by Margie Lawson
Writers are the Great Oz for each of their stories.
You know all.
You see everything in your mind-video of every scene.
Sometimes you don’t realize that the reader doesn’t know and see everything too. Or you think you’ve shared enough that the reader would get it. But way too often that’s not the case. And if the reader doesn’t get it, they’re no longer immersed in your fictional world.
Aack! You’ve lost them.
That’s what I call the Great Oz Effect.
1. Setting – Where is your POV character?
2. Age or Implied Age Range -- For your POV character, and maybe another character too.
3. Character’s Physical Descriptions – Every time a new character is introduced.
4. Your POV character’s reactions to everything.
5. Specific-to-your-story points that may be veiled by the Great Oz Effect.
I’ll dive deeper into each of those points and more.
I strongly recommend placing them in the setting in the first paragraph. Could just be a hint. A boy’s locker room. A hansom carriage. A rollercoaster. The deck of a ship.
Whoops. The deck of a cruise ship? A spaceship? The Titanic?
The reader would need to know.
Chapter 1, First Paragraph:
No one is to blame for my decision. Not the husband missing from my bed. Not my unborn baby. Not even my grief. Lying on my back, with a pillow behind my head, I catch a glimpse of my slightly rounded belly. And I know. I am leaving Jackson.
Compelling opening. And Denny Bryce provided a clear visual.
For your POV character, and maybe another character too.
You’ll want to slip in a hint about the age as soon as you can, or the reader may think your POV character is significantly younger or older than they are. And when the reader realizes they’re wrong, it’s not good. They’re jerked out of your story.
I’m working with her in one-on-one Zoom editing sessions. She’s given me permission to share.
In her WIP, Nessa and the Calculus of Love, we needed to slip in the age range of the male POV character. The reader could think he was old enough to be our female POV character’s father or grandfather.
The age slip-in is on the same page when they met.
The BEFORE Paragraph:
“Whoever’s bought your passage south…or whatever else your benefactor may have purchased, I’ll take no part in it,” the man slurred, alcohol wending through his breath.
The AFTER Paragraph:
Whoever’s bought your passage south…or whatever else your benefactor may have purchased, I’ll take no part in it,.” The man’s words were slurred, alcohol wending through his breath, reminding her of her brother James in habits and age.
YELLOW -- Added. We used the female POV character’s brother. It took less than a minute to think of it and slip it in.
The BEFORE Sentence:
Stirling bit into a slice of pizza slice with gusto.
The AFTER Sentence:
Stirling bit into a slice of pizza slice with teenage boy gusto.
Adding teenage boy – so easy!
Every time a character is introduced, the reader imagines them. Share a couple of interesting details RIGHT THEN, so the reader won’t be jarred when their image doesn’t match yours later. No need to share much. But make what you share carry deepen characterization.
Diana’s voice is soft and soothing, every syllable rounded with a velvety mountain cadence. Not a coarse twang like mine and Chet’s. She sounds like she comes from money, and she looks it, too, in styled hair and an oversized cream sweater that hangs artfully off one shoulder. Her boots are low and Western-inspired, chunky heels and pointy toes. She looks like a million bucks.
1. Kimberly Belle used an amplified dialogue cue to segue into describing this character.
2. She shared dialogue cues for three characters, deepening characterization for all of them.
3. She chose two things to spotlight, the oversized sweater and the Western-inspired boots. We don’t know the character’s height or build or hair color. We don’t need to know those details now. We may learn more later.
Somewhere around the fifth or sixth time, a door swung open and a woman tumbled out, shooting across the dirt in a tank top and red bikini underwear. Her bare legs were scary skinny and her hair wild, like she’d been sleeping in a wind tunnel. She marched right up to him and smacked him in the chest.
Wow. Did you see her shooting across the dirt? In a tank top and red bikini underwear?
That’s so much more than a description. Which is exactly what you want to do!
Study that example. Really study it. You’ll learn, learn. learn.
I spin round to find my Bestie Number One has emerged from the biology lab. Connie—small, flame-haired, irrepressible—waves at Josh and shoulder-bumps me. ‘Hiya, you two.’
Two physical descriptors and one personality hit shared in an em dash/No And, construction. Works beautifully.
This point applies to every page of your book. Needing subtext and more.
See what I did there? Got your attention, I hope.
You may not want character’s thinking about what they’re planning to do. If it’s happening right away, have them do it.
You know the reactions from your POV character. The reader only knows those reactions if you show or tell them.
BTW – One of my monthly Dig Deep Webinars is all about how to share reactions from your POV character: Game-Changing Power: Sharing Impact on the POV Character.
There are tons of these types of webinars on my website.
She knew the male POV character was becoming intrigued by the female sitting across from him in the carriage, but there weren’t any hints on the page.
We scrolled up and found two places where we could slip in a few words that shared his interest.
Her speech was measured, impossibly calm, her body serene, unmoving.
Beautiful dialogue cue followed by a thought about her body.
