61. Bring Your Reader into Your World

Telling a story is more than just writing down the facts.

In this episode, we explore how you can paint a detailed picture so your readers can vividly experience the place you were in when your story (or the story you’re writing about) happened.

Use these tips to make your story come alive to keep your reader turning the pages of your book.

Mentioned in This Episode

Jump-Start: A free guide to help you jump-start your nonfiction book.

Episode Transcript

Hey there and welcome to Nothing but the Words. I’m your author coach, Candice L Davis.

I hope your week and your writing are going well.

Today, I want to address a shortfall I see with a lot of new writers.

It may seem obvious but this mistake is more common than you might think.

Many new writers forget to take their reader into their world.

This obviously applies to novels and memoirs because these books are one long story made up of smaller stories.

But it also applies to many how-to books and subject-matter expert books.

Keep in mind that no matter how ordinary the places you’ve lived and worked may seem to you, your readers are completely unfamiliar with it.

When you tell a story, more often than not, you need to set the scene for your readers.

You need to make the setting come alive.

I recently worked with a client who was from St. Lucia, another client who was born and raised in Venezuela, and another client who grew up in New Orleans. 

It’s so important that they paint a clear picture of the environment(s) that surrounded them because that setting affects the story.

Even if you’ve visited some of these places as a tourist, you don’t know it the way they do because they lived there.

They were all steeped in completely unique cultures and shaped by an experience that couldn’t have happened exactly the way it did anywhere else.

Wherever your story takes place—whether it be in your school, or university, or a typical cubicle-filled office—your view of it will be different from the student who had the desk next to you or the perspective of the person one cubicle over from yours.

When you describe a place, it helps to use specific details. Generalities won’t suffice.

Even if you’re describing a vanilla, cookie-cutter, suburban neighborhood, the details matter. 

Your reader will instinctively compare and contrast those details with the bland, suburban neighborhoods they’ve experienced.

They’ll feel a sense of connection or curiosity—or both—based on your description.

There are lots of ways to bring your readers into the physical world of your story.

Tell us the name of the place.

If it’s a setting that many people think they’re familiar with, say New York or Los Angeles, for example, pull out details that go beyond what we’ve seen on TV and in the movies.

Give us a sense of the people who populated the setting, whether it’s a city you lived in, a classroom where you struggled to learn, a factory where you boxed medicine (I did that job once upon a time), or just your neighborhood coffee shop.

How did they treat you?

Who, in that setting, had the most impact on you and in what ways?

Who was on your side?

And who made your life difficult?

Consider the five senses in your description.

What were the sounds of that place?

What did it smell like?

Describe the geography and the climate and how they shaped the people and culture of the setting.

You can also compare and contrast the setting of your story with another neighborhood, office, school, or whatever that space happens to be.

Most importantly, show us what that place meant to you and your story.

How did it impact you?

How did it shape you?

What did it mean to you then? Were you attached to it? Fond of it? Afraid? Comfortable? 

And what does it mean to you in hindsight?

You don’t always have to include all these details in every story, but consider what you’re trying to convey.

Don’t ever take for granted that your readers know what you’re talking about when you describe your setting.

When I was a kid, my best friend lived right next door to me.

From the outside, our houses were a lot alike—and a lot like the other tract homes in our suburban neighborhood.

But inside, things were so different.

From the furnishings to the temperature to the smell of food cooking in the evening, our homes were markedly different.

Her family had a bar.

Mine had no alcohol.

Her family had finished the extra room upstairs, so she had a huge bedroom.

In my house, we used that room as an attic and I shared a bedroom with my baby sister—until I got fed up and moved my bed into the dining room to have a space of my own.

In her house, they opened the blinds to let the light in each day.

In my house, we were chastised if we opened the heavy forest green drapes in the living room, so there was little natural light.

The bones and the façade of our houses were the same.

But the inside—the people, the furnishings, the smells, and the tastes—were totally different.

Sometimes I’d go into someone else’s house in the neighborhood and feel completely disoriented because things were so different from my own home even though we all lived on the same street.

In the same way, we all experienced the neighborhood differently.

For a shy, scrawny kid like me, it was often a scary place with bullies and obnoxious, gropey boys lurking around every corner.

For my best friend, who was much bolder and braver, it seemed like a place to find adventure, fun, and trouble to get into.

Of course, that’s my perspective of how I saw her move through the world. 

In telling her story, she might have something totally different to say about the place where we grew up.

I coach my clients to write the best books they can possibly write.

That requires you to do more than get the facts on the page when you tell a story.

Writing a world-class book requires you to put your reader in the setting of your story because setting matters.

Sometimes, that requires you to visit the place once again, look through pictures, or talk to people who can help you remember the way things were—whether the story happened 30 years ago or even just last year.

When you tell a story, include the kinds of details that can make the setting of your story come alive for readers who have never experienced that place and even for readers who will never set foot where you once tread.

That’s it for this episode, my friends.

For more writing tips and inspiration, follow me on IG @candiceldavis. 

Thanks for listening to Nothing but the Words. I’m Your Author Coach, Candice L Davis. And I’ll see you next time.

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