead was start mentoring me. The one thing she kept hitting me on was setting. I needed to let the reader see where my POV character was. If Mac Santos walked into her boss’ office, I needed to give at least a sense of what that office looked like, not only so Mac could react to it but so the reader could start getting an insight into the boss. She was right and, if I’m honest, it is something I still have to work on.

Why am I harping about this so early this morning? It was something I was reminded of during the last meeting of my local critique group. We saw both ends of the spectrum when it comes to putting your reader into the scene. In one, we were drawn into the story by not only the bleak dystopian setting and fast paced plot. Even when we had a question or concern about the chapter we were critiquing, the unanimous decision of the group was that we felt like we were part of the story because we could see and feel what the POV character was going through.

The other end of the spectrum was the opening for a novel where we knew what was happening but not why and certainly not when and where. This has been one of the challenges for the particular member, someone new to writing. They have a story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. There are emotional peaks and valleys. But this particular writer is having a hard time getting all he sees in his head onto the page.

It would be easy to simply nod and tell him that he’s improving — which he is — and not give a solid critique of his work. That’s especially true because everyone in the group likes him. But that isn’t why I started the group so long ago. A critique group isn’t worth anything if you don’t give honest critiques, with suggested solutions, to help writers improve their craft. But this was beyond me. Or I thought it was.

Then, as the group discussed his chapter, I slowly started realizing what was happening. He thought he had given us the information we were missing. In his mind, when he read his submission, all the information we wanted was there. Hmm.

So, I read aloud the first paragraph and then asked him one question. When he listened to me reading the excerpt, what did he see in his mind? I had him tell us, in detail, the picture he saw and the light bulb went off — for both of us, I hope. Suddenly, we knew where the setting was. We knew the time of day and weather. We knew what the characters in the scene were doing and why. We knew their relationship and we started getting a hint at their motivation. That one paragraph, suddenly turned into several pages.

Better was seeing the impact this had on the rest of the group. Not only did they suddenly see the story shaping and want to know more, I could see them thinking about their own work with this in mind. Since I still have to remind myself to toss in those details because they can and do make a story richer, I understood. I also understood something else, it is important to remember these lessons, no mater how many books or short stories you’ve written.

So here is my question to you: how do you try to pull your reader into your work? Second, do you think about setting when writing, and how it can play into the plot and atmosphere?


  1. This is precisely why I love having people whine and gripe about what they don’t see or understand in my partly-baked stuff — because their remarks stimulate creation of what the story needs, since now I’ve gotta explain it, somehow, somewhere… My best work has all been in response, however distant, to an early-reader’s reactions or complaints.

    1. This is why alpha and beta readers are so necessary. It’s hard to always remember that what we see in our head might not make it onto the page. They keep us honest, in a manner of speaking.

  2. I’ve been tending to write short lately. The WIP is showing me the folly of that.

    I had my agent getting her orders and then bam, there she is, riding into . . .

    No, first she has to wrangle the other side’s diplomats to get permission to visit their world, then once there she has to dodge her own diplomats who want to manage her visit, then she has to buy a horse . . . All with descriptions of the taxi to the horse auction, to the feed store for supplies, to the streets, and the countryside . . . And now she’s finally riding into . . .

    The alpha readers love the new version.

    Right. Note to self, do not scrimp on the details.

    1. Exactly. I’m seeing that in the series I’m about to relaunch. Between details I should have put in and didn’t, and the improvement (at least I hope it’s an improvement) in my writing, there’s a lot of red on those pages right now. And, like you, my beta readers prefer then “new and improved” version.

  3. It’s hard enough to figure out what you’ve actually put on the page compared to what’s in your head and then there’s the darned “blue curtain” issue where new writers have been told that they shouldn’t include anything on the page that isn’t absolutely vital to the story and then get a weird idea of what that means.

    1. Following a rule over a cliff because you don’t yet have enough experience to unpack it and understand the exceptions, and the exceptions to the exceptions, and how to zig-zag all of them for artistic effect, so you end up following it to the letter as if the meaning of the rule were the sum of the dictionary definition of the words in it.

      Been there, done that, you know the rest.

    2. Yep. I finally started telling the new writers in my crit group to make two lists: one of the senses and one with “who, what, when, where, why and how” on it. I recommended they have at least one item from each list on every page. No, they don’t have to pull a Michener and build the world in every book, but they have to give us enough detail that we “see” the world as their POV character does.

  4. One of my many unfinished works opens* with a loving description of a forest the protagonist is walking through (on another planet). Emphasis on its garden-like symmetry and beauty. This is followed by the heroine having an extended argument with herself over whether she should love the forest for its symmetry and beauty–or hate it for its garden-like qualities. Thus, hopefully, setting up both the world (earthlike but different) and the society (Sierra Clubbers–garden = man-made = BAD!). Both bits of info being very plot-related.

    *After a prologue that sets up the problem for the story

  5. This is something I have a lot of trouble with because the answer to, “What do I see in my head?” is, “Nothing.” As far as I can tell, I don’t have a visual imagination. Whether it’s my writing or someone else’s, I don’t have a movie going on in my head. I just hear the words, and that’s enough for me.

    It’s difficult for me to remember that other people don’t work that way. In my current WIP, I have no physical description of the main character. If you ask me what she looks like, my answer is, “I dunno. Does it matter? This isn’t a story about her becoming a fashion model.” I need to remember that other people will be trying to see this in their heads, and to do that, they need description, even of things that don’t directly affect the story.

    1. I tend to give very little visual description of my POV characters. Mainly because they don’t think about how they look. It has always bothered me to read books, especially in 1st person POV, where you get these long, detailed descriptions of a character’s appearance. I also tend not to overdo on the description of the POV character because the reader can identify better (or so some my beta readers say) if they see themselves as that person. Shrug. Not sure that’s right, but it’s the way I do it.

    2. If you can’t tell us what you see, try describing what SHE feels. The path under her feet (rough, cool and grassy, or dirty city street?), the smells in the air, the feel of the sun on her skin. Which direction is the wind blowing? Is it muggy? Cold and damp?

  6. I tend to go overboard on description, sometimes to the point that the plot vanishes under throes (and throws) of world-building. So a great deal gets whacked out of the manuscript before it ever goes to the Alpha Readers. I’m better than I once was (five pages of description of clothes and an entire house when one character’s dress and one room in the house are needed). I still need to improve.

    And my dialogue tagging is starting to get sucky again. Grrrrr.

    1. Write fat, revise lean. It’s always easier to whack a description than dredge up from memory that detail that you realize you really need here, but didn’t write down.

    2. TXRed, the key is you recognize the world-building issues and deal with them, at least try to, before sending it to anyone. That is a huge hurdle a lot of writers never recognize, much less overcome.

      As for dialog tagging, help me. Please. I have to watch myself there.

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