Remember the last time you were so sucked into a story that you felt like you were there? You were so consumed in that world that you lost track of time; you felt what the characters felt, saw what they saw, heard what they heard, and so on?
This is the magic of great storytelling.
But what is it this magical thing that makes a story draw you in like this? Chances are, when you’re deep in the belly of it you aren’t stopping to look at actual word usage and mechanics. So here we’ll discuss what exactly it is that makes the magic work. I’m going to give you a little behind the scenes, so you’ll be able to improve your own writing, better painting that story picture for your readers. And readers, this’ll show you some secrets behind the magic. 😉
A few years ago I received a beta reader’s notes on an early novel, pointing out where my imagery and world building were lacking. What a jerk. How dare he imply that I needed any such improvement? After all, I’d been writing since the moment I picked up a crayon and chose a random wall to scribble my brilliance. It didn’t matter that I had never before written a novel; I didn’t need criticism of my obviously top-notch work. Right?
After I pouted and stamped my baby writer feet for a few days, waving in my naïve pride and arrogance flag around like nobody’s business, I surrendered and took another look at the notes. Once I had oiled the squeaky trap door of my mind and allowed it to open, I was stricken with an overwhelming yuckiness. I stood face-to-face with the ugly truth: my story needed more meat on its bones.
Though I bucked it at first, I soon realized how much fuller and richer and just better the story was with these added morsels. To remind myself of the important aspects of imagery/world building, I pasted a sticky note on my desk that read:
What do you: Hear? See? Taste? Smell? Touch/Feel?
A few months of burning these words into my mind and I had trained myself to slow down and daydream. Yes, daydream—one of the most important aspects of writing, in my opinion. Because some of these answers didn’t come right away. That’s when I knew the story hadn’t fully incubated in my mind yet. To paint the perfect story picture for the reader, I knew I had to give them important details to draw them in, yet without “info-dumping,” or tossing in every boring and meaningless detail. It’s a delicate balance, a dance, a volatile experiment, an alchemy. Too much bogs down the reader or puts them to sleep. Too little and the story is flat, lacking.
So how do you know when and what to add? How do you know what to leave out?
As a general rule of thumb, if a detail doesn’t move the plot forward or enrich the story, it’s unnecessary. If a detail fleshes out a scene, character, or setting, brings it more alive for the reader, or plants tidbits of foreshadowing and/or clues, then it’s necessary imagery, in my opinion. But it’s important that these details be balanced. You don’t want your characters smelling something in every paragraph, obviously, but if smelling something moves the plot forward and fleshes out the story, then it should be used in conjunction with other sensory details.
Here’s an example of a scene that lacks in world-building:
Dana opened the tank and stepped out, realizing she was all alone in the lab. Where had everyone gone? She crossed the room, shocked to find the door that had been bolted shut for two years standing wide open.
Here’s the same scene with added imagery/world building:
With a shaky hand, Dana opened the glass tank and stepped out onto the cold marble floor. She was all alone in the lab. The hum of the generator that had once been a murmuring white noise, a lullaby to help her sleep, was now silent, dead. A metallic odor hung in the stale, thin air, and she couldn’t breathe deep enough to fill up her lungs. Where was everyone? Her heart pounded as she crossed the room to the heavy iron door that had been bolted shut for two years. A red light blinked slowly beside the exit sign on the low ceiling. The door was open. The darkness beyond it beckoned her.
Do you want to know what happens next? I do!
*jots notes for future story*
The right adjectives are an important part of showing world-building through the five senses. See how the scene comes alive with those extra details? It’s the difference between a “good” story and a “great” story which hooks the reader.
I’m happy to say I don’t need the sticky note to remind me anymore, as this now comes naturally to me. It took time, lots of practice, and patience to get there, but it was worth every second. Many readers have mentioned how much they love my world building in reviews, so it’s something I take a lot of pride in today. I encourage you to critique your own writing to see where you can add some more sensory “meat” to its bones. You’ll be glad you did!
Thanks so much for inviting me to be here today, Sarah, and thanks to those reading. I wish you the best of luck with your writing and all of your other endeavors. If you’d like to check out my books or follow me on social media, all of my links are below. And if you’d like a taste of my writing, you can download the first two books in my Mature YA Dystopian Scifi series, as well as my YA Fantasy Adventure novelette for free for a limited time at the following links:
Book 1, “The Treemakers”
Book 2, “The Soultakers”
“The Truth About Mud”
Stalker Hotlinks, fresh from the web
The Rozelle Army Mailing List: http://bit.ly/RozelleArmy
Christina’s Website: ChristinaLRozelle.com (Currently under construction)
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The Treemakers and The Soultakers: http://bit.ly/CLRBXAMIL
Christina is a mother of four currently hiding from the sun somewhere in Dallas, Texas. You may find her out on rainy autumn days narrating her life in her head. You’ll also find her taxiing her children around in traffic, or stopped in random places, like your local produce section, to take notes before her ideas flitter away into the Great Beyond. Though her current series is YA Dystopian, she has many stories in the works in various sub-genres of speculative fiction (including NA and Adult) for the near future. You’ll definitely want to stick around to see what she comes up with next.