Help Readers See What You See

by | Mar 4, 2020 | Author Feature, Author of the week | 0 comments

Around 30 years ago back in New York I wrote a book titled “Weird Watch.”  The first half was about dinosaurs that were supposed to be alive based on various stories I had heard about including one about the discovery of a T-Rex in Texas at Fort Sam Houston.  The second half was about UFOs and interacting with aliens.  I sent the book to an agent who was about to represent it.  But at the last minute he decided he hadn’t represented a science fiction writer for so long that he didn’t know the market for science fiction and had to pass.  But he told me that I wrote so visually that I might do well in the movie industry.

That is a compliment.  When you write a story or book, you are observing images in your mind and writing down what you see.  I’ve written about the problem of being too detailed.  There is another problem when you are too detailed.  I’ll give some examples:

Barry, the first-born son of Harry and Mary Wilson, short for someone in his twenties, feared that the extra 20 pounds he had packed on over the winter would prevent him from doing well on his college baseball team; the team that had beat some better teams the year before.  His love for chips and beer and pizza and other fatty food might cost him a position on the team.

During the first day of try-outs, Barry was a little slow.  But he could still leap 30 inches vertically which meant he could stop baseballs from flying over the center field fence.  He found this out when the coach was hitting balls out to deep center and he had to run and prevent home runs.

You might be able to see Barry in your mind running after the ball and jumping high to rob a batter of a home run.  But is he the same Barry that is described as being 20 pounds over playing weight and slower than desired?  With 20 extra pounds to carry into the air, I don’t believe he can jump 30 inches vertically.  He should be lucky to jump half that high.  Just because Dumbo was a flying elephant doesn’t mean other elephants can do that.  Writers that write about impossibilities should consider writing about superheroes or fantasy characters.

Here is another example:

March was half over and the last snow of winter had melted away a week before.  The trees were budding and the grass was coming back to life.  It looked as if Ray would have to fire up the old Toro in another week.  The birds were chirping, little bunnies were hopping around, and kittens that didn’t know any better treated those bunnies like playmates and not prey.

I see a few problems with that descriptive paragraph.  Trees normally don’t bud that fast and grass is still matted down for a while after the snow leaves.  Also, I’ve never seen kittens and bunnies playing with each other no matter how young the cats might be.  Writers might see the scene in their mind.  But readers that have a grasp on reality know it is a fantasy.  If the writer actually thinks such things are possible in the real world, readers might stop reading the story because they know it is impossible.

I like to write science fiction which means I am used to writing about impossible things and treating them as if they exist.  But I have to be careful because there are certain details that must be considered that readers will keep in mind when they read what I write.  Here is an example of something that readers might reject my story over:

Stephen had spent four long months cramped inside a spaceship with nine other travelers who wanted a new start on the Red Planet.  The rusty soil of Mars was kicked up as the thrusters slowed the descent of the capsule.  When it finally settled on the surface of the planet named after the Roman god of war, the hatch opened and Stephen was the first to descend the ladder to the ground and breathe the fresh air of the planet.

There is a glaring error that all people that know about Mars would pick up instantly.  There is no air on Mars.  Maybe after a couple centuries if field towers can be erected to produce fields to keep an oxygen atmosphere there will be air to breathe.  But if it takes four months to reach Mars instead of four days like what might happen after my spaceplane is used, a reader would know the story is probably taking place during this century.  This isn’t 1870 when writing about a trip to the moon requires a long cannon, an aluminum capsule for two men to occupy, and rockets to send the capsule back to earth.  The  trip Jules Verne wrote about inspired me to eventually come up with my Ground/Ship Launch/Propulsion System didn’t mention about the need for space suits or the fact that the tremendous G-force of a shell being fired at the moon that can reach the orbiting body would kill the occupants.  But readers 150 years ago could picture what Verne wrote about because they thought there might be air on the moon.  Verne would be ridiculed and might not get his book “A Trip To the Moon and Back” published today.

Writers must consider facts that readers know before writing about fantastic things.  It reminds me of when I was in fourth grade and the teacher asked us what we wanted to do when we grew up.  Some of my friends wanted to do the expected things kids dream about doing.  When the teacher asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to fly to the sun.  The kids laughed as they should have.  I told everyone I would use the same material that chimneys are made of and use glorified pop bottles to propel me to our star.  It took me years to live down that insane idea.  If you were to ask me if I still wanted to go to the sun, I might explain how it might be possible.

