what a reader seesWhat Can Your Reader SEE?

by Marg McAlister


Recently I was doing the final edit of a short book that I had written for a Year 2 readership (children of about 7 years old). The book was called ISAAC'S DRAGON, and I was looking for several things:

  • Was the language appropriate for the age group? 
  • Did the story keep moving?
  • Did the reader finish each chapter wanting to know what was going to happen next?
  • Was there enough of a puzzle to keep the reader entertained (with luck, busy trying to out-guess the author?)  
  • Was there enough on each page to provide inspiration to the illustrator for a picture? Would each picture be sufficiently different?

I was particularly focused on the last issue, because this book was for an educational publisher, and I had to provide an illustration layout with the manuscript.

I found that I had to tweak a section here and there to make sure there was enough stimulus for an illustration (partly because the main character was trying to guess the answer to a riddle, and that involved a lot of thinking!) It was WHAT he was thinking that provided the 'meat' of the illustrations.

Giving the illustrator something to see equates, of course, to giving the reader something to see. This is the case whether you're writing a book that is to be heavily illustrated, as I was, or a novel for adults with no illustrations at all. So here's a tip: when you're editing your book, spend some time going through it simply imagining what the reader will be 'seeing' for each scene you write. You might find that doing this for even half a dozen scenes will give you a whole new way of looking at your book. You may realise, with a sense of shock, that your character is doing entirely too much thinking and not enough acting.

You should be asking yourself: "If this were a movie, would there be enough action in this scene to make it worthwhile including? Can I imagine the character doing something... or is he/she simply sitting there thinking?"

Much of the tension in a novel comes from people interacting. They argue, they set off towards some common goal, they collaborate in a scam or they work with a team to solve a mystery. They confront people and they pit themselves against nature. They make phone calls and go shopping. They set out to achieve a result and get frustrated when things don't work out. Then they seek out someone else to help/complain to/consult with and off they go again.

A character should be continually in action - and continually providing the reader with interesting scenes to 'watch'.

Try it. Go through a scene and colour-code it. Use a yellow highlighter to show action, and a pink highlighter to show the rest. You should have a lot more yellow than pink. If they're even, think of where you can bring in more action - and where you can cut down on all that pink! If you have more pink than yellow, then you have to do some serious thinking about how you plan your scenes.

Every scene should have a motivating factor in a previous scene (or perhaps something that happened before the book started). This 'x factor' is what prompts the character to take action in THIS scene. He or she should want to achieve something - no matter how small - and will need to DO something to get it. (That 'something' shouldn't involve just sitting down and thinking about it - at least, not too often!) The 'sitting and thinking about things' scenes are often known as 'half-scenes' or 'sequels', because there's no real action in them.

By the time the scene ends, your character either DOES or DOESN'T get what he/she set out to get. The result? They decide on their NEXT plan of action - which prompts the next scene.

Whatever happens, it's action all the way. And that should conjure up plenty of interesting images in your reader's mind.

copyright Marg McAlister


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