When reading a story, we use our imagination to “see” the scene unfold. It is almost as if we are blind and the writer is offering up their eyes for us to look through. But imagine losing your sight at say fifteen. You’ve had so many experiences with this lost sense, so many memories, that you recognize a closing door at just the click of the latch. You know someone is crying or fighting allergies at a mere sniffle. The softer the sound, the more likely they’re trying to conceal it from you. That is why if someone was sitting beside you describing a scene as it unfolded around you, you wouldn’t need them to list every detail. Only the things that can’t be understood without sight would need to be explained. It is almost the same when writing a scene for your readers.
When you sit down to write out a scene, keep in mind that your readers are not coming into this unprepared. This isn’t the first book they’ve ever read; it’s not the first bit of life they have ever experienced. Your readers are starting your book with a vast amount of past encounters to use as prompts for the information you will put in front of them. Quite rarely have I ever had a reader say I confused them by not listing that the character grabbed the door handle, turned it, pushed the door open, slipped inside, turned around, pushed the door to until it clicked, and then let go of the handle. Haven’t we all opened and closed doors at some point during our lives? You probably do it a few times on a daily basis. Offering a bit of description to make a scene richer is okay, but overcompensating in fear of losing your readers will only leave them rolling their eyes and wondering if you think they need you to hold their hands through it all.
Instead, focus on what matters. Describe what the reader might not be used to seeing or what they can’t infer on their own. More than likely they’ll be skimming over the stuff I just listed anyway, and you really don’t want your readers to skim even once in your story. You want to make every word count in one way or another. I used to be afraid I would lose my readers if I didn’t list every step in my character’s task, but I had to learn to trust them. A rule of thumb is if it’s boring to you, it’s boring to your readers. So always refer to that when deciding whether to push through writing a scene that feels more endearing than entertaining.
Another aspect of this is emotion. When you show another character’s emotion through the main character’s senses—as in a stray tear, a cleared throat, an almost unnoticed sniffle—you don’t have to follow up with a detailed paragraph. You don’t even have to explain why the character is feeling the way he or she is. If it isn’t an opinion from the main character, you shouldn’t be adding that kind of info anyway (Remember, whether in first or third person POV, you’re looking through the main character’s eyes. Including an outside perspective the main character doesn’t share would be illogical).
Instead, show the emotion, show the reason behind it—if it’s to be revealed at that point in the story—and then move on. Don’t bog your readers down by coming up with new and creative ways to tell them the character is upset. They are readers, and they are human. That means they are used to imagining and experiencing similar scenes and will know what is happening by the first sentence or so.
This is also one of those mistakes that can tremendously slow down a fight scene and leave readers feeling like things are happening in slow motion. You don’t want your reader skimming over a major battle just to get to the outcome. The final battle should be more than satisfying. It should be full of action and relevant detail that pull the reader in, making them eager to turn the page—but only after reading each word.
Now that isn’t to say you should skip over the movements during a fight. This might be the one time you should show every step. The reader needs to visualize how the character gets from point A to point B, and considering they’ve probably never fought against an undead alien or superhuman, they can’t imagine the moves or magic your character will use against him without you walking them through it. List these things or it will feel rushed and unrealistic. However, stopping the scene to add paragraphs of narrative while the character seems to slip into some unshakable reverie will only pause the scene, pull your readers out of the action, and leave them wondering when things will ever move forward. Try showing the character’s emotions instead of having her speculate the internal battle she’s experiencing.
If you want to write a book your readers can’t put down, learn to trust them. This will help keep your action scenes engaging and your emotional ones moving. It will propel your story forward at a healthy pace and keep your readers from feeling like you’ve repeated yourself because you felt they needed things broken down. In this case, less is more.
Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.
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