Saturday, April 10, 2010

Learning to paint a picture with words

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But when we're writing, we have a challenge. That picture? It's just in our heads.

So how do we make sure the image in our head is translated to our readers? Sometimes, it's not easy. Usually, when we develop our main characters, we know how they look. We know how they talk, how they move, what motivates them.

Sometimes, we know them so well we forget that that the reader doesn't know them at all.

I remember once having a friend read an early draft of Death on Deadline. He smiled at me when he was done with the first few pages. "Cool," he said. "I like how you've made it sound so sharp, so 1940s."

Great. Except the novel was set in modern day. What happened? Had I watched "My Girl Friday" too many times? Had I used too much old-time slang? Apparently, my protagonist, who was supposed to be matter-of-fact and funny, was just coming across as dated. What I saw in my imagination was not coming through in my words. So it was back to the drawing board, so to speak.

But with the help of a few wise editors and a lot of benevolent writer friends, I've learned a few tricks to help translate those images in your head to the page:

1. Think in pictures. When you're starting a scene or a chapter, imagine you have five or six photos in front of you, showing what will happen in those pages. What do you see? That's what you need your reader to see. When you can see the scene clearly in your head, it's easier for you to translate it to the blank page.

2. Don't assume. Sometimes, we've been working on a book or a chapter or a project so long, we get to know our characters like friends. (I know, it sounds weird. But if you write fiction, you know what I'm talking about). So when we're halfway through, we start forgetting to tell the reader important tidbits they really need to know. Like Joe can read the map because he was a Boy Scout. Or Vivian knew the tea was poisoned was because she always drank that type of tea for breakfast. Don't forget to add those little character details. You know them. We don't.

3. Be specific. Not only will it make for more interesting reading, but it draws a better picture for the reader. Does your character love the beautiful flowers in the garden? Or is she entranced by the vivid painted daisies, the delicate snapdragons and the bold peonies?

Have a good time with your writing. And let the reader in on the fun.

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