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From the Blog: Write with Your Reader in Mind

crumpled paper

Many of us are drawn to NaNoWriMo because we have a story we want to tell: a scene or scenario or plot drawn up in our mind, and we want to show it to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, taking that scene you see so clearly in your head and bringing it to the page is harder than you might think. Going back to edit my own story from NaNoWriMo, I was horrified. My scenes were dull, my dialogue flat. What happened to the thrilling story in my head?

The reality is, putting the scenes in your head onto paper is much like translating from one language to another. You can see the scene in your head, envision the looks on the characters faces, the way they say each sentence... But your readers don’t come to read your book with that same knowledge or “language”, and sometimes we forget to put in the necessary cues in our writing to help them paint their own picture. When you go back to read over your book, you come at it with the perspective of a reader: you envision what’s actually on the page, not what you initially saw. Thus, the large gap that appears between your initial interpretation of your story and what actually emerges on paper comes into being.

To demonstrate, here is an excerpt from my very first draft of my NaNoWriMo project from this November. I was trying to portray my protagonist being furious over the latest despicable action of my antagonist:

Damia stepped up to Kendria. “Any last words?”, she asked, eyes flashing with triumph. Kendria raised her head and looked Damia right in the eye. “You know you’re killing an innocent person Damia. Your soldiers, the ones you control, I know that now, they knew I was innocent too, not that it stopped them. You were always the aggressor. You look at me like I’m some monster, when all I have done is acted in defense of Drystan and his army. Look at yourself.”

Did anyone else skim over half of that? Yawn a little? Cringe? Don’t feel bad, you aren’t alone. I personally threw up a little in my mouth. But this is the same scene after several re-writes, where the gap between the scene I imagined in my head and what came out on the paper is much smaller:

Damia sighed. “There was going to be a war no matter what I did, I just created one on my terms.” 

Kendria growled, snapping her head up. “You didn’t have to have a war. I gave you the chance for a Peace Summit. I was going to protect you! Now I can’t protect anyone." Kendria wailed, meeting those icy eyes, pouring out her fear and rage and pain into them, begging for that warmth to return. “It doesn’t matter what side I go to, because you put this-” Kendria shuddered, “stone in my forehead.”

While definitely not perfect, this excerpt is obviously better than the former. However, I didn’t just magically re-write this excerpt on my first try. First, I had to learn a lesson about writing.  Not about plotting, not about character arcs (although both of those are much stronger in my second excerpt) but about the act of actually translating my thoughts into their equivalent words.

This lesson was very simple: write with your readers in mind. Notice how in the first excerpt my protagonist’s rant is one big paragraph. Splitting that dense paragraph into smaller portions of dialogue with dialogue tags makes reading a more interesting activity and puts less strain on the reader’s brain. Both of my excerpts are of my main character, Kendria, ranting at the main antagonist. But in the second one, I break up the dialogue with descriptions of my character's physical movements and internal thoughts, making the excerpt much easier and more exciting to read and easier for the reader to “hear” the words being said.

Also, in the second excerpt I have added character voice by giving each character their own expressions and quirks. My teenage girl talks and thinks like a teenage girl, while my warrior thinks in terms of battle and logic. This is different from the first excerpt, where I was not intentional with thinking about what each of my characters would say, and — more importantly — why they would say it.

There was much more that I went back and fixed, like adding to my world-building with unique expressions for each character to use, but the key point is that it was all fixable. I turned that bland paragraph into a much more exciting scene full of character development and action. So the next time you’re staring at a manuscript that seems to be falling hopelessly flat, take a closer look at the specific things you might be able to fix instead of crumpling your paper into a ball and throwing it into the trash. You might just find that your problems are more easily solved than you first thought.

Olivia Bacon is a writer, reader, and student living in Atlanta. When she isn’t doing homework, she loves to run cross country, pole vault, and read. She hopes to one day publish the young-adult fantasy novel she has been working on for NaNoWriMo.

Top photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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