(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?