by Cindy Woodsmall, @cindywoodsmall
To clarify “limbo” for the purpose of this article, I went to Dictionary.com. What I found there seemed quite befitting.
The first definition is: “a region on the border of hell or heaven.”
The fourth definition is: “a place or state of imprisonment or confinement.”
When reading an opening of a chapter, any chapter, I’m definitely in a vexed state of imprisonment if the author has me in limbo concerning the setting the character is in. Readers need to know what the character can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. If that’s missing, the reader is in limbo.
Most writers incorporate some of that in their stories, especially in the beginning. But beyond the first few chapters, many new writers tend to drop the visual aspect, not realizing that one element causes the book to go from engaging to frustrating.
Because writers see the character and the setting in their imagination, they can forget to write the details into each new scene. When I point out the missing information, new writers often say, “It’s there.”
My response is, “It’s there for you because you’re seeing it in your mind. It’s not there for the readers.” If they still seem adamant, I’ll ask them to find and highlight the words that give readers a visual picture of where the character is. That task is eye opening to them.
Sometimes writers will wait several paragraphs before sharing the setting of a scene. With rare exceptions, that is too late to give the reader a visual.
Books should play out in a person’s head much like a movie plays out on a screen. Almost every new scene in all movies start by showing things we need to know to fully immerge into that world. Anything less puts readers in state of limbo.
A character may be confused and unsure as to where she is. But she is somewhere, taking in information through at least a few of the five main senses—seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.
Once past the first few chapters, writers are often tempted to open a scene by rushing into some type of emotional or action payoff. And while immediate intrigue is important, readers still need a visual of where the character is.
Our writing goal shouldn’t be to mimic a movie. However, research has shown that over 90 percent of the USpopulation are movie watchers—whether at home or in a theater. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million people, ranging from young children to seniors. That statistic tells us that a story playing out through visualization is satisfying. As writers, we have the power to give that kind of satisfaction to our readers.
Around 63 percent of all movie watchers also enjoy reading fiction, and avid movie buffs are more likely to be readers than non-moviegoers.
Starting a scene with several lines or paragraphs that leave readers in a state of limbo as to the location is like a movie screen going black for several minutes, and we can only hear voices. We’re in limbo until the visuals return.
Pause for a moment and think about where you are physically right now. What can you see? feel? smell? hear? taste?
What would it do to your mind and emotions if you could not decipher where youare—even if for less than five minutes? That’s what happens to readers when we don’t give them enough information to immediately see the character and his or her surroundings. They become confused and bewildered.
Go to the start of each new scene in your current manuscript and read the first paragraph. Can the reader see where your character is? Do you share two or more details of what the character can see, feel, taste, hear, and smell? Do you give at least a hint of the time of day and the season? Have you given an approximation of how much time has passed since the last scene (e.g., “mere hours ago” or “it’d been three weeks since” or “Thanksgiving was right around the corner”)?
Help your readers visualize the events as if they were playing on the screen of their minds. Then readers won’t enter into the mood killer of limbo.
When I’m mulling overaspects of writing, I always appreciate an example, so I grabbed the opening lines of three random books and chapters.
Morning light filtered through the bedroom windows as Hannah made her and Sarah’s bed. Careful not to wake her two youngest sisters, Hannah slipped into her day clothes. — When the Heart Cries,first lines of chapter ten
The aroma of fresh-baked bread, shepherd’s pie, and steamed vegetables filled Lizzy’s house, mingling with the sweet smell of baked desserts. In the hearth a bank of embers kept a small fire burning, removing the nip that clung to the early-April air. —The Sound of Sleigh Bells,first lines of chapter one
Music vibrated the crisp fall air as Ariana sat on the grassy seats of the amphitheater and watched the stage. Nicholas’s hands moved effortlessly across the piano keys as he accompanied a singer. —Fraying at the Edge, first lines of chapter nineteen
Finally back in the Old Order Amish world she loves, will Ariana’s new perspectives draw her family closer together—or completely rip them apart?
After months away in the Englisch world, Ariana Brenneman is overjoyed to be in the Old Order Amish home where she was raised. Yet her excitement is mixed with an unexpected apprehension as she reconciles all she’s learned from her biological parents with the uncompromising teachings of her Plain community. Although her childhood friend, ex-Amish Quill Schlabach, hopes to help her navigate her new role amongst her people, Ariana’s Daed doesn’t understand why his sweet daughter is suddenly questioning his authority. What will happen if she sows seeds of unrest and rebellion in the entire family?
Meanwhile, Skylar Nash has finally found her place among the large Brenneman family, but Ariana’s arrival threatens to unravel Skylar’s new identity—and her sobriety. Both Ariana and Skylar must discover the true cords that bind a family and community together and grasp tight the One who holds their authentic identities close to His heart.
Cindy Woodsmall is an award-winning New York Times and CBA best-selling author who has written 20 works of fiction, including her most recent series, Amish of Summer Grove. Her connection with the Amish community has been widely featured in national media outlets, including ABC’s Nightline. The Wall Street Journal listed Woodsmall as one of the top three most popular authors of Amish fiction. RT Book Reviews recently presented her with a Career Achievement Award and gave her latest release, Gathering the Threads,a Top Pick review. Woodsmall and her husband reside near the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. Learn more about Woodsmall and her books at www.cindywoodsmall.com. She is also active on Facebook (@authorcindywoodsmall).