Your outline, if you’re an outliner, or your first draft, if you’re a pantser, are great places to tell yourself the story you’ve been designing in your head–this happens, and then this! and that! and–wow! this is going to happen! You’re afire with ideas, scribbling notes or tapping keys as quickly as you can before you lose your momentum. When the session is done and you sit back and reread your masterpiece, you discover you have done exactly what I said: told yourself the story. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve done your job. Don’t huff victoriously on your fingernails and polish them on your proud shoulders. You’re not done yet.
Now you have to make the shift to telling the reader the story. The reader can’t visualize what you have in your head unless you show her. So, how do you do that?
Branson parked down the street from the crackhouse. Mary was in there somewhere, and he was going to get her out no matter what it took. He put the keys in his pocket and got out of the car. The house looked quiet, but he couldn’t be sure. He went to the side where the car was parked, put a hand on the engine. It was still warm, and hope rose in his heart. Maybe they hadn’t had time to do anything. He pressed against a wall and listened at the window. He heard her pleading voice. The hair rose on his arm. He had to do something.
No matter what you write, you probably have a scene like this–one that should sizzle with tension, where so much hangs in the balance, one that promises tons of action. But you didn’t write it that way at first. You put down on paper or tapped onto the screen the answer to the question, what happens next? Here, Mary has been kidnapped, and what happens next is that Branson goes after her.
Now it’s time to infuse this paragraph with all the tension it deserves. Be prepared to up your word count, because there is a crackhouse-load of stuff missing from this scene.
What details can you add to the scene to help your reader visualize it? What objects are in the scene?
In the first line alone, we have a street and a crackhouse, so let’s start there.
On the littered and pot-holed street, Branson parked a few dilapidated buildings away from the crackhouse. The once proud single-family residence now listed to the left under its burden of neglect and decay. Puke-green paint peeled from the wood-slat walls. The second porch step had already rotted away. The pillar nearest him no longer stretched from porch to ceiling, but hung precariously under a crumbling roof. A crumbling roof over a crumbling house sheltering crumbling lives.
The secret to describing is visualizing, and one of the goals is to help your reader visualize too. But it doesn’t end with that. The words you choose help to set the mood and tone. They can also help provide insight into the character’s thoughts and attitude. How the character responds to what he sees will develop your reader’s attitude too, but it also allows room for interpretation. How do you read that last line? Do you see sorrow? Sympathy for those with “crumbling lives”? Or do you see disdain? The reader will assimilate everything she knows about the character in order to provide her own interpretation of the line.
Now that we’ve made a statement about the street and the house on it, it’s no longer enough to say “Mary was in there somewhere.” Even though I haven’t included in our playground an explanation of who Branson and Mary are, or what their relationship is, we know that Branson cares enough about her to go after her. Now we have to show that.
We have three key means of showing how Branson feels: external evidence of emotion, internal emotional sensations, and internal monologue. We can use all three at once or any combination, but the point is to make the reader feel the character’s personal intensity–and whatever else we can shove into it. When we show emotion, we give a clue about the characters, not just the character whose skin we’re under, but other characters too. Right now, we believe that Mary is a good person, a victim, but if we show Branson thinking, serves her right, it shifts the reader’s opinion of Mary or Branson or both (depending on what we’ve developed up to now).
But let’s keep with the idea that Mary’s a victim, and Branson intends to save her.
He ground his teeth. Mary was in there with all that filth, surrounded by filthy people. Just the thought of it made his skin crawl and his stomach curdle. He had to get her out of there.
I chose to use all three techniques. The external evidence of emotion–grinding his teeth–is visible to anyone looking on because there’s usually a tic in the jaw, or the jaw or mouth moves. Internal monologue, although it’s just a quick line, “Mary was in there. . . ” And finally, internal sensations–his skin crawling (which borderlines external and internal. Sometimes that sensation causes a visible shudder) and his stomach going sour.
We still have a ways to go, but I think you can tell the difference from the earlier bare-bones description of the scene. Wednesday, we’ll put some tension in the action. Hope to see you then.
Good stuff! This is the single greatest advantage books have over movies: the ability to take descriptions and make them intimately personal to the POV character – and thus the reader.
Yep! But it’s also one of the disadvantages. An actor can shift his eyes in such a way that would take a hundred words to try to capture. But I love the challenge!