by Amy Michelle Carpenter and Angela Woiwode
with Angela Eschler
Writers possess active imaginations as well as an eagerness to share what those imaginations produce, and so it’s frustrating when what’s in our head fails to translate to the page.
There are many possibilities for why our end result isn’t matching what we’ve envisioned. For one, we may struggle so much with grammar and punctuation that the reader can’t get past those issues to understand the story. Or perhaps our vision isn’t complete. In other words, we don’t know where the story is going. Maybe we don’t fully understand our characters’ motivations, or we may be missing other crucial elements. All of this can leave a reader scratching their head.
While the above issues can affect how powerful our story is, they’re the kind of big problems entire books are dedicated to solving. We can’t go deep enough in one little blog to cover them all. (If this is where you’re floundering, it’s time to get some major foundational craft study under your belt, starting with these resources. (When reviewing this post, check out the book by Noah Lukeman as well as the resources near the top under the heading “Big Picture—Insights on What Makes a Novel Sell,” which focus on character arcs and story structure.)
However, if you’re failing to bring your ideas to life for other reasons—reasons to do with prose execution or the “support posts” of writing craft—rather than the key foundations, those are things we can tackle in a single blog post, so let’s talk about a few quick fixes to this potential problem of mistranslating our imagination to the page.
We Lack Clarity or Specificity in Our Prose
PROBLEM: In our head, the scene’s incredible, but we aren’t explaining it in a way the reader can interpret its epic-ness. This requires us to be more precise. Precision equals power in our prose.
And precision means just that. We don’t want to bombard the reader with too many adverbs, adjectives, and clichés, which often add very little; the key ingredient is to pick a few unique—and on target—nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
SOLUTION: Instead of saying “something smelled gross,” we can say it smelled like “raw meat abandoned in the sun for two weeks.” Instead of saying “a man walked into his house,” we can say he “waddled into his manor.” (These may be weird examples, but they are more specific! Just make sure the nouns and verbs you choose fit your characters).
Notice how the last option uses the same number of nouns and verbs—yet isn’t it much more specific? Doesn’t it help readers better engage their senses? Yes. It allows a vicarious experience for the reader. If you’ve accomplished that, your ideas have translated well!
To get a handle on good self-editing and to employ the power of the metaphor to say more with less, check out these two handy resources:
- Self-editing: “Three Tips for Self-Editing Your Prose”
- Metaphors: “Her Words Flowed Like a . . . Tar Stream?”
The Scene or Background Info Isn’t Complete
PROBLEM: Sometimes we skip over the essential elements of a scene, failing to explain exactly what’s going on. Just because we understand why a character is reacting in a certain way doesn’t mean the reader does. When a reader is confused about a character’s behaviors or actions, he may wonder, “Why did Ms. X do this? It seems unlike her.” Knowing exactly which info to share when, or when we’ve shared too little or too much, can be hard to figure out. While we may have lots of info about Ms. X in our brain that the reader doesn’t need in that scene, we may have forgotten to provide clarity on the one thing they do need.
SOLUTION: These gaps can be hard to find ourselves, especially when we know our story so perfectly. This type of problem can be solved by using beta readers. These readers can tell us what’s confusing them so we can fill in the gaps. They can also do the opposite—let us know when we’re info-dumping or going overboard in emphasizing or reminding the reader. With a small army of beta readers supporting your story development, future readers can enjoy the same masterpiece on the page that you’re experiencing in your mind.
We Don’t Trust the Reader’s Imagination (or Micromanaging)
PROBLEM: Sometimes we’re so eager to share what’s in our mind that even the minutest details take on massive importance. We can become so worried about the reader picturing the exact same thing we’re envisioning that we no longer trust the reader to do the imagining.
Sometimes we have to let go and let the reader picture something far different from what we are picturing. As former literary agent and author Noah Lukeman has said, “It can be demeaning to the reader when the writer fills in every last detail for him. It assumes he has no imagination of his own.”
Don’t just include details for details’ sake. For example, don’t describe each detail of the movement required for a character to perform regular physical behavior (e.g., “She lifted her arm and quirked her wrist in a hello”—which means, “She waved”); pick a verb that precisely describes the full effect/end result of the movement.
Or when it comes to setting, if we use the word classroom, most readers picture something like the room in the school they attended. They may see something like the following:
Does it matter to the story which classroom the reader’s imagination conjures up? Well, that depends on the type of story you’re telling (more on that below), but in many cases, it doesn’t. Yet less experienced writers will spend paragraphs describing very-unimportant-to-the-story details. Knowing when, where, and how to share details (and especially which details) is critical to not undermining the life and momentum in your scenes.
SOLUTION: Since this problem applies to many elements of craft—from how to use settings to writing details to showing the passage of time or the development of a character’s feelings—check out these articles to get a handle on what, when, how, and where to put those details:
We’re Not Properly Utilizing the Setting
PROBLEM: Overdetailing unimportant elements of the setting but failing to give the right details—those that actually help readers navigate important physical or emotional dynamics in the scene.
Consider our example of the classroom images. Most of the time, the description of a classroom will bore the reader to tears. It’s not worth the hand cramp to describe it. However, in some cases, the story requires the reader to visualize specific details in a specific manner. In a present-day story, the chalkboard in the first photo could imply the age of the building and create atmosphere. It could add to the culture shock a main character experiences in a move from an affluent school in a large city to a rural town where the junior high and high schools occupy the same building. In historical fiction, because the presence of a whiteboard would ruin the setting, an author would steer readers away from that image and toward a more historically accurate one.
