I’m sure we’ve all heard the advice “write what you know” at one time or another. It’s good, sensible advice. It works as long as you don’t look at it too closely. Because what do you actually know? In this article I’m going to look at a few tips for writing what you don’t know.
When writing about something we’re not all that well clued up on we can take some cues from other mediums, like film and TV. Writing isn’t film, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use some of the same principles. After all, “show, don’t tell” is another piece of advice that gets thrown around a whole lot.
I’ll bring up three different tips:
- Show the bare minimum and let the reader imagine the rest.
- Focus on something else that goes on at the same time.
- Use completely unrelated images to trigger reader associations.
In a way, all of the above are variations of the same basic concept, but I’ll get to that at the end of the article. You’ll probably figure it out yourself anyway.
Before I start though, I would like to point out that none of the tips here is an excuse for not doing your research. Find out as much as you can about your subject and then use smoke and mirrors to cover the rest. You may not be able to conjure fireballs out of thin air, but you can light a candle and hold your hand near it to feel the heat of the flame (don’t burn yourself).
Showing the Bare Minimum
Everything doesn’t have to be described down to the last detail. Details are good, but if you’re uncertain about them or get them wrong, they can distract the reader from the story.
It’s okay to leave details out if they’re not necessary. Your readers are clever enough to fill in the blanks you leave as long as there’s enough information around the parts you leave out.
Let’s say your have a scene where a person stands next to someone lying on the ground covered by a blanket. The person standing up hangs their head and their shoulders are slumped. They might be crying. The person on the ground is fully covered by the blanket – even the face.
I’m willing to bet you assume the person under the blanket is dead, even if I didn’t write it out. You probably also assume the person standing up is someone close to the deceased – although that’s less obvious, and there’s more room for interpretation.
By setting up your scene in this way you communicate a whole lot to the reader without describing it in detail. By hiding the dead person under the blanket you don’t have to describe the way they look, and you don’t have to describe the feeling of looking directly at a dead person.
With the person standing up, you don’t have to describe their feelings. They communicate it clearly enough in the way they stand. Head hanging, shoulders slumped, possibly crying. A dead person in front of them. Those are enough cues for a reader to take a hint and pick up on the mood of the scene.
You don’t have to go into explicit gory detail in order to bring the scene to life. We can go further though, and add even more information without actually saying what happened.
Let’s say that on the floor next to the blanket covering the body there’s an empty bottle of vodka and some pills. This is another cue to help the reader grasp the situation.
This is one example of where you can convey a whole lot of information with very simple means: body under blanket, sad person, empty bottle, pills. The same principle can be applied to all kinds of other situations as well.
Give the reader some cues and they’ll sort out the rest on their own.
Distract the Reader with Something Else
It is rare that something can be described in only one way. You will almost always have options to pick and choose from.
In a story I wrote a while back, my main character (Enar) and his friend (Rolf) spend a day repairing a roof that someone shot a fireball through. The fireball or the hole it left aren’t important, but Enar’s experience of taking part in the repairs is. He’s not very crafty, doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and his main task is to hold the ladder so it doesn’t fall. He also gets to fetch the tools Rolf needs for the repairs.
When I wrote it, I described the entire process in pretty decent detail: where they got the materials, how the tiles covering the hole in the roof were slotted together, the mess in the toolbox after Enar dropped it – stuff like that.
It was really dull.
My beta readers all pointed out that they really weren’t very interested in how to repair a roof and skimmed over that part. In other words, I’d failed in conveying what was important in the scene even if I did describe the repairs to the best of my ability (which, to be fair, isn’t saying much).
What if I’d focused on something else?
The scene takes place during a beautiful day in early summer, in a meadow by a lake in the countryside. The sun is shining. It’s very warm. The men take off their shirts and work bare chested in the midday heat. Beads of sweat form on their brows and backs.
I’m still describing the repairing of the roof, but instead of the task itself I’m describing Enar’s experience of it (he’s from the big city and you don’t walk around with your chest bare there – it’s unseemly).
When your characters in your story are doing something you have no experience of yourself – like casting a magic spell, or hacking a computer network, or flumbrogating a smeerp – don’t describe the actual task. Describe their experience of it, or the look on their face as they’re doing it. Describe how their sidekick fidgets impatiently, or the clock ticks down, or the enemy approaches. Just because something important is happening doesn’t mean you have to describe that exact thing. You always have an option of what to show your reader and what to keep from them.
Playing with Associations
As humans we have the ability to connect things to other things by association. It happens subconsciously and without effort. It’s a powerful ability, both for readers and for writers, and used right it can be very efficient in your storytelling.
Almost all words trigger some kind of association within you: Mountain. Spaghetti. Green.
I have no idea what associations those words triggered for you, but I’m confident they all have a meaning.
One place where we can see the power of association at work is in adverts and commercials. We see images that logically have nothing to do with the product that’s advertised, but the images trigger something pleasant within us and it makes us want the product (at least that’s the theory).
We can use the same thing in our writing.
Use positive imagery to get your reader to like something, and negative imagery for bad stuff.
In another story of mine, my main character (Emma) enjoys a cup of hot whiskey. Now, to be honest, I do drink whiskey myself, but I’m not sure I could accurately describe the taste of it – I’m far from a connoisseur. On top of that, an accurate description of just the taste wouldn’t cut it. Emma is cold, worn, and tired after a long day spent outside in the snow. There’s more to this whiskey than just the taste.
Here’s what I wrote:
Emma picked up the little cup and cradled it in her hands. It barely fit a mouthful – perhaps two. The rough surface warmed her palms, and the faint smoke rising from within hinted at evenings free from work and chores long completed.
She moved the cup to her nose, closed her eyes, and let the fumes find their way into her. A campfire by a forest lake. Morning mists rising from the valleys. Pipe smoke and sheep and walking over ground covered by fallen pine needles on a warm summer night.
Touching the cup to her lips she tilted it ever so slightly and sipped the warm liquid. Gold and brown and moss covered rocks. Fire in the hearth, stew in the pot, and a good friend with no need to talk.
That’s it. As you see, there’s nothing in the above description that has anything to do with the taste of whiskey. It’s all imagery meant to trigger positive associations. Admittedly, it’s imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in a whiskey commercial, but it still doesn’t describe the actual taste.
It works though. It’s not the taste that’s important, but Emma’s experience as she sips the cup.
This too can be used when writing about things you don’t have any personal experience with. Think about what you want show the reader. Try and come up with something you associate with it and show that instead.
Smoke and Mirrors
That’s it for this time, three tips to help you wing it when you’re writing about something you don’t know:
- Let the reader make up their own image.
- Focus on something else happening at the same time.
- Trigger associations.
Like I mentioned at the start. All three tips are basically variations of the same thing. What you do is distract the reader from that which you don’t know and pull their attention to something related that you’re more familiar with. In this way you’re able to keep writing with confidence about something you know, and your reader won’t notice that you don’t really have a clue about what’s going on at the edge of vision.
It’s all smoke and mirrors.
And once again, don’t forget to do your research. There’s only so far you can wing it.
As fantasy writers we often end up with our characters in situations we can’t possibly experience in real life. It’s part of the charm of the genre. How do you deal with it when that happens?
Do you have a favorite section where you feel you pulled it off really well?
What’s a situation you find really difficult to relate to and that you had to write about?
Do you have any other suggestions for how to write something you don’t know as if you did?