Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Get What's in Your Head onto the Page

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s the author’s job to bring a story to life for readers.

Sometimes we envision a story so clearly it plays out in our heads like a movie. We know exactly how the characters move around the setting, we hear all the inflections and nuances in their dialogue, and we even smell the flowers they’re carrying in the air.

Most times, all this detail makes it onto the page as we write and readers are drawn into the scene.

Other times, it doesn’t, and readers struggle for context and have no clue what’s going on—or worse—make misleading assumptions that actually hurt the story.

As the author, you know your story so well, it’s easy to forget your readers are seeing it for the first time.

The informed author has a much stronger understanding of the scene than an uninformed reader. You know what every character’s action means and the impact of those actions, so you see greater meaning to them. You hear the emotions and subtleties in a line of dialogue, picture the body language, and pick up on all the subtext.

But for the reader, they might only get:

“You want me to get the snowplow.” Bob paused and glanced out the window. “I guess that’s okay.”

As the author, you know Bob frowns when he says it. You know he isn’t okay with it at all because it means he has to face dangerous zombies alone and unarmed. You hear the fear and uncertainty in his voice. You just forgot to add those details to the scene.

Granted, and most of us are going to add a little more to a line like this, but bits like this get written all the time. Using “Bob frowned” is probably a given, and maybe even a stress on “I guess” to show his hesitation. But that still might not be enough for readers to fully understand what’s going on in Bob’s head.

“You want me to get the snowplow.” Bob frowned and glanced out the window. “I guess that’s okay.”

Depending on what else is in the scene, readers might be able to figure out how Bob is truly feeling right now, but the above snippet doesn’t show any of that. But with a few additional details, what you know makes it into the scene so readers understand.

“You, uh, want me to get the snowplow?” Bob glanced out the window and frowned. At least a dozen zombies shambled around in the parking lot. Sure, old ones so weather-eaten they’d probably fall apart when they went after him, but couldn’t Miss G.I. Does Joe Sally do it? “I guess that’s okay.”

Not only do the additional details better set the scene, they show the bigger picture and give meaning and nuance to what Bob says.

Creating mystery is good, but remember—a reader thinking, “I don’t know what they’re doing” isn’t the same as “I wonder what they’re doing?”

Wondering is good and creates tension. Confusion is bad and kills tension.

(Here's more with 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

If you’re concerned the story is staying in your head (or you’ve gotten feedback that suggests this), look at your scene and consider:

1. If you didn’t know what a particular detail or line meant, would it still provide the same information?

For example:

The author writes a scene where a man who’s being targeted by bad guys thinks there’s a bomb at a party, and is trying not to panic and get everyone out safely. But none of the important elements make it onto the page.

The suitcase is just “a black Samsonite case sat next to the door” with no indications anywhere in the scene that would hint to readers something is wrong with it.

The character acts weird and nervous because he doesn’t know where the suitcase came from. Yet the author doesn’t have him think about being targeted by bad guys who like to blow things up.

No one in the scene notices the character acting weird, because the author never shares that he’s trying hard to maintain calm since the bad guys are watching him. But his behavior would absolutely warrant some weird looks and questions from his fellow party goers.

All readers see is a character acting weird and being nervous for no reason, and no one notices it or comments on it. It makes no sense and they skim through it, hoping to find a detail that explains it all.

While you’ll want to keep some details vague to maintain the mystery, aim for enough context to understand the general gist of what’s important in a scene. For example, it’s okay to hide the fact that the suitcase is a bomb if that’s necessary, but let the nervous character express reasons for being nervous.

To fix it: Let readers know he’s gotten threats and let them clearly see he’s worried about someone causing trouble at the party. Or maybe let others at the party notice his behavior and ask about it, giving him a reason to make excuses for it.

(Here’s more with How Being Ambiguous Can Work in Our Writing)

2. Are there enough emotional clues for readers to see how the characters are feeling?

Maybe what a character says and does is right, but the emotional impact of those actions never appears. So the character either seems cold and heartless, or goes the opposite direction and has sudden emotional outbursts without warning. This is especially true for characters struggling with a problem that’s not in the scene itself.