Another aspect to consider is how characters will interact with this setting. In both pictures, the students sit in desks lined up in rows. This would make shared glances and whispered conversations more difficult than if they sat at tables or had their desks pulled together in groups. On the other hand, students in the back rows could text class time away. If, later on, the characters got into trouble for pulling a prank on their teacher by stealing a Yoda made of Lego bricks, then that item should be described early on. Describing this would also serve to characterize the teacher and give the classroom a personal touch. The challenge an author must meet is determining which details are necessary and which are best left to the reader’s imagination.
SOLUTION: Consider which details are critical in helping the reader understand the logistics of how characters must interact and what will be important to showing a character’s psychology, motives, and relationship dynamics (including using setting as symbolism or to create tone). Occasionally, some layout logistics are needed so we understand important movement or events in the moment, but regularly stop and ask yourself (during revisions, of course—not during drafting!) if you could be more concise, precise, or to the point in this scene. The answer is often a resounding yes!
Check out our articles on using setting to go deeper with these tactics:
We Focus on External Details Rather Than Internal Signifiers
PROBLEM: New-to-the page writers often try to develop their characters with lots of external details. From the classic they’re-looking-in-the-mirror-noticing-all-their-features moment to the outfits the character chooses each day, how they do their hair, what they like to eat, what their bedroom looks like, and how attractive they are, there are paragraphs and paragraphs of character description, yet that character never develops for the reader—we never get a sense of who they really are. Some of these details are fine here and there when they can contribute, but the question is whether you’ve got too many of the unimportant details and too few of those that count—to really portray who that character is.
A good example of the right balance comes from J.K. Rowling. In seven of Rowling’s books, Hermione Granger takes a prominent role as a supporting character. Readers have a very clear idea of who she is—what makes her tick, how she’s likely to respond to this or that, and where her heart is. We also have a good-enough idea of what she looks like. So how do we come to know all these things about her?
Rowling describes Hermione as having frizzy brown hair, brown eyes, and big teeth (though she magics her teeth down to size later in the series). And that’s it. For seven books, that is the only physical description readers get of a major character. It’s safe to assume Rowling had a clear picture of Hermione in her head, but she left it up to her readers to interpret the majority of Hermione’s appearance while she focused on Hermione’s most defining characteristic: her intelligence. Couple that with revealing behavior and dialogue (her hand-raising and library habits, love of rules, sense of justice, and empathy), and we know this girl like our own best friend. We absolutely delight in her dynamic with other characters and forget she’s just a figment of the imagination!
How do these hand-raising and library-visiting details vastly outstrip those of what she looks like or how she decorates her bedroom? Because they reveal her psychology and her heart. In fact, the physical details Rowling does include give us a little feel for how she fits in with the world around her; the frizzy hair and large teeth characterize Hermione as a bit of an outcast, which parallels her Muggle heritage. Rowling gives readers just enough external detail to start forming a picture, then focuses on internal signifiers to really bring her character to life.
SOLUTION: The next time you set pen to paper to describe your character, ask yourself if the details you’re including reveal anything about the character’s heart, their hierarchy in relationships, what makes them tick, or what drives them. If the answer is no, do you really need to include such details in that scene, in that chapter, or in the book at all? And if not, is there an external detail that would more effectively bring that moment to life and be worth the word count meeting carpel tunnel?
Our imagination is one of the most important tools we writers have. Helping readers see our grandiose vision on the page takes hard work and an awareness of the problems we’ve discussed above, as well as their solutions. If you discover there are places in your story where you haven’t delivered, remember that there are many recipes (see above!) for getting your vision onto the page. Start to master these techniques and it’ll be your reader’s turn to let their imagination soar!
Do This Now
- Study your manuscript and determine whether you’ve presented your settings in proportion to the amount of time the story inhabits that setting (more time = more description), then determine whether you’ve included the details that matter for conveying critical information.
- Study your favorite books and the descriptions the authors use. Note how these descriptions unveil more about the characters’ motives and relationships and what’s at stake.
- Consider asking your beta readers what they envisioned when they read your book—Could they imagine enough to get by? Did you overdo or underdo? Where do you need to fill in the gaps?
Looking for beta readers or editorial feedback to help you fill in those gaps and solve imagination-to-page problems? Give us a shout—we can hook you up!
Amy Michelle Carpenter is a developmental editor with Eschler Editing and a professional blogger. She’s written hundreds of blogs and news articles for local and national companies. She also has a children’s story in an anthology, and her debut novel, Becoming Human, comes out with Immortal Works in December. She grew up traveling the country and has lived by sandy beaches, southern woods, towering cities, and the rocky mountains. Now, she resides in the countryside of Tooele, UT with her husband and baby girls. She enjoys seeing what wildlife and farm animals dare venture into her yard only to be chased by her toddlers. Wherever family is is home.
Angela Woiwode teaches English and creative writing to high school students in addition to working as a freelance editor for Eschler Editing. She lives in Utah with her husband and their numerous furry and scaly pets. When she isn’t immersed in something nerdy, she enjoys cheering on the San Antonio Spurs, curating her shoe collection, and cooking delicious vegetarian and vegan food. Angela also spends a great deal of time teaching people how to spell and pronounce her last name.
Angela Eschler, founder of the award-winning Eschler Editing and manager of the boutique publisher Scrivener Books, has twenty years of experience in the publishing industry, including nearly a decade working in-house at traditional publishers. She now works as a freelance editor and industry coach for authors, editors, publishers, and other organizations and has edited over a thousand manuscripts from diverse genres. A published author herself, Angela’s work has been featured on television, radio, and in documentary film. As a certified word nerd, she loves connecting with writers and readers of all sorts.