Who wants to read a flat novel that leaves you on your sofa throughout the entire book?
Nobody, that’s who.
A really excellent story snatches you off your couch, plunges you into the story, and drags you—flapping in the breeze—along for the ride. You feel the tension along with the protagonist. You experience the disappointments and successes and fears and joys. You’re right there beside that main character every step of the way.
But it’s easier to say “pull your reader into your story” than it is to actually do it. Just like it’s easier to say “His call surprised Jane” than it is to say “The ringing phone yanked her head ‘round so hard she pulled a muscle.” Or “The sight of his number on the phone’s ID tripped her heart so hard it skipped a beat.” Or “She stared at the ringing phone. It was him. It had to be. She snatched up the mobile, juggling like a circus performer as it slipped through the sweat on her palms and almost crashed to the floor.”
So how can you pull these kind of shenanigans with your reader and drop them flailing into your protag’s adventure?
One way is to use all five basic senses. Don’t just tell the reader that the room is dark and creepy. Show the moonlight shining through naked windows, how the cast shadows stretch and curl like gnarled fingers over a debris-strewn parlor. Each footfall raises puffs of dust full of who-knows-what that tickle the protag’s nose until she sneezes. Random floorboards creak beneath her feet as she tiptoes toward a rustling sound in the hall beyond the door. In the gloom, she bumbles face-first into a spider’s web, goes into full-blown panic mode, and falls. When the floor rises up to smite her, she bites her tongue. The metallic taste of blood pumps her saliva glands into overdrive.
Wherever your main character’s scene is set, put yourself there with her. Let’s pick an example. Say a beach in broad daylight.
• What do you see? (Lots of sand. Probably trash—ugh. Water, duh. Seashells. People on towels or blankets. Kids playing. Surfers. Birds. Lots of birds, especially if there’s food to be had. Boats farther out in deeper water.)
• What do you hear? (Waves crashing. Wind blowing. Gulls screeching. Kids squealing. People laughing. Maybe some music from a boom box. Do people use those anymore?)
• What do you smell? (Briny air. Fish. Gull poop. Possibly food, if there are vendors on the boardwalk. Beer. Coconut tanning lotion or sunscreen. Sweat.)
• What do you feel? (Sand between your toes. Sand in your swimsuit. Sand in your hair. Sand stuck on your legs and butt from sitting down. Heat or even sunburn from the sun on your back. The slap of water against your arms and face, if you’re swimming, or your legs if you’re wading. That sticky salt-water residue on your skin if you’ve been swimming, but are now dry-ish. Trickles of sweat between your shoulder blades, or down the sides of your face. The streaky remains of sunscreen on your shoulders.)
• What do you taste? (Sand between your teeth. Face it, you’re at the beach. That stuff gets everywhere. Beer. Water. Brine, if you’ve been swimming. Corn dogs with mustard. Chips. Fruit. Whatever’s left in your cooler.)
Make notes for yourself, as fully fleshed out as you can. Then use input from every sense on your list to create the setting. The more vivid the scene, the more real it will be for your reader. Don’t go overboard, though. Too much of a good thing can be just as bad as not enough. The ideal is to make reader live it without drawing attention to the words themselves. If they are aware of the writing, it’s overdone. The difference can be subtle. Check out how other writers do this. Pick up your favorite book and thumb through it to your favorite scene. Nail down how that author painted the image for you, how they made you not just see it, but experience it. Take note of what they included, and what they left out, then ask yourself why. Would more have been too much? Less too little?
Try to do this with every novel you devour. I know … it’s hard to focus on that kind of detail when you’re reading, especially the first time through. If it isn’t…well, then you’ve probably never left your couch. Use that book as an example of how you can do better with your own work-in-progress.
Next week, we’ll take a look at putting tears in your readers’ eyes.
Book Magic photo by ThePixelman. Barefoot photo by rawpixel. Photos courtesy of Pixabay.