Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lead Your Reader's Imagination

As authors we have to constantly work at perfecting our craft, just as any other endeavor in the arts.  A dancer must practice tirelessly to get the moves down.  A painter must learn to blend colors and work on a canvas.  I don't know of anyone who just picked up a guitar, for example, and played a tune without prior training.

The same is true with writing -- it takes practice and knowledge. As you grow in the craft, you'll notice areas where you've improved but your eye will also become sharpened to observe areas in need of work.  

Here's a few things to look out for:

1) Show, don't tell.
2) Make it succinct
3) Using your senses to sharpen a scene
4) Writing isn't a paint by numbers


Show don't tell.
Sick of hearing this piece of advice yet?  Don't be.  It will follow you as you work at fine-tuning your craft.  As you learn to master the art of showing, not telling, you'll have "ah ha" moments that will leave you elevated.

How do you apply 'show, don't tell'?  

As writers, we need to paint the scene vivid enough our readers become immersed in the world we've created.  They feel as do our characters, whether it be scared, happy, sad or angry, by ways of examples. 

Exercise:
"Henry looked sad."
Think about the above-noted sentence.  If you don't see anything wrong with it, look closer.

Do you feel as Henry does?  Are you pulled in to empathize with him?  Absolutely not!  All you know is the author's POV character observed Henry looked sad.

Think of why Henry appears sad, what characteristics give it away? Is he downcast, does he have tears in his eyes, is he avoiding eye contact?  By using any of these attributes or others you come up with, when mingled in with the atmosphere of the scene, you can show the reader Henry is sad.

By doing so, you will pull them in.  Your reader will share the same concern as the POV character.

Another area is our settings.  Do you we need to describe them in molecule detail?  Absolutely not.  If we chose the right words, they will paint the scene as a masterpiece.

Look at the picture of the tree.  Do you see the outline of the face?  Maybe you are incorporating this in a scene for a fantasy novel, or maybe it's just your POV character's take on this tree overlooking a field.

Exercise:
"The tree stood sentinel on the hill watching over the farmer's field.  The shape of its branches giving the appearance of a facial profile."
Or, what about?
"The tree stood sentinel on the hill.  The shape of its branches contoured as if it had eyes and were watching over the farmer's field."
Feel the difference?

In the second sentence, you can almost envision the tree watching you.  The mention of eyes attribute a face to the shape of the branches.  Lead your reader's imagination.

Be succinct!

We've all of heard of the phrase less is more.  The same applies to our writing.  If something can be conveyed in ten words opposed to thirty and we accomplish this, we're doing our job as writers.  We don't want to overwhelm our readers with a stream of words or we'll lose them.

The best way to check your work for this is to analyze.  Ask yourself as you edit:  Does this word need to be there?  Is a specific sentence needed in a paragraph to convey the point?  Is a specific scene adding to the overall plot?

Sense the underlying denominator?  It's needed, and if it's not, get rid of it!  Your writing has just been sharpened.

Using yours senses to sharpen a scene 

If we don't want your work to be one-dimensional, ante up!  This feature does not only apply to characters.  One dimensional could apply to your setting.

Think about real life.  Close your eyes for a second (okay after reading this post) and focus on your surroundings.  You might be thinking I took your sight away, and ah ha!  

I'm asking you to think of the emotions conjured by your current setting, to hon in on the smells, are you touching anything or anyone, do you hear anything, are you eating something.  In other words, when painting a setting for your reader, do more than simply describe it.  Again, make them feel it!

I've used the same exercise when trying to establish the mood of a scene before.  I'll close my eyes and put myself in the scene's main POV character.  I'll put a piece of paper in front of me and write single words that come to mind.  (You could also use a recorder so you'd just have to say the words.)  When I'm finished I incorporate the feeling of those words in the scene.

When, at all possible, incorporate the other four senses (sound, touch, taste, smell) into your settings and you'll notice a huge improvement.  We'll be helping our reader feel the scene, not just see it with a list of details.

Writing isn't a paint by numbers 

Remember your readers are intelligent.  Give them credit.  You don't have to spell out each sequence of events, or it will read as "and then".  That would be tragic! 

And the thing is, as you sharpen your craft, you'll identify these areas like thorns.  You'll cringe at the observation.

One great piece of advice I've learned along the way is when a character makes a phone call.  Do you need to waste the reader's time with the sharing of hellos?  Nope.  We all get the point.  Have them dial and get into the reason for their calling.  Trust me when I say you won't even miss the greetings.

Think about other areas too.  A character enters their apartment.  Do you need to play out everything from the unlocking the door, opening the door, hanging up their coat?  Absolutely not.  Common sense fills those pieces in.

~~~
As you work to sharpen your writing, you truly will start leading your reader's imagination.  Your words will not be dictation, but a sensory experience.