Get Into Your Reader’s Head
Skill number three is, okay we took off our writer's hat, now we want to get into our reader's head. I say we are gonna come back to this because there's so much work to be done around this, and you really want to know who your reader is. We talked about this with that letter before. What is their burden of knowledge, right? So we have a burden of knowledge as the writer, what's your reader's burden of knowledge? What did they not know? What did they not get? What do you know that they don't know? That's a hugely important question, and by the way, fiction writers have to do this for their characters. What's your character's burden of knowledge? That's a best way to get a 3D, fully dimensional character, is to know, how do they see the world. We talked about this with the minister, but if you have a character for example, who's sick, really sick, let's say terminally ill, there is no moment when they don't know that they're terminally ill. They can't not know that they're terminally il...
l. So if you have a scene where that doesn't come into play in some way, shape, or form, you've just got a cardboard character. So you've gotta know what their burden of knowledge is. You've gotta know what their agenda is. We talked about this a bit with dialog. In every dialog, everybody has an agenda, even in that dumb text chain I shared (laughing) with my husband, right. My agenda was, I wanted him to get dinner, and so I was like, can't you do that from your car. I don't even want to stop and call. That's what I was really saying, that was my agenda. I don't even have two minutes to call Tender Greens and order my chicken salad, which is ridiculous, but that's what my agenda was. Everybody has an agenda all the time, and if you have a scene in a nonfiction memoir or fiction, anything, where you don't know your character's agenda, that scene is not gonna be as strong as it needs to be, and guess what, every character has an agenda. You're usually following your main character, but every character has an agenda. What might your reader's objections or questions be? What are they gonna ask? What are they gonna not know? You want to really know that, and how can you make it easy for them to follow what you're saying? This is just huge, it's huge. You want them to get what you're doing. So good writing is accessible to the reader on the page. That's that getting it out of your head and onto the page thing. So I'm gonna show a fiction example. This is from a memoir. The weak example is: I turned my car back to the closest police station, which happened to be in the Western Addition, one of the last few parts of town where there were projects and low-income housing. So this was a phrase that I read in a work in progress from a memoir, and as the editor, thinking about the reader, it's like, okay, the reader has no idea why you're telling us about projects and low-income housing, like why is that even on the page. It means nothing, it's just sitting there. It's just totally flat. Like, so what? So to get in the reader's head, I reflected back to her, your reader has no idea what you're saying here. You clearly mean something, but it's not on the page. So she went back and ... Oh, I'm sorry, this is the slide where I'm asking that. She's driving through a poor neighborhood. So my question was, so what? So what? Why are you even taking the time to tell us that? It doesn't mean anything. This is what she wrote: I turned my car back to the closest police station, which happened to be in the Western Addition, one of the last few parts of town where there were projects and low-income housing. The short drive from my home to this part of town was like a metaphor for my shiny, perfect life colliding with the grittier truth screaming to emerge. There it was on display right before my eyes. The universe was yelling at me to wake up. Isn't that beautiful? I mean, it's so beautiful. We went from something, when it ended here, it was just sort of like, okay. Like, so? And then she adds why she put it there, the truth, the why, and it's like oh wow, that's amazing. Usually, it's adding words. It's usually adding words, getting into your reader's head is telling them what they don't know. I could talk for days about show don't tell and how wrong people get it. Show don't tell is not literal. Somebody could easily say, well you're just telling here. It's like yes, that is exactly what the writer is doing, telling the reader why it matters, and we need that. What showing really means is show the meaning. Show it unfolding on the page. That's what it really means. It's not describe the scene, it's show us. Show us why that matters to that person, let us inside. Good writing does that because it keeps that reader's perspective in their head. The reader has no idea what that was about if the writer didn't put this down.