First, you need to generate an energy barrier that is greater than the energy the field comes in contact with and it must circulate faster than the gasses on the surface of the sun circulate.  This barrier will act like energy insulation to prevent the solid material that makes up the lander from melting.  An artificial gravity that cancels the gravity of the sun will keep the occupants in the lander from being crushed.  The energy required to generate the protective barrier might be more than what the city of Akron, Ohio uses in a day depending on the size of the lander.

My explanation about being able to land on the sun and not be incinerated might be very plausible.  A reader might see what I see in my mind and accept my proposal as being possible.  But to a 9 year-old, that explanation might still sound crazy.  But to someone with a background in astrophysics, my idea might come in useful in the distant future when we fly to other star systems.  Once hyper light physics becomes possible, generating an energy barrier that is faster than what a black hole can absorb might allow a spaceship to escape a black hole by repelling off of it.  If I can picture that possibility and readers can too, I will have succeeded.

Readers like to have a suspension of disbelief  as long as it’s not ridiculous.  Elephants can’t fly.  If they could, watch out for the falling poop.  If you want to write a story that requires total suspension of disbelief, readers want to know it right off.  “Alice In Wonderland” is such a book.  When you read the book, you know it’s not real.  No one can shrink or grow like Alice could and there are no talking rabbits, inch worms, or Cheshire cats.  The story is a fun ride that only has a few elements of reality.  Readers know what is real and what is fantasy because the writer lets them know the difference.  They see what he sees.

Television and movies are good examples of how well or how poorly writers can make their audiences see what they see and if the audiences want to continue the journey of discovery.  If a program or movie is supposed to seem real, the writer won’t throw in flying elephants.  If a program or movie is a fantasy, the writer will more likely have everyone living happily ever after; not shooting up heroin and drowning face down in the bath tub.  The writer might see it.  But the audience will reject the images because that is not supposed to happen in a fantasy.

Today, too many writers are allowing people to shape their vision.  Readers tell the writers what they want to see and the writers give into their desires.  Audiences also tell writers what they want to see.  Does the world really need another Holloween movie or zombie movie?  If the audiences say so, someone will write the scripts.  Movie and TV executives might say they want a writer to write a story and he does it.  But if his vision doesn’t match their vision, they have a choice.  They can write and rewrite until the story is how they want it or they can refuse to rewrite the story and maybe end up not getting paid.  But if the writer can write a story that captures the imagination and the movie or TV executive wants to see what the writer sees, he won’t need to change his vision.

Stephen King is famous for writing very long books that usually have to be condensed to fit into the run time for most movies.  His stories are better told as a limited TV series.  VIewers can see his full vision if the translation from a book is faithfully reproduced.  That could be why some movies come out as the director’s cut.  It shows a movie as the director wanted it to be shown but time restraints forced the director to make certain cuts.  Often the director’s cut is a more faithful reproduction of the vision of the screen writer.

As a writer, do you want your stories to be cut and shaped to suit the readers or do you want your stories to be like the director’s cut of a movie?  Don’t try to write another “War and Peace” with more characters than most readers can keep track of.  If a character is “expendable” and their loss wouldn’t change the outcome of the story, lose them.  Readers won’t miss them.  You might have to change your vision.  But at times an expendable character can slow down a story.  Do readers need to know the main character had a crush on a little girl when he was five and after she went away he rarely thought about her?  She is expendable.  But if his father had a tremendous impact on his life, he should be written about because he will determine what happens and what the main character does and believes.  Readers need to know that.  To leave him out would be like writing about the Civil War and not writing but Grant or Lee.

Make sure the vision of the reader is 20/20.  Writers should present characters and stories that are crystal clear.  If the writer sees a tall man with long blond hair, the reader shouldn’t think they are reading about a bald dwarf.  I can’t stress it too much how important readers must be able to see what the writer sees.  If a writer’s stories could be made into movies or TV programs, the readers should be able to envision that and think they are watching a movie when they read their stories.  The writer can consider himself a success if their readers see exactly what they see.

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