We believe what our senses tell us. We see someone for the first time and instantly capture their height, build, skin color, hair color, features, expression, clothing. We interpret their body language and form an immediate impression of the person. In seconds we have an ingrained image and opinion of a person that we don’t even know. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—it’s true to us. Why is that?
The reason is that we believe our personal analysis above all else. If we believe a person is suspicious or dangerous, we will cling to that belief. If we believe a person is weak or helpless, we will continue to see them that way. What other people say about them—and even what they say about themselves—will have to be tested against our strong impressions. We believe ourselves first and foremost.
Writers, take note! Your readers will do this with your characters, and you need to make sure their first impressions are accurate. If not, they will cling to their own interpretations, and when you write something that doesn’t fit, they will reject it.
What impression do you get from this?
Ki tore down the street. I froze and watched helplessly.
Since we have no idea if Ki is a man, woman, boy, girl, dog, cat, elephant—we will make up who or what Ki is. We will fill in the blanks and see Ki in detail. I bet you did!
Why is Ki tearing down the street? If we imagine Ki is chasing someone or something, that’s what will be fixed in our minds. If we think Ki is running from danger, we will believe that. If we imagine Ki is a construction worker tearing up a street with heavy machinery, that’s what we’ll have imprinted on our brains. If later on in the story we are told Ki is a rabid dog tearing down the street after cars, we’ll probably put the book down.
It’s critical for writers to describe scenes the way we observe them in real life—detailing everything our five senses pick up and our intuition. Writers, where in real life do you only get words and no other information? Nowhere. In every situation I can possibly think of, we use our five senses plus intuition to instantly gauge what’s going on.
We all interpret life through our senses and intuition. We believe our senses and intuition. It doesn’t matter if someone says or does something different, we will fiercely cling to our own interpretation.
Example: You are at a park and see a woman hitting a little boy over and over while the child cowers and whimpers. You rush up and say, “Is everything OK?” The woman looks up at you, startled, then says with a big smile as she ruffles the boy’s hair, “Oh, yes, everything is fine…we’re having fun. Right, kiddo?” He looks up with fearful eyes and you see bruises on his arms and legs. What do you believe? Do you believe that everything is “just fine” and that they’re “having fun” as the woman tells you? No, you believe your senses and intuition.
That means we all have an urgent need to fill in any missing pieces when we want to understand what is going on.
Writers, if you don’t describe to readers what you see and feel in a scene, they will do it themselves. They will create and define the characters, scene, body language, attitude, and intentions fully in their minds. Then when you (as the writer) add details that are different, they will balk at it, and it will ruin the story for them. That defeats the whole purpose of your writing. Your goal is to communicate your story as clearly as possible so readers are experiencing and interpreting everything as you envision it.
I recently read a book about a female cop. The opening was a crime scene, and as she’s walking up to it, her best friend (another person in law enforcement) winks at her from a car. I had no clue if her best friend was male or female. I just got a vague name and a wink. So I imagined her friend as a female…young, very fit, wavy light brown hair, brown eyes, cute, spunky, tough. Shortly after, I found out the character was a “he”—what?? OK, so I turned “her” into a guy… young, tall, very fit, with wavy light brown hair, brown eyes, cute, confident, with a crush on the main character. That’s how I kept reading the book. Several chapters later, I found out he was an African-American man, very intense, who was older and married with kids! What?!? No. I never could “believe” that character through the rest of the book. I couldn’t be “in” the scenes. People and situations kept changing as the author threw in details much too late. Even the main character wasn’t described until several chapters in, but I kept my visual of her the entire time, not the author’s description. That mystery/suspense story could have been great (it was written by a multi-published author through a traditional publishing company), but it was half-baked and disjointed to me. I don’t even remember most of it, and I read it just a few days ago. But I DO remember vividly all the times where the author threw curve balls at me.
And… the author committed the cardinal sin that I keep seeing in books. Come on, authors! It’s not correct to write “He graduated college.” Just coz ya’ll talk such don’t mean ya write it like that.
Professionals write professionally.
