Write What You Don’t Know – 3 Tips For Winging It

whiskey

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.

Further Discussion

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?

Nils Ödlund is a writing and fantasy enthusiast. He's currently chipping away at a couple of shorter stories while waiting for a novel to mature enough to get started on a second draft. Ödlund lives in Cork, Ireland. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the countryside on foot, and when the weather gets too bad he'll stay home and play games on the computer (or write some more). You can follow Ödlund on his blog [s v r t n s s e ? Making stuff up. Drinking beer and coffee. Walking around.] where he mostly posts pictures of coffee, beer, and the Irish countryside.

4 Responses to Write What You Don’t Know – 3 Tips For Winging It

  1. I love this sort of sleight of hand. I think I’ve gotten fairly good at it, and I really liked the example you gave of the whiskey. I think that’s the kind of stuff that elevates a good story and makes it great. Personal and specific, without getting bogged down in the actual, “Heres what it looks like, feels like, and this is what’s happening.” Of course, those details are good, and necessary, but what makes a story really believable is exactly what you said…selling an experience.

    I’m a sword-fighter, and while I know a fair deal about swordplay and what it physically feels like, I think one of my most successful scenes was a sword duel I wrote where an experienced swordsman (in his forties) is pitting his reflexes against four opponents in the street. As a fencer myself, I know it’s rare that a one on four matchup will result in the one person winning, but I wrote the scene with a mental perspective and showed how he played his opponents against each other. Now, I’ve never taken on four opponents, and like I said, it’s a bit unrealistic, but I put in the right kinds of details that made it SEEM possible, and rather than relying on choreography, I showed the things going through his head. A moment of decision, a realization as he was taking on these men, but simultaneously proving to himself he wasn’t past his prime, but fully still in control of his own life. I’ve gotten really good reviews of the scene (despite the novel’s relatively messy execution) and I’m using that and other “successes” to motivate me to keep going with personal touches like you showed in the whiskey scene. Scenes don’t have to be reliant on showing what IS, all the time (statistical sorts of details), sometimes they’re much stronger by using personal feelings, interpretations, and most of all, our voice. Thanks for the great article!

     
  2. Thank you for the great tips.

    In one of my stories the main character experienced the loss of his family. It was excruciating to write, and I wasn’t sure how to accurately convey the emotions. I ended up glossing over it, to the detriment of the story.

    What do you think is the best way to convey such a huge loss?

     
    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. 🙂

      The “best” way, would be to do it as openly and honestly as possible. However, that’s not only difficult technically but can also be painful emotionally – as I believe you experienced.

      I’m dealing with a similar situation in my current project I’m working on. My main characters family were all lost in an accident. The way I’m handling it so far is by showing very little of the character herself, and instead the story shows the people around her and how they talk about her. They describe the things she does and they express their worry and concern.
      I don’t know yet how well it’s working as I’ve not put it through to beta readers yet, but it’s something that might be worth considering – describing the character from an outside perspective rather than from their own point of view. You can probably do that with other intense emotions as well – not just grief.

      Also, with grief in particular you can look into the Five Stages of Grief, and that’ll give you some hints about ways for the grieving character to behave.
      Nils Ödlund recently posted…Soundtrack for a Frozen SoulMy Profile

       
    • Hi, Greybeard, I have a couple suggestions for this, too.

      One of the ways I think people can show grief and loss is through objects. Perhaps a watch a dead father left to the character. It doesn’t work anymore, but he carries it to remind him of his dead father. Or perhaps a place. Something like how he won’t go into his dead sister’s room because it still looks the way it did when they were children. Her dollhouse is still on the floor under the window, and whenever he enters and sees it, it reminds him of a time when she was sick and he hung out in her room and played dolls with her. At the time, he was surprised how much he enjoyed that little moment, where his sister laughed and forgot she was ill, for an afternoon. Now, he just tries to recall everything they said, because it’s fading from his memory.

      When I want to talk about a feeling, I avoid “on the nose” statements like, “He missed his sister terribly” because they SAY it, of course, but it doesn’t provoke an emotional response in the reader. Now, if you can use a place or an object to symbolize that person who is gone…it becomes much more relatable for readers. I think all people make those associations with feelings, whether it’s grief, guilt, loneliness, regret, joy, love, etc..

      Analogies and metaphors are powerful tools when writing emotions. We don’t have to use the same tactic repeatedly, either. For example, if in one scene the character pulls said watch from his pocket, and then leaves it on the table in his sister’s room before he leaves home forever to begin a new life, or avenge his family, or whatever, it can work as a symbol of moving on, even though we all know he’s still grieving and will probably forever.

      You might consider talking to people who have grieved deeply, or researching it on “dealing with loss” groups or blogs. Some people keep journals after becoming widows, or keep up family traditions in honor of those who have passed. I think all those symbols can SHOW how much a character is still troubled about a loss, without actually saying it over and over, that he still feels the pain and it makes him nauseous to think about how is family were killed by invaders or died in a plague, etc. which can become repetitive.

      Best wishes.

       

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