Her speech was measured, impossibly calm, somehow annoyingly alluring. Her body serene, unmoving.
YELLOW – We added to the dialogue cue and put his interest on the page.
RED – We nixed it so we’d backload and spotlight annoyingly alluring.
The second example also plays off a dialogue cue, but this time we added the whole dialogue cue.
Now her voice was playful, mocking, making him want to He ached to reach across and draw her hood away, pull back the bonnet that was probably beneath it, and see precisely what kind of daring-fool she was.
The RED and the rest of that sentence was there. But it needed a stimulus.
We nixed the RED, added the YELLOW, and used the YELLOW dialogue cue as a stimulus for him wanting to see her face.
Two paragraphs from Zara Keane's Ambushed in the Alps. She has to dig a bullet out of his upper thigh.
The BEFORE Paragraphs:
“It’s time to put my First Aid skills to the test.”
After Sidney went upstairs, and I plumped Luc’s cushions.
Zara knew that Angel is attracted to Luc. But the reader’s only read one thought about it in a previous chapter. It’s not developed for a long time, but that attraction is still happening. And Angel is going to be close to him and touch his skin. It’s a perfect place to slip in her attraction.
The AFTER Paragraphs:
“Okaaaay. It’s time to put my First Aid skills to the test.”
Sidney went upstairs, and I turned to Luc. I’ve never been this close to him. Never touched his skin. And considering that I shot him a scant few inches from his… The reaction deep in my belly redefined the butterfly effect. And heat torched my face. Great. I was a hot mess when I needed to be a cool surgeon.
1. Zara wrote what I call a Visual Dialogue Cue: “Okaaaay.”
Adding the extra vowels cues the reader how she said that word and that she’s not really okay.
2. This is a clean book, so Zara implied where she’d accidentally shot him -- a scant few inches from his…
3. She shared two visceral responses.
4. Her last sentence carries a Humor Hit with structural and content parallelism. And, she really had considered going to med school to be a surgeon. It all fits.
The BEFORE Paragraph:
I had to drag him up the steps, pausing between efforts. I’m not sure how, but we made it.
The AFTER Paragraph:
I had to drag turn around and pull him up the each steps, pausing to pant and moan. My poor battered ribs. between efforts. I’m not sure how, but we made it.
Now we can see how she’d help him up the steps. "Pant and moan" share her pain. And the 4-word sentence that follows adds more clarity. Now we know it’s her ribs that hurt.
Sometimes the Great Oz Effect contributes to missing scenes. I asked my friend/writer/editor extraordinaire Lori Freeland to share an example too.
Our heroine, Penelope, is desperate for money to save her brother and has to figure out a way to get it. That chapter ends with her solution.
She was going to become a highwayman.
What a great hook. And something the reader can’t wait to experience along with Penelope. Only, that didn’t happen. The next place we pick up our heroine, we jump here:
So far, she had ridden out thrice and coaxed five purses, totaling almost one hundred pounds, out of their owners. She frowned as she thought back to her first quarry.
We missed her first robbery and got only a partial retelling. And because of that, the scene lost its power and the reader is disappointed. Once that was pointed out, Deborah went back and wrote the scene in detail, and the difference it made was amazing!
There are soooo many of those points in every book. It could be a squillion missing anythings.
Here are a few random examples.
Cathy Lawrence had this sound: Bang. Bang.
It could be someone pounding on a carriage door. But the reader could think it’s gunshots. Yikes!
Sometimes there’s a perfect word you want to use, but it’s not one most readers would know. Like the word below I learned from Cathy Lawrence.
The BEFORE Sentence:
She lifted her gaze enough to limn his features.
The AFTER Sentence:
She lifted her gaze enough to limn his features like an artist sketches an outline.
Now everyone gets it. And the sentence is perfectly cadenced too.
You’d limit yourself to very few words in your book that are rarely known like limn. Or am I the rare one? Let me know in the comments if you knew the word limn.
Zara Keane – Ambushed in the Alps
The Set Up: The POV character is trying to rescue a friend who was buried in an avalanche.
The reader gets what’s meant in the BEFORE sentence:
We dug at a frantic pace, clearing snow, searching for any sign of life.
But if you put yourself in the POV character’s skin, or watch your mind-video of this scene, you’d know what you’re looking for.
We dug at a frantic pace, clearing snow, searching for a hand, a foot, an elbow, an ear.
Ambushed in the Alps is make-you-snicker-snort funny. Hence elbow and ear.
This is also from Ambushed in the Alps by Zara Keane. What the POV character has to do is not not not a funny part of the story. But Zara stays true to her genre and her POV character and slips in three Humor Hits.
Set Up: The 19 year-old female POV character has to dig a bullet out of someone’s thigh. She doesn’t have any medical training. The dialogue is from the guy she accidentally shot.
The first paragraph is dialogue from the guy who’s been shot.
“The bullet’s still in there. And there’s no exit wound. You’re going to have to dig it out.”
