I wrote my first novel – a fantasy adventure titled A Wizard’s World – when I was nineteen. (Yes, it was awful, and no, I’ll never let anyone see it.) I had a lot of fun as I wrote it, but I kept having the nagging feeling that something was wrong. My story seemed flat, lifeless, and empty. One day as I was re-reading a scene I’d just written, it hit me: my scenes felt empty because they lacked the necessary detail to bring them alive for readers. I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to fix the problem, but I decided to work on being more descriptive overall, and kept on writing.
A Wizard’s World was never published, but writing it led to one of the most important realizations I’ve ever had about writing fiction. Authors don’t tell readers a story. They give readers tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. We’re like composers who write music and then hand it to a musician to play. The reader is the musician and the instrument he or she plays is their imagination. Writers need to know what “notes” will provide just the right stimulation to create a vivid, living world within readers’ minds. Here are some tips on how to do just that.
1. Write with a close identification with a character’s viewpoint, letting us know not only what the character is doing, but what the character is thinking and feeling (both emotionally and physically) as the story progresses. It doesn’t matter if you write in first, third or – more rarely – second person, the principle is the same. The great advantage written fiction has over other media such as movies, TV, games, etc., is that it can allow the audience to enter into a character’s internal world, thereby immersing us in the story. And that makes for powerful fiction. My mentor, fantasy novelist Dennis McKiernan, thought of this principle as if a viewpoint character has a shoulder-mounted camera that picks up everything the character sees and hears. This camera also has a cable running into the back of the character’s skull, recording the characters thoughts, feelings, and internal reactions. It’s the writer’s job to select the best bits of data to make a given scene as vivid and impactful as possible.
2. Visual media rely on stimulating two senses: sight and sound. But fiction can also stimulate readers’ other senses: smell, taste, and touch. Those latter senses are weaker in humans, and we need to be in physical contact with something (or close to it) in order to use them. Because of this, they’re more intimate senses and stimulating them can have a stronger impact on readers. So don’t forget to take advantage of them in your writing.
3. We experience life as a constant swirl of incoming data, but when writing, we’re forced to create using only one word at a time. To approximate the richness of human experience, provide a variety of alternating details in scenes (and even within individual sentences) – a bit of dialogue, a physical action, a thought, an internal physical reaction, a sound, a memory connection, etc. It’s a simple but powerful technique, one which is easy to learn and teach, and which can strengthen your fiction immeasurably.
Breathe life into your stories, and readers’ imaginations will soar.
Tim Waggoner’s novels include Supernatural: Carved in Flesh and the Nekropolis series of urban fantasies. In total, he’s published close to thirty novels and three short story collections, and his articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, among other publications. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.