Writing Tip: The Reader Is Not Inside Your Head

Introducing: Wednesday Writing Tips

We’re pleased to introduce our newest feature here on the Freedom Forge Press blog. Editor Val Muller will be writing a periodic column featuring mini writing lessons inspired by reading through slush piles, published novels, and working with writers on all stages of the editing process. The feature will run weekly until the list of topics is exhausted. At that point, it will run “as needed.” We’ll be posting a list of all topics here for easy reference. You can also subscribe to our blog to receive email updates each time we post.

We hope you find this feature helpful and encourage you to share it with other authors and aspiring authors.

Write on!

Writing Tip: The Reader Is Not Inside Your Head

Probably the most common problem I see in writing is that, though the author clearly has an entire world playing in his or her head, that world is not being conveyed onto the page. This is a common reason for rejection or request for rewrite. Though it’s true that a writer should “trust the reader” and avoid over-explaining, a writer should also not assume that a reader shares the same background knowledge and information about a topic.

Remember those coloring books we had as kids? Think of the level of detail as providing the outlines of our world. Trust your readers to fill in the proper colors (in reading, most of us will fill in an ocean with some variation of blue), but make sure they have a proper outline of what the world is supposed to look like.

To illustrate, consider historical fiction (or even nonfiction). Imagine that the protagonist jumps into a carriage and hurries across town to the port before her beloved’s ship departs for a different continent. Don’t assume the reader shares your idea of a carriage ride. For one, how many horses are pulling this carriage? Is there a driver? Is it an open carriage, or is it enclosed? Are we in a time period when there was not an adequate public sewage system? If so, what smells might the protagonist encounter? Is the road dirt? Packed down and filled with ruts? Cobblestone? Is it a bumpy ride? A smooth one?

Now, you don’t want to kill a reader with details, either. Even in narrative nonfiction, a reader isn’t looking for a historical report. Don’t write, “Mary climbed into the cart, which was a wooden cabin enclosed on all sides with a window on each side. It was pulled by two horses and a driver who sat up front.”

These are boring details. Readers’ brains are going to turn off—if they continue reading at all. Instead, “sneak” these details into the narrative. Whether it’s a thriller, a suspenseful mystery, a love story, or a dystopian tale, readers want to connect emotionally with a character. In any scene, ask yourself: what is the reader supposed to feel regarding the main character? Use that as your goal, and build details to that end.

For instance: let’s say the reader is supposed to be worried for Mary: she really needs to get to the dock in time to stop her would-be fiancé, Thomas, from boarding a ship that would take him on a months-long excursion to a new continent, thereby ending the prospect of a marriage. Let’s say he’s leaving because she turned him down, but she’s had a change of heart. Okay—we have our goal. We feel sorry for Thomas because he’s been turned down, and we sympathize with Mary because she’s made a mistake and is trying to make amends. We also have a natural “countdown” (to ship departure), creating inherent tension in this scene. Now let’s build our details around that emotion:

Mary didn’t even brace herself as the rickety cart bounced on the cobblestone. Instead, she stuck her head out of the carriage’s one window and shouted to the driver. “Please hurry.”

The man pulled his scarf tighter against the chilly morning. His eyes bulged at her audacity, but he kept his tone polite and pointed to the trotting horse. “He’s going as fast as he can, Miss.”

The horse clip-clopped around a rut, but the carriage’s wheel caught in it, slamming the back of Mary’s head into the top of the window. She winced. The wind carried putrid fumes from an open sewer, and Mary swallowed to keep down her breakfast. It was the same wind that would carry Thomas away if she didn’t hurry. She considered climbing out of the moving carriage, freeing the horse and riding it, bareback, to the harbor. But her head pulsed where she hit it, and the world spun around her. She retreated into the carriage and leaned against the seat, hoping the aging horse could win the race against the unfurling sails of The Salty Prayer.

In this example, we learn indirectly that the carriage is closed; the road is cobblestone (and it’s a rough ride); there is only one (aging) horse pulling it; Mary is acting beyond what is proper for the time, but the driver is trying to be polite anyway; there is only a primitive public sewage system; it’s a cold and windy day; the ship Thomas is to board is called The Salty Prayer.

We don’t know what color the carriage is. What color were you picturing? Does it matter to the meaning of the story as a whole? Probably not. Based on the details given, you probably weren’t thinking of a shiny metal spaceship, right? What about the horse? Do we need to know what color he is? In this case, it’s not important. What about the driver? What did he look like in your mind? Did you picture what the open sewer would look like? Does it matter? Even though each reader might have a different description for each of these elements, there were enough details included that we’re all within the same range of possibilities. In a following paragraph, we might add a few details about the other people out that day—seamen, merchants, citizens—to give the reader a glimpse of the world that clearly exists in the author’s mind but does not always make it to paper.

The same applies to settings that are not historical. Imagine a modern high school. Should we assume that all readers have the same idea of what a high school looks like? We probably all have similar ideas, but writers should not assume. If it’s important, for example, that the school has a senior lounge, that detail should probably be described. Are there administrators roaming the halls all the time, or is it easy for a student to roam around undetected? If I’m a reader whose principal seemed to be omniscient and omnipresent, I might question the validity of a work in which students are sneaking around all the time—unless I’m given a few details to explain the culture of the book’s particular high school.

In short: think about the emotion and tension you want to convey to the reader. Use that as the central energy of your scene. Then, build details around that energy, making sure they all contribute to the feeling the reader will take away from the scene. If you want readers to be disgusted, show them why they should be. If you want them to feel sorry for the character, let them share in the character’s suffering and goals. When you sit down to edit your scene, try to take yourself out of your own head, and ask yourself: as a reader completely disconnected from my own background and preconceived notions, what would I actually take away from this scene?

You might find the answer is more bland and boring than you would like.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

What do you think?