“He graduated from college.”
“She graduated from high school.”
“The car needs to be washed.”
Back to humans relying solely on their own beliefs. Try this. I just did! Go where strangers are (park, mall, store, wherever) and pay attention to exactly what you notice about the first person you see. There were construction workers rebuilding a garage across the street from me. So I stepped out and intentionally followed my mind as it “read” the first person I saw—a man. I instantly registered his height, build, skin color, hair color, age, face, walk, and the way he moved. In two seconds, I had a solid impression of him. Two seconds.
If I were to write about him, I would not write “The construction worker carried the tools to the van.” In one glimpse, I saw much, much more than that. Here’s literally what I saw. “The white construction van sat at the curb. A wiry old guy with long scraggly gray hair in a ponytail and filthy clothes was carrying tools to load into it. He barely glanced my way, deep wrinkles hiding his squinty eyes, pale skin darkened in odd stripes where he’d been working in the sun too long. Who knows how long—decades? But he didn’t appear weakened by age, he seemed toughened by it.”
Let’s say I continued with this story (not part of my experience). “I walked up to him and introduced myself. He stared, intense dark eyes piercing mine as he said, ‘Name’s Ki.’ Then he turned his back to me and loaded the tools in the van. I watched his every move, waiting for him to pause a moment so I could question him. Ki… unusual name, probably a nickname. He moves so adeptly, he probably worked manual labor all his life—probably never even graduated from high school. I desperately needed to get more information about him and why he was at this house. There was no lettering on the dusty van. I couldn’t make out the dirty license plate. Ki slammed the door, making me jump, and whipped around into the driver’s seat. I rushed to the window, but he had started the engine and shoved his hand at me to move away. I stepped back, startled. Ki tore down the street. I froze and watched helplessly.”
You could see him, right? Now all I have to do is mention “Ki” and you have a deeply-embedded image and impression of him.
Many writers have asked me, “How do I describe the person if I’m writing in their POV?” Good question! Here’s how. You insert every detail you can—as soon as you can. If you can put in critical details right away while in their POV, that’s excellent writing. Have them look in the mirror… at a photograph… like or hate their nickname and mention the characteristics they have which triggered it, etc. Some examples of adding personal details while writing in someone’s own POV:
NOTHING HERE: I pushed the rake through the piles of leaves, furtively eyeing the neighborhood through my dark glasses. A car slowed at the corner, and I slid behind a hedge, hand under my jacket.
YES! GREAT DETAILS: I pushed the rake through the piles of leaves, furtively eyeing the neighborhood through my dark glasses. If anyone bothered to look, they probably wouldn’t think much of a short dark-skinned girl with dark hair in a ponytail raking the yard. They might even think I was a teenager instead of a twenty-seven-year-old undercover cop. A car slowed at the corner, and I slid behind a hedge, hand under my jacket.
NOTHING HERE: I should’ve spoken up. I knew better. What were all the games for? I kicked her doorstep in the dark. Several times.
YES! GREAT DETAILS: I should’ve spoken up. I knew better. I shoved back my hair and scratched my beard. That girl. Her wild red hair, natural and fiery as she was. So tall—almost as tall as me—able to stop my heart with those icy blue eyes locking onto my dark ones. Her sassy attitude, challenging me. Knowing she could have any guy she wanted, even at eighteen. Was a slightly-older cowboy not good enough for her? She knew she had my heart, so what were all the games for? I didn’t ask her out early enough. So she was out anyway—with some other guy. I kicked her doorstep in the dark. Several times. Actually kicking myself.
You get the idea. You’re a writer, you’re creative, you can do it! 🙂
Savvy Writer Tip:
We all rely on our senses and intuition every moment to interpret what’s going on in life. We believe our senses and intuition. We take instant (subconscious) inventory of everything around us and make a judgment—and will stick with it, true or not. Writers, you do this, too! So write your stories as clearly as possible, feeding the readers’ senses and intuition in the way you see every scene. When you tap into the deepest part of human nature, you capture your readers in the most powerful way—they feel like they are right there in your world! 🙂