Getting Inside

When I was writing my first novel, almost 30 years ago, I had a 3×5 card thumbtacked above my desk. On the card were my two rules for writing fiction:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Put the reader in the scene.

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, learning how to apply those rules is the work of a lifetime.

Tonight I’ve been thinking about rule 2. I’ve been working on a critique of an unpublished novel by an aspiring fantasy author, and it has gradually seeped into my awareness that the author is not well versed in the techniques required to implement rule 2.

It’s not just a matter of physical description, though that’s part of it. Visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile — necessary, but not sufficient. If you hope to be a decent writer, you also need the ability (and it takes practice) to imaginatively cast yourself into the skin of one or another character. To see the world as that character sees it at that moment, and to feel the emotions that character would naturally feel, given whatever is going on in the story.

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. An amateur philosopher, too, but that’s a subject for another time. As a psychologist, you need to imaginatively construct what each character is thinking and feeling. If you fail to do that, you’re writing from the outside. You may be applying verbal gestures you’ve read in other books, or tossing in whatever ideas pop into your head, but until you can understand in some detail what’s going on inside of each character’s head, your scenes won’t come alive.

If you want a scene where Robert goes into a restaurant for lunch, you need to know when he last ate, what kind of food he likes, whether he has ever visited that particular restaurant before, what time of day it is, and about a thousand other things. A writer who tries to skate past the process of thinking through all those details is going to produce, at best, a shallow and boring scene, at worst an incoherent mess.

A lot of the process — a frightening amount, actually — is unconscious. I write a sentence, and something about it doesn’t feel quite right. Quite often, that’s all that happens in my conscious awareness. So I back up and try again.

Psychology is more than just pure analysis, though. It’s also a quasi-real-time process. Once Robert has entered the restaurant, you need to present the details in a careful time sequence, exactly as he encounters them. This can be tricky, because the narrative flow of time also has to present details to the reader in a way that makes logical sense. Backing up is hard to do.

Aspiring writers don’t always notice the craft that goes into the writing of a good story or novel. Unlike the painter or composer, the writer aims at making his or her craft invisible. The narrative seems perfectly natural to the reader, but the thought that goes into writing is not natural at all. If you think you can just write naturally because that’s what your favorite writer seems to be doing, you’re in big trouble.

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One Response to Getting Inside

  1. Peb says:

    I will just say that i enjoy your writings. Very intelligent and informative. I visit your site every other day hoping theres is a new article. I read your writings in Keyboard Magazine from the early 1990´s. Remebered your name and your always insightfull articles in the Magazine – and found you again with Google.

    Specially i remember an article about how the sounds from music travel through our ears and how it can move our feelings. One of the best things i ever read in any paper and any magzine. You really should have written a book about the subject. You would have been a millionaire by now.

    Keep on posting.

    Scuse me my English. Im from Denmark.


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