Writing fiction = reporting stories in reverse

AKA – How a nonvisual person thinks visually.

I was down at the coffee shop struggling to write last night — only partially because a very loud person at the next table was giving a chess lesson to a kid — and as I worked through a tough emotional scene between Ziva and Damon, part of my brain was thinking about how it was just like when I was a reporter gathering information for a story, but backwards.

My beat for most of my time as a reporter was a town that had a fairly hairy stretch of road, which meant I covered many accidents, several of them fatal. In most of those cases, the first day story doesn’t have a lot of specifics. Police are still investigating, and until the family is notified, no names are released unless they arrest somebody. But the editor needs a story, and if it’s a fatal wreck, needs a big one. So I got very good at observation, describing the scene, the wreck, the images of the story. It carries over.

Maybe it’s a house fire in late November. The fire is melting the snow that mixes with the hose water and then freezes as it runs off, reflecting the orange flames shooting into the dark sky. Firefighters swarm the building as it blackens around the edges, chopping through the roof to vent the fire, as the family looks on, blankets and jackets wrapped around their shoulders.

Or a town selectman whose words are innocuous as he asks another board member for input. But he raises an eyebrow, and smirks; cuts the board member off before he’s finished. Lets everybody else have their full say.

Noting the details of a scene, the body language of the people involved, adds more to the story. And in reporting, it can be a necessary part of the story because it lets the readers draw conclusions as if they were watching that otherwise they couldn’t make, and the reporter can’t say.

When I sit down to write fiction, I reverse the process. Noting all those details as a reporter gives me the material to write the story. They provide the context for the facts and quotes. In fiction, I start with what I’m trying to show, then work backward. What details show that? To use NCIS, since everybody reading this is probably familiar with it: How Ziva reacts to an emotional situation will be different from Abby or McGee or Palmer or Tony. The body language, the words, the reactions all will vary. Figuring out what they will do or say paints a picture, creates a scene. At a crime scene, what are they seeing? What pieces of evidence are there? It’s like cataloging a wreck scene to have something to fill the space if needed.

When I write original fiction, the most difficult part for me is describing the characters visually for readers. I’m just not a visual person in the traditional sense of the word. I do learn visually, by reading, or seeing what a yoga pose or cardio sequence looks like. But when I read, I don’t get visual images of characters or scenes, nor do I need them to be grounded in the story. So it always amuses me when people tell me they can really see things unfolding because of all the detail in the story. 🙂