For example, say the protagonist is having trouble dealing with her overbearing mother and this is making her snap at people. Problem is, you forgot to mention that Mom called right before the scene opened and put the protagonist in a terrible mood. In the scenes, she lashes out and treats everyone at work badly.

You know Mom called, so all of the character’s behavior emotionally fits. But readers don’t, so all they see is a character being a witch for no reason. They don’t like her, they don’t take her side, and the whole scene (if not the book in some cases) falls apart.

To fix it: Add in enough emotional clues to show why the characters are feeling what they feel—especially if it impacts their actions or decisions. In our example, if readers already know Mom is an issue, the whole problem could have been fixed with a simple line that mentioned Mom called before work.

If you did mention she called, but didn’t show the character’s reaction to that call, then let the character react in a way that shows how upset Mom’s call made her. Then when she’s unhappy later, readers understand why.

(Here’s more with Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers)

3. Is there enough internalization to show what the POV character is thinking?

This is probably the most common disconnect between the author’s head and the page. You get so focused on the action and dialogue, you forget to add the internal thoughts that go along with those actions. The character makes decisions without the internal debate or thoughts that went into that decision, so their choices feel like leaps in logic.

A character’s internalization is where a lot of what’s in your head is shown on the page, because internal thoughts are where characters figure stuff out, and where they express what they don’t want known. What they’re thinking affects what they’re doing, so only seeing half of that makes the scene murky.

To fix it: Add enough internalization so readers can figure out what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head, especially if they need to act contrary to their nature, or in a way a person in that situation would normally act.

(Here’s more with What You Need to Know About Internalization)

4. Are the characters’ motives clear?

Often, readers can see what the characters are doing, but not understand why they’re doing it (usually due to a lack of internalization). Without a little context, the scene feels aimless and lacks the narrative drive necessary to pique reader curiosity about what’s going on. Aim to provide enough context so can readers understand what someone is generally doing and why, even if the details are still unknown.

If a character had made it clear that they’re “up to something” and acting suspicious, readers understand “what the character is doing,” even if it takes longer to discover exactly what. This is different from a character who’s acting weird or random and nothing they do makes sense.

For example, show someone running because they’re afraid, even if readers aren’t told yet what frightened them. Maybe they’re running to save the life of a child, or they’re running from an angry bear. They might be running because they’re late for a job interview that could keep them from losing their home. But they’ll have fear responses, and worry about “not getting there in time” or “I have to keep going” type thoughts.

To fix it: This is an area where the balance between mystery and clarity can be thin, so strive to add just enough clues for readers to get the basics. Sometimes, just stating the motive works, and the other details can be revealed as the scene unfolds.

(Here’s more with What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

Finding the right balance between mystery and clarity can be tough, and you have to trust your instincts (and your beta readers) on what that balance is. 

The right amount of detail for one story might be too much (or not enough) for another.

On the upside, it doesn’t take a lot of rewriting to fix these areas. Often, a few lines or words are all you need to make sure what’s in your head is making it to the page.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and check one of your scenes. Are there any unclear spots that would confuse a reader if they didn’t know the story? Have you gotten all the necessary details in where they need to go?

Have you ever left important clues in your head that messed up a scene?

*Originally published April 2016. Last updated March 2024.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks, Janice. I actually thought this was going to be about just getting the words out on the page that are in your head...but this was even better! This draft of my WIP has way more internalization in it, because of not showing that enough previously. Sometimes I think it's too much... but my beta readers will tell me that, right?

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! They will indeed. If you tend to add too little, and now feel it's too much, perhaps wait to see what your betas say before adjusting. You might need to get some feedback before you find the right balance for yourself. Once you see (and feel) what works, you'll be able to determine that on your own and your instincts will be "trained" to know how much you need.