Saturday, 27 December 2014

Guest Post: R.A. Black: How to Leave your Readers Cold, Hungry, and Afraid

How to Leave your Readers Cold, Hungry, and Afraid

By R.A. Black

Have you ever read a scene about a snowstorm and felt cold? Or looked up from a book and found yourself surprised you are in your bedroom and not in a majestic forest? Part of the power of a good book is to draw us into the world we are reading about and make us feel like we are there. It’s easy to get caught up with characters and plot when writing, but if your readers feel immersed in the world, they’ll find it harder to put the book down.

So, here are some hints and tips to consider when considering what and how to describe things in your story. I’d recommend having a thesaurus on hand (I still use the one my granddad gave me when I was nine), but make sure you never use a word you don’t fully understand, or you can give your sentence an incorrect meaning.

Work it in:

Big blocks of description can slow down the pacing of a story, and often it’s better to weave details through the narrative. For example, you could tell the reader that Kitty has dark, curly hair, but you could also mention her pulling at dark curl when talking. Your readers will build up a slower picture, but it will stick in their heads more, and they won’t skip over it because they find it dull.

Remember the moment:

Stopping to describe things in the wrong place affects not only the pace but the emotion of the scene. If you say Harry has freckles in middle of an argument, the conflict will lose momentum. Instead, say that there is a blush of angry red across his cheeks that smother his freckles. The details come out without changing the tone. 

Equally, if the hot FBI agent has stormed into the hospital to find out about the plague spreading through downtown Washington, we don’t want to know about her cleavage, no matter how hot she is. That just comes across as comical and destroys the tension

Let me introduce you:

When we meet someone for the first time, we take in more details than when we meet them again, so introductions are a good time to give the reader more physical details about a new character. First impressions are important and this goes for details too. 

But remember, people are more than just hair and eye colour. Some things to consider about them: What sort of build and how do they stand? How old, do they have tattoos or scars, do they look out of place? Are they smiling or look they’ve just bitten the mother of all lemons?

Where’s the focus?

Pay attention to what the character is paying attention to. If Detective Jones is at a crime scene, he is going to be focusing on looking for evidence about the case. This gives you an opportunity to describe the location, pointing out the blood spatters and spent bullet cartridges. 

However, if Joel has just opened the door to his date, he’s going to be looking at Pete’s clothes, hair, facial expression etc, and less on the traffic in the background.

You have five senses:

It’s easy to focus on what we see. Vision is the dominant sense in humans, so we tend to describe what we see more heavily. 

But consider a fire. Not only can we see the shifting shapes and colours in the flames, we can feel the heat on our skin, hear the sound of things burning, and smell the smoke in the air. Mentioning the effects on other senses can make the image seem more realistic because we expect a fire to make a noise and have a smell and heat as well as just an appearance. 

If you describe the taste and smell of a feast, you have more chance of making your reader feel hungry than if you just describe the appearance of the food. This in turn helps us share the characters’ feelings and brings us closer to them.

Clothes matter, when they matter:

A common habit amongst beginner writers is to introduce a character by describing what they are wearing. This is rarely the most important detail at the time. It matters not to the reader if Jenna has blue jeans and a cute sweater when at college, because it’s not out of the ordinary. If Harry turns up to breakfast in a suit of armour, that’s something to comment on. 

What a person is wearing is secondary to what the clothes say about them as a person. Mention clothes if they mark the person as rich / poor compared to others around them. Or they make the character stand out or are there to make them blend into the background. Or if the clothes are the focus of the scene, like a bride trying on her wedding dress for the first time.

How are you feeling?

As well as scenery and appearance, emotions are vitally important to describe. Characters are more believable and easier to relate to when we understand what they are feeling. Consider how various emotions change us. They affect the way we sound, the way we stand, what we do with our hands, our heart-rate, even our pupils. When we believe our favourite character is afraid, we start to share that emotion ourselves.

Word choice can change the feel of an object, place or person:

This is one of the most important ways of shaping a reader’s image. It applies to verbs and adverbs as well as adjectives. If I describe Brendan as striding across the courtyard, it gives a different image than if I said he was strolling and a very different one to if I said he was slinking. Often words will have an emotional context, as well as physical one and you can use this to not only give a scene a reader can see but feel as well. Consider the two paragraphs below:

The sun sparkled off the surface as the river babbled on its way below the bank. Leaning over it was an elegant willow, with long boughs that gently caressed the water. A breeze played hide and seek in the vegetation, making the vibrant leaves tremble.

The river muttered incessantly as it passed over the dark stones in bed. Above it, a weeping willow bowed, shedding leaves into the water which were carried off never to be seen again. A stiff breeze pushed through the vegetation, making the leaves that remained shiver.

The place is the same in each case, but what I have described and how I have described it changes the tone of each section. Modify your language to match the feel of the scene you are writing about and it will enhance the emotional impact.

Thanks for reading and happy writing.

R.A. Black


Author Profile

RA Black is a self-published author. Her horror novel, Apple, is available from Amazon. Read a review here, and there are still a few days left to win a paperback copy!

You can also check out R.A. Black on Figment and Facebook.