Give Readers The Experience Of Being There

It's time to invite readers to join you in your story world. These techniques will help you draw them in and keep them there:

• Orient your readers quickly. As you open the story and at the beginning of each subsequent scene, give us a sense of the time and the place, not necessarily in every particular, but enough to give the action a context and let us visualize what's happening. If we can't create a mental picture, or the one we come up with is muddled and confused, we're likely to lose interest. This is how I opened my story, Playing for Keeps:

Oh good—voices from the upstairs playroom.

Nicola kicked the front door shut behind her. Rain began drumming on the porch roof; she had just missed getting soaked. She set her lunchbox on the entryway table and shrugged out of the jacket that had been Caroline's and the scarf that had been Graham's. Then she bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to find Jeffrey.

It was the best moment of the day, seeing Jeffrey.

"Nic, is that you?" Mother's voice. "Did you hang up your coat?"

"Yes, ma'am." Nicola trudged back downstairs and plucked the dumb old jacket off the floor.

Mother came into the living room, turning on the lamp by the sofa. It did little to dispel the November gloom. "How was school today?"

Right away readers know that we're in a multistoried family home, probably a large one since there are several children and room to spare for a playroom. It's November, late afternoon. We hear the rain, see the little girl's scattered belongings, notice the yellow glow against the darkness when the lamp comes on. We're standing there watching as Nicola and her mother interact.

• Pile on the details. More than anything else, this is what creates the you-are-there experience for readers. Details are the hooks that connect our imaginations to your own. The more specific the better. The aggregation of small particulars creates the atmosphere and makes the setting vivid. When you mention that a windowbox is full of flowers, you're giving us information. Tell us that it's brimming with red geraniums and suddenly we're seeing the same thing that you and your characters see.

• Use all five senses. Our senses are how we connect with the world and take in information about it, and this is true whether the world in question is real or fictional. The descriptive details that will be most effective are those that create strong sensory impressions, and not just visual ones. Although visual impressions are important, remember that we have five senses altogether. Bring in colors, light and dark, sounds, aromas, flavors, and textures. As the characters see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the various elements within their surroundings, readers will do so too. The more you trigger sensations from all five senses, the deeper and richer the readers' experience will become. See if you can find all five senses represented in this example:

A heavy scent of garlic and basil hit my nose as I followed Moira into the kitchen. She lifted the lid of a kettle on the stove, releasing a hot burst of steam. As it cleared she dipped in a ladle, which she handed to me. Thick red tomato sauce. For Tom's favorite lasagna, I was sure.

"Does it have enough salt?" she asked.

I lifted the spoon to my lips and tasted. Too much salt, in fact, and an overdose of garlic as well. "It's perfect," I said.

Moira retrieved a cutting board from a cabinet and set it down with a bang on the glazed tiles of the counter. "I'm avoiding the issue, aren't I? You came to tell me about Tom."

I clasped her hand but barely had time to register how cold it felt before she pulled it away. Refusing to look at me, she grabbed a sharp knife and began sawing on a loaf of crusty bread. "It's bad news, isn't it?"

Choose details to suit your mood. In a short story every word must pull its weight, so you want your details to do double duty. Not only should they make the surroundings seem real but, if possible, they should accomplish a second job—characterize someone, provide important information, or contribute to creating a certain atmosphere.

Imagine that you've placed a comic tale, a romance, a suspense story, and a tragic slice of life all in the same setting. For each story you'd choose different details to establish and reinforce the appropriate mood.

In Moira's kitchen the burst of steam, the bang of the cutting board against the tile, and the sharp knife are all intended to buttress the tension she feels and to help readers share it. If she were expecting a positive message about Tom, the details might be different. The tomato sauce would not be oversalted. The radio could be on, with romantic music playing. Rather than hard glazed tiles, readers' attention might be drawn to lace curtains or the silk shirt under Moira's apron.

• Show how your characters respond to this place and to the events happening there. What makes a setting most vivid to readers is watching the characters in action within it and sharing their responses to it. Show what is happening to them physically and emotionally as well:

Elizabeth wanted to cry as she watched Heather and Carina stride around the bend in the trail and disappear into the pines. She was the last one again, the perpetual straggler. She probably wouldn't make it back to Camp Miwok until all the other kids were already splashing in the pool. By the time she limped in, dirty and sweaty and red with sunburn, swimming hour would be over and she wouldn't even get to cool off before supper.

There was no one around to watch, so she lifted the front of her T-shirt and used it to mop her dripping forehead. How could the stupid counselors have sent them off hiking on a day like this? One hundred and ten in the shade, it had to be. Elizabeth was wearing her shorts, but that didn't help. A few minutes ago, when she'd collapsed onto a rock to rest, the sun-baked surface had scorched her bare thighs as if she'd sat on a hot stove.

Okay, head for the pines. At least there it would be shady. And camp couldn't be more than half a mile farther. One step, two steps, three steps. Drat. A stone in her boot, small but sharp, was digging into her left heel.

Feelings beget feelings. As the characters' experiences trigger memories of how we felt in similar circumstances, we empathize and identify with them more strongly.

This is a significant accomplishment. Establishing that intimacy with characters is one of the major reasons readers read and writers write.

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