I searched for the tweezers in the First Aid kit.
Sometimes deep editing is seeing what’s not on the page.
What’s not there?
TWO BIG REACTIONS! One from him and one from her.
I know what I’d be feeling and thinking, but I’m not Angel. Her backstory is insane, as it should be.
Zara Keane added the YELLOW in less than a minute.
“The bullet’s still in there. And there’s no exit wound. You’re going to have to dig it out.” Luc’s bravado shoved out the words, but I could hear the fear in his tone.
An image popped into my mind. My dad slumped on the sofa. My godfather, Jimmy the Rat, digging a bullet out of dad’s shoulder.
If Jimmy could do it, so could I. Another life lesson courtesy of jailbird Jimmy.
I swallowed past the boulder in my throat and searched for the tweezers in the First Aid kit.
1. She added a dialogue cue that contrasted his two incongruent feelings. Always smart to share two opposite feeling states. Pretending to be brave as well as his fear. Brilliant.
Read the dialogue cue out loud:
Luc’s bravado shoved out the words, but I could hear the fear in his tone.
What did you hear? Structural parallelism. Compelling cadence. And another rhetorical device – assonance. Rhyming vowel sounds: hear, fear.
2. She used Angel’s backstory to let the reader know she’d seen her godfather dig a bullet out of her dad.
3. She included oh-so-fun Jimmy the Rat to lighten the scene. And amplified with the if-Jimmy-could-do-it line.
4. She amplified again with the next sentence: Another life lesson courtesy of jailbird Jimmy.
Notice her double alliteration: life, lesson, jailbird, Jimmy.
You know the full everything behind what something means, but your reader may only know the broad-brush something.
How’s that for vague?
That’s how your reader may feel.
You don’t feel that way…
Wait for it…
… because you know everything.
But if you don’t know what’s not clear for the reader, how can you fix it?
You may need a clarity reader. Someone who doesn’t know your story, or an editing partner or friend who has the gift of separating what they know from what the reader learns on each page.
Yep. Some people have that gift.
You could write down what the reader learns at the bottom of each page. A bullet-point list.
I call that my Page-by-Page Check Pacing List. It’s good for checking pacing as well as tracking what the reader knows. But it’s more for facts. Not for those all-important reactions that often need to be shared.
The Good News!
None of these examples took more than a couple of minutes to find a spot and slip them in. Quick, easy, fun deep editing that adds just what’s needed to keep the reader clued in.
There’s always a cool way to get what you want on the page.
A big heartfelt THANK YOU to the talented Immersion Grads for giving me permission to use their examples. Love you, love your writing!
What are some of your Great Oz Effect issues? What types of things have you needed to go back and clarify for the reader?
Please chime in. I’d love to hear from you!
If you’d like to learn more about Lawson Writer’s Academy, drop by my website, www.margielawson.com .
Each of my webinars are offered twice each month:
April 21, 12:00 p.m. Mountain Time
April 22, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Can’t make those times? Register and catch the recording later.
1. Potent Pitches and Brilliant Blurbs by Suzanne Purvis
2. Advanced Craft with Laura Drake
3. Flying Write with Hugh Gordon
4. Two-Week Intensive on Revision by Shirley Jump
5. Power Up Your Setting by Rhay Christou
6. The Indie Author: A hands-on guide to self-publishing by Jenn Windrow
7. World Genesis: World Building 101 with Suzanne Lazear
8. Writing Thrillers and Other Dangerous Novels by Julie Rowe
9. Story Structure Safari with Lisa Miller
10. Intro to Screenwriting with Wally Lane and Betty Kim
Can’t wait to hear from you all. If you have questions, ask!
ONE MORE THING: My next GET HAPPY Virtual Open House is April 12th!
Mark your calendar! Drop by my website between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12th.
Click on the GET HAPPY meme, and you’ll be in my Zoom room.
It’s a chance to hang out with writers. No agenda. Just chatting and laughing and getting to know each other. Hope to see you there!
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Margie Lawson left a career in psychology to focus on another passion—helping writers make their stories, characters, and words strong. Using a psychologically-based, deep-editing approach, Margie teaches writers how to bring emotion to the page. Emotion equals power. Power grabs readers and holds onto them until the end. Hundreds of Margie grads have gone on to win awards, find agents, sign with publishers, and hit bestseller lists.
An international presenter, Margie has taught over 150 full-day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as multi-day intensives on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Pre-COVID, she taught 5-day Immersion Master Classes across the U.S. and Canada and in seven cities in Australia too.
COVID Update: Immersion Master Classes are now virtual, taught through Zoom. Virtual Immersion classes are limited to six writers. They're two full days or four half-days—and as always, writers get one-on-one deep editing with Margie.
She also founded Lawson Writer's Academy, where you’ll find over 30 instructors teaching online courses through her website. To learn more, and sign up for Margie’s newsletter, visit www.margielawson.com.
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