Early in my writing journey I was given two pieces of invaluable advice, which might sound obvious to most:
- utilise all five of the human senses when writing descriptive prose, and
- less is more.
Sounds easy, right?
Not so much. How many times have you read a novel that has spent paragraphs or pages setting up a scene? And how did you respond?
I’ll sum it up in one word: distracting!
This is particularly pertinent if you’re writing action or suspense, but even if you’re not, too much description can draw draw the reader away from what is happening in the here and now, making it difficult to stay invested in the story.
Set the scene up for the reader (not yourself!)
As an author, it’s often easy to get caught up in our own world and forget all about the reader. If you’re a plotter, you may have spent hours upon hours carefully outlining your world in all its intricacies. Even if you’re a pantser, you might find yourself creating your world as the words hit the page and it’s just so awfully exciting.
There’s this little person called ‘the reader.’ I know, I know – your writing can be so personally fulfilling that sometimes the reader can seem like a foggy spectre off in the distance. And if you’re writing the type of genre that requires lots of research – perhaps you’re a historical author – then it seems like such a waste not to include all of the information you’ve learned in your many hours poring over the internet and books.
Proceed with caution – less can be more when setting a scene
Why oh, why? you lament. It’s so hard to cut your hard fought words when at times they were so difficult to get down on the page in the first place.
Quite simply – you need to trust your reader enough to hand them the paintbrush.
If you spell out every single little aspect of a scene, you’re not giving your reader enough latitude to create the world in their own mind. By not giving them that latitude, you deprive them of the right to befriend, relate to, and ultimately ‘own’ the characters for themselves. Let me explain:
Let your readers lose themselves in your world
Have you ever had those days when the world in the book you’re reading seems more real than the world outside your window? And didn’t it just feel like a major pain to have to drag yourself back to reality and participate in the real world when what you are reading is just so damn good?
Did you ever stop to reflect on why that is?
A big part of the reason is because the world in that book starts to become your world. Our imagination is incredibly fertile and all it needs is a few key cues and it will run off and construct the world all by its clever self.
Allow your characters to feel the world around them
So how do we help our readers ‘create the world’ in their mind, using our writing?
There’s a multitude of techniques, but I’ve found one of the the most important is this: let your characters feel the world around them.
Refrain from going into lengthy narrative about the way the sun is appearing on the horizon, instead describe how your characters are experiencing it. It might be the sting of the hot sun on her skin, the way the sun warms your character to the core, or the harsh glare causing her to squint…but see how the minute we put a scene in this context, using any of the five senses, it becomes more real and immediate? By using any of the five senses your scene remains active and tied to the present, which in turn then makes it easier for you to move the action along or keep the reader focused on a conversation as it unfolds.
Set your story free
Trust. It’s a little word, but it has big implications and it applies to so many facets of the writing process.
You need to be far along in your writing journey to trust your writing ability. You also need to trust your story and your characters.
And then, when you are ready – and only then – you need to set your story free and entrust it to your readers. Good luck!
What are the techniques you use when writing to make your story as real as possible?