Zoom In to Write Better

Often, when you aren’t happy with what you’re writing, it’s because you’re writing about your character from a distance. You’re seeing your scene as a bird might. Swoop down. Sit right behind the eyes of your protagonist. Is she sitting in a field? What does the sun feel like on her skin? Is he walking down a city street? Does the grass grow up through cracks in the sidewalk?

Another thing to remember is that your character is not your plot. They aren’t a vehicle for driving the reader through your story. They have their own history; their heart has been broken; they lie in bed at night and dream of being something else. They have siblings and cousins they’ve played games with, games only they know the rules to. They are scared. Confused. Confident. On the verge of being in love. There was that one time they danced in public, and they didn’t care how goofy they looked.

The only way to convince your readers that this world is real, that these characters are real, is to believe it first yourself. To do that, you need to zoom in. See the world as your characters do. Describe it through all 8 or 10 of their senses.* Know them as well as you know a dear friend. And then write to do them justice.



*It bugs me that we pretend there are only 5 senses. It ignores so many other ways we understand our world. There’s the kinesthetic sense, which is our ability to feel our own bodies in space. If you close your eyes and touch your nose, that’s your kinesthetic sense. When your character has an out-0f-body experience, they are feeling a breakdown of this sense. Balance is another sense, with the organs of the inner ear providing information about our orientation in space. Vertigo is an important sensation to convey to the readers. Hunger is a sense separate from taste. Hot and cold are sensed separately (Fun fact: The cold sensors within your epidermis are closer to the surface than your heat sensors, which is why, when you dip your hand or foot in scalding water, it briefly feels cold before it feels hot. The trigger for “extreme temperature” hits the cold cells before the hot cells).

17 responses to “Zoom In to Write Better”

  1. Timely and helpful advice!
    I get nervous/reticent about over-sharing the characters background, feelings etc. How do you strike the right balance between fleshing out the character and providing TMI?
    Any advice, Hugh or other learned blog readers?

    1. I think it’s better to know a lot more than you share. Only share when it’s appropriate for the story. One way to drop things in is to have current events inspire relevant memories. This is how it works in real life. Something happens, and it brings back similar memories. You don’t see this in fiction nearly as often as it happens in real life.

        1. If the background or detail is something the reader needs, you’ve got to put it somewhere.
          If it isn’t pull it out.
          Either way, as Hugh said, remember that you’re telling a story. Don’t let the details pull you off the story. If the detail leads you to another awesome story, tell that story, but right in the middle of this story may not be the place.

  2. If you can pull it off, the reader is sitting in a seat behind the character’s eyes, which is the best place to see all the action.

  3. Good advice. How a character fits into the story is often all the difference between “I can’t stop reading!” and “Who cares?” It’s a lot like the difference between hearing that 100 people were beheaded by ISIS in Iraq and hearing that 100 people were beheaded in your neighborhood. You’re a LOT closer to the experience of the event in one of those cases.

  4. Don’t forget proprioception – the awareness of where your individual body parts are relative to each other.

    And the well-named ‘sense of doom.’ And humans have a limited electrical sense.

    All fun stuff.

    I love close third pov – writing from right behind the eyeballs. Is the closest you get to being someone else.

  5. Another thing to remember is that your character is not your plot.

    This, totally! I might be entertained while reading a book with a superb plot, even if that’s all it has going for it; but the books I re-read over and over again are the ones where I want to spend time with the characters. I’m not re-reading for plot – obviously, I know what will happen. I just want to hang out with Fawn and Dag (Bujold’s The Sharing Knife) or with Rae (McKinley’s Sunshine) again. But an odd thing happens as I re-enter the author’s world; I get caught up in the story line and can’t wait to see what happens next, even though I know what happens next! ;)

  6. This is the kind of post I have been missing (although mostly missing in retrospect). The updates on the Amazon-Hatchett negotiations were informative and educational in their own right, but it is a simple perspective (pseudo-pun intended?) like this that gave me an ah-ha moment on a story I’ve been stuck on.

    Other forms of resistance aside, I think this post is a great one getting back to the roots of why I frequent your blog.

    Thanks for sharing Hugh.

  7. […] Zoom In to Write Better | Hugh Howey […]

  8. Advice is always good, thanks.
    On a separate note, I recently signed up for book gorilla and I find myself depressed, there is so much out there now, how will my books be found? Is it too late to try? I will try anyway, because I must, but tjere is so much competition……

    1. apologies for posting this in two conversations, forget i had posted it here…..

  9. Hot and cold are sensed separately (Fun fact: The cold sensors within your epidermis are closer to the surface than your heat sensors, which is why, when you dip your hand or foot in scalding water, it briefly feels cold before it feels hot. The trigger for “extreme temperature” hits the cold cells before the hot cells).

    Another neat thing about temperature sensing — the real-real-hot-OMG-ouch!! sense is (also) triggered by a combination of warm and cold. At the Exploratorium in SF, they have (or had when I was there about ten years ago) a display where there are two thin pipes twisted around each other, one carrying cold water and one carrying warm water. If you touch either pipe with a finger, it feels warm or cold as one would expect. But if you grasp the twisted pipes together in your hand, you can not hang on, because the warm plus hot triggers real-real-hot-OMG-ouch!! in your brain, and your reflexes will force you to yank your hand back. (It did me, anyway, and everyone I watched grab it.)

    Very weird. Gotta wonder how that one developed. :)


  10. The same is true of painting. I’m a full-time professional artist, and when something isn’t working, it often helps to zoom into an area. Focus on individual hairs, or water droplets, or skin textures, and how the light would make them look. Whenever I do that, I’m almost always pleased when I step back from the canvas, and assess the painting as a whole.

  11. Wow, I find this really helpful and a good idea. I kept myself anonymous just because I’m younger than the average person to go on a writing blog, but I still find this incredibly helpful. Thanks, Hugh. (I saw your speech at Powel’s Books a year or two ago.)

    1. And ‘Nobody Cares’ means nobody cares who I actually am.

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