YOUR CHARACTERS LIVE IN A FOUR-DIMENSIONAL WORLD
You touch and see in three dimensions. The fourth dimension is the ephemeral. The stuff you hear, smell, taste. Use all the senses.
— Mollie Blake’s Writing Workshop Notes (from The Secret Wedding)
The writer has a lot to do in the opening of book. Introduce the main character, give them a problem, use dialogue and action to engage the reader’s attention. It is also important to give the reader a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit, so that they know where they are.
The important word in that sentence is “glimpse”.
I once read a book written by a bestselling thriller writer. In the opening scene the hero, arrives at an office for a meeting. Every detail of that office is described. The decoration, the layout of the furniture, how he walked from reception to the office of the man he had come to see.
It was a desperately dull opening but I stuck with it because (a) I trusted the author to deliver and (b) it was a thriller and I assumed that this was the set up for some later “big scene” when all these details would become vital. Maybe that was the plan when he started writing the book.
The hero never went back to the office.
He was a huge best-seller so it’s possible that his editor didn’t have the nerve to suggest he cut it so that the hero simply walked into the office and got on with the meeting.
The setting is a backdrop to the action; it should underpin it, not overwhelm it. A snapshot, a brief, thumbnail sketch will allow each reader to fill in the details from her own mental picture gallery and see it clearly in her mind’s eye. Make it her own.
In Flirting With Italian, my heroine visits the town where her grandfather was hidden after he parachuted from his plane during the WW11. We see her first impression --
“Steps led up to a piazza, golden in the sunlight, shaded with trees. There were small shops, a café where the aproned proprietor was setting out tables and a church that seemed far too large for such a small place.”
A large part of Wedded in a Whirlwind (the world’s most inappropriate cover and title) takes place in total darkness. My hero and heroine cannot see one another. They build trust through touch (off to a bad start when she kicked him) and sound; the subtleties of inflection as they speak that would normally have escaped them.
“In the intensity of the silence, she could have sworn she heard the creak of muscle as his face creased into the grin.”
Don’t overload the reader with sensory images. You don’t need everything. One or two are sufficient, even in a scene, like this one in Wild Lady.
“The jolting tango along the black bulk of the Landcruiser, the bruising jerk as her seatbelt locked and bit into her shoulder, the airbag exploding into life. The final nightmarish sound of rending metal as she collided with the hangar.”
The world is a noisy place so don’t forget to give your story a soundtrack. Stand in your scene and ask yourself where your characters are and what they will hear. Traffic, music, the sea sucking at the shore, rain rattling on their umbrella...
What can your characters smell? Is there a bakery nearby? A burger van? Are there diesel fumes? Wet dog? Wet baby?
And add texture to your story. How do things feel?
She gingerly eased herself onto her shoulder, then gave a little gasp at the unexpected intimacy of his cold fingers against the sensitive, nylon-clad flesh as he hooked his hand beneath her knee. — The Last Woman He’d Ever Date
Cloth, soap, skin, the sugary doughnut against the heroine’s lips. A hot cup warming cold hands. What is she walking on? Hard pavement, grass, autumn leaves, sand, the squeak of snow...
Think about taste. Use it to add depth to the sensations that are bombarding your character, to bring your reader into the story.
The grape exploded on her tongue, the juice dribbling over her lips, over his fingers. And it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lick it up…— Flirting With Italian
To sum up, give life to your scene by using all your senses, but not all at the same time. Use broad brush stroke to give an impression, small details to add intensity.
Allow the reader to fill in the details using her own imagination.
Liz Fielding met her husband when they were both working in Zambia and were keen members of the Lusaka Theatre Club. He was playing John de Stogumber in St Joan, and she was the pageboy to the Earl of Warwick. He swore it was the purple tights that got him. Years spent in Africa and the Middle East provided the background to many of Liz's romances. Her first, An Image of You, was set in Kenya, in a place where they had spent many happy weekends on safari. It was plucked from the slush pile because the feisty feminist heroine made her editor laugh. Emotion touched with humour has been the hallmark of her work ever since.
After writing 70 books for Harlequin Mills and Boon, Liz has now turned to crime, signing with Joffe Books for three "Maybridge Mysteries", the first of which, Murder Among the Roses, is published on 18th April.
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