Friday, November 7

Getting What's in Your Head into the Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

As writers, we know our stories well. We know our character's history, the world building events that shaped the setting, the past wounds that affect character motivation. It's all in our heads as we plot and plan and write.

Trouble is, we don't always get what's in our heads onto the page.

You'll know when this has happened when you get feedback like "I didn't understand why they did this here," and you're sure that the reasons are there. You can point to them in the text, and then the reader says "Oh, okay, I didn't pick up on that."

Odds are what's in the text is only a fraction of what's in your mind. The words you wrote have context for you that's missing for the reader. It feels like it's all there, but when you look closely, the words mean almost nothing if you don't understand that context.

Here's are some ways to make sure what's in your head does indeed make it onto the page.

Take a Break

It's hard to catch these little buggers because we can't just turn off our memories of what we know about our stories. The best way to self edit here is to set the book aside for a while (a month is usually good) and then read it again. A lot of things will pop out at you this time. Reading in in order also helps, as you'll have what just happened fresh in your mind and you'll pick up things more easily.

For a quick self-check, try asking:
  • Do you find yourself skimming over parts you feel are "done"?
  • Do you think about what a line or scene means as if it's a private joke and something the reader will enjoy or get later?
  • Are you reading what's there or just checking the text for errors?

(Here's more on giving your manuscript some time off)

Check the Motivations

You can also try looking at your character's choices and actions and double checking to see where the groundwork for those are. Ask yourself if those motivations are clear by what's in the text. Most times all you'll need is a few extra words or a line or two to clarify everything.

For a quick self-check, try examining how every scene unfolds:
  • Is it clear what the protagonist wants in this scene?
  • Is is clear why they want to do that?
  • Are the leaps in logic or decision-making process plausible?
  • Do the motivations and choices lead the story where it needs to go?

(Here's more on showing character motivations)

Check the Descriptions

Description is another spot that often gets left behind, especially in the setting. You see the setting in your head, so you focus on what's going on in that scene instead. Doubly so if you've spent time on the setting earlier, so in your mind "it's done." The result--scenes turn into talking heads in a white room, with no sense of where the characters are.

For a quick self-check, try examining how every scene starts:
  • Are details introduced right away that ground the reader in the scene? 
  • Do they know who's in the room? 
  • Have the characters changed location since the last scene? 
  • Have they changed times? 
Don't forget to check your chapter breaks as well if the scene covers multiple chapters. It's very easy to skip all those details in a new chapter because the readers just read it, but chapters are where readers set down books. If they're coming back to it after a break they might have forgotten things. While you don't want to rehash everything, a gentle reminder isn't a bad idea if you slip it in there naturally.

(Here's more on using the best words to describe your setting)

Sometimes just keeping in mind, "will new readers understand this?" as you read is enough to pick up on things that need a bit more fleshing out.

Do you and your manuscript take a "time out" between drafts? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. That's an excellent idea! Thanks for the tips, when I start to revise I'll use it!

  2. I'm going to need these tips when I complete my WIP next month. Thanks!

  3. Great post. White 'sa lovely color, but if the entire house is painted with it, it 'snot going to be a very exciting house.

  4. I think the same also applies in general, since everyone brings their own bias, knowledge, and presuppositions to a work. Those things can change a reader's comprehension of a work.

    For example, I watched Twilight with a friend who knew the story and her two sisters who didn't. One of the sisters who didn't kept asking me for explanations throughout the movie. She knew nothing about the movie or about vampire lore in general--with meant that a lot of the obvious 'hints' throughout the movie thoroughly confused her.

    As a written example, take Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series. I've guessed at the identity of Kate's dad since book 1 and had it confirmed in book 2. Reading comments in her blog, some readers didn't have a clue about the dad's identity even after book 2.

    But sometimes in those books, I miss something, particularly in emotional flow. A few times, I've gotten confused because I was reading the narrator through a different emotional lens than she actually had. What the narrator says when she's frustrated matches what I'd say when I'm angry, so I read it wrong. Not the authors' faults, that.

  5. I always find myself doing that with description. Thanks for the tip.

  6. You started with the critical bit: feedback.

    After a while, I can't tell if something is there - because I've read my own words too many times.

    Feedback is hard to get without new blood: and so the input from an absolutely new reader is invaluable. I did a post on an example a while back (, and have exchanged comments with new readers to great learning on my part.

    Even if they're wrong - and I could show them where and how - the point is that I confused a READER, and the reader took a chance and TOLD me.

    I should send flowers. A heartfelt 'thank you' is the next best thing.

  7. First, let me say that I got my days of the week mixed up. Last night, I refreshed your blog two or three times, with a growing sense of panic. "No Friday post?! But...but...!" Then I realized that it was, in fact, Thursday and I was being impatient. I'm quite grateful that it's Friday now!

    I definitely go with talking heads in white rooms. Thank you, I'll go change the wall colors now!

  8. Love this! I was revising this morning and got to a part where I thought, what the heck is this? What did I mean? Yep, time to clarify :)

  9. Liejabberings, thanks for the link! Fresh readers are so valuable. That's one reason why having non-writer beta readers are so helpful.

    Rachel, lol At least it's nice to know I'd have been missed. (Ironically, I almost DID skip Friday's post. Was a crazy week) I'm a talking heads girl, too. :) My first drafts tend to be more dialog and less description.

    Julie, I both love and hate when that happens, hehe. Nice to catch it, but then you wonder what it was you were trying to do and if it was something really cool.

  10. Excellent advice. I'm revising my WIP, so this came at the right time!

  11. Posting a comment for someone who had trouble getting inbto the comments section and email me instead...

    Sylvia wrote:

    liebjabberings said: After a while, I can't tell if something is there - because I've read my own words too many times.

    This is just one of my problems that goes hand in hand with what Janice is saying. That "too many times" comes from editing and re-editing a hundred times plus. I see what I expect to be there.
    Also, for the stuff that's in my head, for me a big part of that comes from writing out backstory and then using/not using it in the story.

    As someone else mentioned, my unique perspective plays into, too. A thing or thought might be so common in my family or friend groups that I treat it like something from the collective conscious.

    This is something I have to work on. I'm glad to know I'm in good company!

    Sylvia A. Nash

  12. Hi Janice,
    Aw, yes. Great tips as always. :-)

  13. Janice, this is one of the (many) things I struggle with. Ideas are of course wonderful and perfect in my head, but then I definitely struggle with getting that onto the page. Thanks for the great tips.