Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Don't Traumatize Your Reader

Sandy Tritt

Did you ever think about what happens to an unsuspecting reader when a scene changes? He’s been comfortable, hanging around and experiencing your story, aware of where he is, when he is, and through whose eyes he’s seeing/hearing/feeling things, when all of a sudden one scene ends and another begins. Your poor reader is snatched out of his comfort zone, zoomed through time and space, and is plunged into a new scene. God—er, um, YOU, only know where he is now. He may crash into the same physical space he’s just vacated—or he may end up across the globe or even in a new galaxy. Five seconds may have passed—or ten days or a dozen centuries. Even more jolting, he could now be seeing and hearing and smelling through a different body.

It’s an extremely unsettling experience. That is, unless you, the Creator of this world the reader is visiting, are experienced enough and thoughtful enough to guide him through the trauma. Oh, my! Did you even know you had this humongous responsibility? Well, you do now.

Within the first few sentences of a new scene, your reader needs to know several things, including:

  1. Whose eyes he’s now seeing things through (if you employ a single viewpoint character throughout the manuscript, this is not necessary)
  2. Who is present
  3. What our characters look like (this is something that we usually sprinkle throughout a story, receiving bits and pieces of information as we go and is more or less important depending upon genre).
  4. Where he is in general—such as the city, state, country. If this general location has not been visited previously, we may need more information, such as if it’s rural, big city, etc.
  5. Location, specific: if inside, where he is, such as in a living room or inside a diner. If outside, if he’s in a vehicle, hiking, etc.
  6. Time period: the decade he’s in. (If this does not change throughout the manuscript, you do not need to re-establish this).
  7. Time of year: spring, summer, fall, winter—or actual month
  8. General time of day: morning, afternoon, evening, night
  9. Weather, if it affects the story in any way (and it usually does)
Additionally, the reader may need to know the date or the day of week, as well as any historically relevant happenings on that day. For example, if this scene occurs on September 11, 2001, and no mention is made of the collapse of the twin towers, your reader is going to question your integrity. I call providing this information grounding your reader, as it allows your reader to simply relax and become a part of the story instead of floating around in space, desperately trying to figure out where and when he is and through whose eyes he’s seeing.

If it were not for the First Commandment of Writing—Thou Must Show, Not Tell, we’d just open each scene with a recitation of all the necessary facts. But, instead, we must be artistic about it. We must not just give all the information, but we must sprinkle it around and create amazing prose with conflict and suspense while doing so.  The goal is to create a picture the readers can imagine in their minds. They must be able to envision where the action is happening, who is present, and what is going on. This balancing act of feeding information to your reader while maintaining interest is not easy.

Here’s an example from one of my novels, The Mistress of Gambel Hill:

Ray maneuvered between a cocktail waitress balancing a tray of drinks and a couple entwined in each other’s arms.

“Think we can fit them all in?” Gary waited on the stage with a handful of neatly-stacked requests.

Ray grabbed his brother’s arm and used it as a boost to step up onto the stage. “Yeah. And I gotta add another one before I forget.” He took a pen from his pocket and scribbled the blonde’s request on one of the notes. “Let’s get going.” He went to his stool in the center front and tuned his guitar. A line of cocktails sent by happy customers waited on the table next to him. He looked into the crowd. The stage lights glared back at him. “Glad y’all stuck around,” his deep voice boomed into the microphone. “We’re gonna get to all your requests before—”

He hadn’t checked that his brothers had taken their places. He glanced over his shoulder to his left. Danny, his youngest brother, wasn’t behind the drum set. Instead, Joey’s long arms waited over the drums, his waist-length hair draped over his slender shoulders, a smile teasing his hair-covered lips.

            Ray scratched his goatee and looked behind him. Gary sat at Joey’s keyboard, his bass guitar leaning against his chair. Danny wasn’t on stage.

What do we learn from the opening paragraphs of this scene?

  1. Ray is our viewpoint character. We’re going to be seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and thinking through him.
  2. We are in a crowded bar.
  3. Ray and Gary are on a stage. They are brothers. They have a band.
  4. Ray sits on a stool center stage, plays guitar, and is the speaker for the group. He also drinks. A lot.
  5. Ray’s brothers Danny and Joey are also in the band.
  6. Joey is tall and slender with long hair and facial hair. He normally plays keyboard, but right now, he’s playing the drums.
  7. Ray has a goatee.
  8. Gary normally plays bass guitar, but he’s playing keyboard.
  9. We have a problem—in addition to all those drinks waiting to be swallowed. Danny is missing. Because his brothers have switched instruments and are smiling, we’re pretty sure everyone but Ray is in on what is about to happen. But something is about to happen.
We need to talk about item number one above. How does the reader know so quickly that Ray is our viewpoint character? This is important. He knows Ray is the viewpoint character because Ray is the first character mentioned by name. Your reader will subconsciously assume the first character mentioned will be the viewpoint character. So you must do your part and honor this agreement by mentioning your viewpoint character’s name before anyone else’s.

If a scene takes place in the same location or shortly after the previous scene, it isn’t necessary to give this information, as the reader will assume it. However, you must always let the reader know who is present in the scene. Few things are more unsettling than having a character suddenly pop into a conversation without knowing the character was even present.

One thing I do to help me remember everything I need to remember is to type all the information—the date, day of the week, location, weather, historical facts, and anything else pertinent—right into my manuscript, at the beginning of the scene. I keep it there until I’m ready to submit. And, then, of course, I save a copy with all that important information in it. That way, if I need to change the sequence of the scenes or make other changes, I’ll know to also change the pertinent facts within a scene.

Another way to do this is to create a scene overview document.  We have such a worksheet in our Tips and Techniques Workbook. How you track it yourself is far less important than that you get it right in your manuscript.

Writing is not easy. There is so much information that must reach the reader, but it must be done without an “info dump.” Study good fiction and the works of accomplished writers. Pay attention to the first few paragraphs of each scene. Notice how the writer feeds information to the reader without seeming as if that’s the goal. In fact, as an exercise, write down the information that is gleaned from a scene, as we did in our example above. It could be an eye opener for when you’re wondering how you can possibly provide so much information and still be entertaining.

If you need help with this—or with any of the elements of fiction or nonfiction—please just shoot us off an email at We’re here, and we’re always happy to help.

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