Identity Shock!


Have you ever watched a play with no lights on the stage? That’s what it’s like trying to read a lot of books today. The author sees everything in vivid 3-D color with surround sound, so they don’t provide much detail. That leaves readers in the dark, trying to figure out who is there and what is going on.

Here’s an example:

“Everyone! On the floor! Hands on your head!” The bank robber yelled while whipping a gun wildly around the room. People dropped to the ground with shrieks of terror.
“Do what I say or I’ll shoot you. Everyone—hands on your heads and freeze!” The robber paced agitatedly.
JJ broke out in a sweat but whispered to the closest person. “Psst, I’m JJ, and I’m a cop. What’s your name?”
“Taylor,” came the whispered response. “Do you have a gun?”
“No, I’m off duty. But I have an idea. I need your help—can you cough loudly?”
“Uh, yes, I think so…”
“OK—now!”
Taylor coughed and covered the sound of JJ rustling backward behind a desk.
There was a male under the desk holding a female tightly in his arms.
“Hi,” JJ whispered. “I’m a cop, and I think I can take down this robber with your help. Here’s what we’ll do.”

Whenever we read something in print, we create the scenes in our minds. We take all of the clues the writer gives us, then fill in the rest with our own imagination. If later on we receive information that is different from what we pictured, it’s disconcerting and pulls us out.

Here’s how I envisioned the scene above when I wrote it. How much did you get right?  😉

“Everyone! On the floor! Hands on your head!” The large brightly lit bank was filled with echoing shrieks as a skinny silver-haired lady wearing a blue bandana ran through the room, whipping a gun wildly around. People dropped to the ground with shrieks of terror.
Her high-pitched raspy voice pierced the air. “Do as I say or I’ll shoot you. Everyone—hands on your heads and freeze!” She paced agitatedly.
JJ felt sweat breaking out on her smooth ebony skin. But she knew what to do. Narrowing her dark eyes, she whispered to the heavy teen boy close to her. “Psst, I’m JJ, and I’m a cop. What’s your name?”
“Taylor,” came the whispered response. “Do you have a gun?”
“No, I’m off duty. But I have an idea.” The poor guy was shaking all over, so JJ injected confidence in her low tone and looked him in the eye. “I need your help—can you cough loudly?”
“Uh, yes, I think so…”
“OK—now!”
Taylor coughed and covered the sound of JJ rustling backward behind a desk.
There she found a white-haired man shielding a little Asian girl.
“Hi,” JJ whispered. “I’m a cop, and I think I can take down this robber with your help. Who is that with you?”
The gentleman hugged the little girl to his chest and whispered, “Sandra, my granddaughter.” He wiped a tear rolling down Sandra’s face.
JJ leaned close to him and said, “OK, here’s what we’ll do.” 

In my first example above, you may have had a completely different view of the bank (maybe small and dim), the people (gender, ages, ethnicity), and sounds (the robber’s voice). If you thought the robber was a man, you would be startled out of the story to find out it was an older lady waving that gun and screeching. If you thought JJ was a buff male, you’d be thrown off to discover the cop is an African-American woman. Instead of a couple embracing behind the desk, you’d have to revisualize an old man holding a little girl.

Authors, do you see how crucial it is to give your readers all of the pertinent details immediately? You can see everything clearly, but as soon as you introduce a scene and new characters, give your readers the critical details. Otherwise, it’s like they are squinting in the dark to figure everything out. Then when the lights come on—you give them the details later—it will be confusing and pull them out of the story. You don’t want that! It’s extremely important to establish every scene and character the moment they appear.

Savvy Writer Tip:

Writers, remember that readers begin your book looking at a blank screen in their minds. They can only create visuals one word at a time with whatever clues you give them. If you leave them in the dark, they will make up the details. Then they will have to completely readjust their mindset (and often significant parts of the story) when they find out a man is really a woman, someone young is actually old, a person has a different ethnicity than they believed, it’s September not May—even though it’s hot and muggy out, etc. It’s jolting and pulls readers out of the story. Your goal: avoid all confusion.

Remember, you have to feed your readers’ five senses (and that uncanny sixth sense). Whenever you introduce a new scene, person, building, object, event, make sure your readers see what you see, hear what you hear, sense what you sense. Don’t go into a lot of unnecessary detail, but make sure they have all of the critical information immediately. Then they will be able to freely lose themselves in your “world”—and stay there to the end!  🙂

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