Mystery Mondays: C.S. Lakin on Showing Through Your Characters’ Senses

This week I have the pleasure of hosting C.S. Lakin.

C. S. Lakin is a novelist and writing coach who spends her time divided between developing new book ideas and helping writers polish theirs. She is the author of fourteen novels – six contemporary novels, seven in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, and one in historical Western romance. Whether she is exploring the depths of the human psyche and pushing her characters to the edge of desperation, or embellishing an imaginary world replete with talking pigs and ancient magical curses, she is doing what she loves best – using her creativity and skills to inspire and affect her readers.

I was first introduced to C.S. Lakin through her novel Time Sniffers and have been a fan ever since.

Today’s she’s sharing an excerpt from her latest non-fiction book. Just another indication of her willingness to help other authors.

Excerpt from the newest release in the Writer’s Toolbox Series: 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.

 Fatal Flaws FINAL ebook coverShowing through Your Characters’ Senses

 One of the reasons readers willingly immerse themselves in a story is to be transported. Whether it’s to another planet, another era—past or future—or just into a character’s daily life, readers want to be swept away from their world and into another—the world of the writer’s imagination.

It’s challenging for writers to know how much detail to put in scenes to effectively transport a reader. Too much can dump info, drag the pacing of the story, and bore or overwhelm. Conversely, too little detail can create confusion or fail to evoke a place enough to rivet the reader.

In addition to knowing how much detail to show, writers have to decide what kind of details to use. I often read scenes in the manuscripts I critique, for example, that have characters engaging in lots of gestures, such as rubbing a neck, bringing a hand to a cheek, pushing fingertips together, turning or moving toward something—all for no clear reason.

Showing body movement, gestures, and expressions can be an effective way to indicate a character’s emotional state, but this needs thoughtful consideration so that the gesture or expression packs the punch desired.

It also important to show setting—and not just show it any old way. What is key to creating a powerful setting is to show it through your character’s POV and in a way that feels significant.

Showing Significant Settings

 When is setting significant to the reader? When it’s significant to the character.

That’s not to say every place you put your character has to evoke some strong emotion. A character who goes around gushing, crying, or jumping in excitement over every locale will appear to be missing some marbles.

But just as in real life, places affect us—some more than others. Each of us can think of numerous places in our past that bring a flood of emotionally charged memories. Showing setting colored by a character’s emotions is not only effective and powerful, it also captures real life.

But let’s talk about those other settings. The ones that aren’t emotionally charged. The many places in which you set your characters to play out your scenes. Some of those places are merely backdrops, places your character traverses daily or on occasion. They’re not important, right?

Let me just pose this possibility: even though you’ve thought a bit about the locales for your scenes, it may be that you aren’t truly tapping into the power of setting. In the rest of this chapter, we’ll look at ways to fix that.

Bring the Setting to Life

 You may need to write a scene that shows a tense discussion between two characters. So you stick them in the coffee shop, since it doesn’t matter where you put them. And, hey, a coffee shop makes sense. Everyone goes to them. It shows the characters doing ordinary things.

Sure, put your characters there (but please not twenty times in a novel). Or do something more interesting. I encourage writers to try to think up original, unique settings that bring a character’s bigger world—town, city, region—alive. But even if a writer thinks up fresh and creative locales in which to place her characters, those settings might still come across in a boring, ineffectual way.

But it’s the conversation that matters, the writer argues. That’s what I want readers to pay attention to. The setting is just a backdrop.

In many scenes, that may be true. But if a writer wants to transport her reader, she’ll think about bringing the setting to life via sensory details—which are observed by the POV character.

 Go through your scenes and look for these indications of flawed” telling” instead of showing:

  • Summarizing important moments instead of playing them out in real time
  • Lack of sensory details to bring the scene alive: sights, smells, sounds, and textures, brought out through the POV character’s senses
  • Detailing insignificant actions that aren’t important to the plot or don’t reveal anything helpful about the characters (showing too much)
  • Not starting in the middle of something happening in real time; instead, setting up a scene by explaining and filling in with information
  • Showing characters moving (driving, walking, etc.) from one location to another when those actions are not useful to the story
  • Numerous paragraphs of narrative that summarize interaction between characters and lack actual dialogue, gestures, and/or body language
  • Excessive use of gestures, body language, and “body feelings” to show emotion instead of alternating or replacing with internal thoughts that imply the emotion
  • Showing setting not presented through the POV character and void of sensory detail

Setting is so often overlooked, but it can be a powerful element in your story, so don’t neglect it.

Author C.S. Latin
Author C.S. Latin

S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive.

The latest book in The Writer’s Toolbox Series is now available for sale on Amazon: 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. Get yours here.


Next week on Mystery Mondays we welcome Gloria FerrisWinner of the 2012 Bony Blithe Award forCheat the Hangman” and Winner of the 2010 Unhanged Arthur for “Corpse Flower


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