The Journal: A Mind-Control Technique

In today’s Journal

* Topic: A Mind-Control Technique
* Help Keep Me in Cigars
* Be Wary
* The Numbers

Note: Today’s post is around twice as long as usual, but it’s very informative.

Topic: A Mind-Control Technique (and Why to Use It)

You’ve heard it here at least a few times: When you allow your POV character (not yourself) to describe a setting, it’s a good idea to let the character use all five of his or her physical senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. I also recommend letting the POV character use his emotional senses: dread, elation, joy, fear, etc.

“But why?” you say.

And that’s a question I haven’t answered other than in general terms, as follows:

* To draw the reader into the story.

* To firmly ground the reader in the setting.

* To cause the reader to be so deeply involved and invested in the story that he’d rather remain where he is for just one more page and risk peeing his pants a little than put down your story to go into the bathroom.

And those are all very good reasons, but they’re still too general. They don’t go deep enough, and therefore they let you off the hook.

Do you want your writing to take a major leap forward? Then here’s why you want to let the POV character use all five of his or her physical senses to describe a setting:

Because you want to control his mind.

I know, that doesn’t sound like your job description as a writer, does it? But it’s true. If you want the reader to experience the story you have in your mind, the one you spent all that time turning into a short story or a novel, then you have to exert control over the reader’s mind.

If you don’t control every aspect of your story, the reader’s basically making up his own story. It’s like you walked up to a guy on the street and said, “So anyway, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.” And then you shut up and walk away.

Granted, the guy might shake his head and wonder what institution hasn’t noticed your absence yet. On the other hand, he might finish the joke in his own head, which of course is what you wanted him to do. But even if he does finish it for himself, chances are it won’t be the joke that was in your mind.

The same applies to your fiction. For example, you never want to write “Mary and Joe went into the barn” and then go on about the story. If you do, you’ll force the reader to fill in the details. And I can pretty much guarantee he won’t see the same barn in his head that you saw in yours. He won’t even see the same Mary and Joe that you saw.

When you wrote “Mary and Joe went into the barn,” were Mary and Joe both naked in your mind or were they wearing clothes? What were the clothes from the feet up? Spend a few sentences describing them through the POV character.

But here: To illustrate why, let’s mentally move to a stage production of a Jane Austen novel. Since the audience knows the genre and historical time period from the playbill, you can trot the actors on-stage naked, right? Save on costume costs. And the audience will “see” the appropriate clothing in their own mind, right? Right? Uhh, no. Same thing with your short story or novel.

Even in your short story or novel, the reader won’t get the clothing from context. If Mary and Joe are insurance adjusters, Joe might still be wearing lace-up boots and jeans and a blue cotton long-sleeved work shirt instead of a suit. And Mary might be wearing anything  from heels to sneakers on her feet and anything from jeans and a blouse to a pantsuit to a skirt and blouse or a dress on the rest of her body. They’ve come a long way, baby.

Did either of them have hair or was one or both of them bald? If either of them had had hair, how long was it? How was it cut? What color was it? If Joe’s personally interested at all in Mary (depending on genre) did Mary’s hair have a scent to it? How about his? Brylcream or soap or grease or something else?

But back to the barn. Is it a hip-roofed barn or is the roof peaked or flat or sloped? Is the barn red (cattle or horses or a hay barn) or white (dairy) or black with narrow spaces between the boards to allow for air flow (tobacco)? Is the floor concrete and relatively clean (dairy) or covered with hay (horses or cattle or a hay barn)? Speaking of that, is there a hay mow or a loft, or not? If so, are there stairs up to it or just a ladder? Are the stairs rough-hewn or professionally built? Wood or steel? Is the ladder attached to the wall? Metal or just a pair of two-by-fours with boards or rails of varying sizes nailed across the front?

How does the barn look on the inside? Is sunlight (or shadowy moonlight) slanting across the floor? Do they go in through a walking door or a bay door or a pair of bay doors? Are there mower blades and cythes hanging on the wall inside? Is there a tractor or other equipment? Is there a workbench anywhere inside? What’s on it? A vise? Horse tack? Tins of various liniments? A grinding wheel? Splotches of black grease? Are there stalls inside? Anything hanging on or draped over the walls of the stalls?

How’s it feel, physically? Is the air cold, cool, warm, or hot? Dry and dusty or muggy and damp? Is the wood of the barn (and inside the barn) painted or rough? Splintery or polished and worn smooth? Lumps of anything beneath your feet as you walk? How does the barn smell? Does it smell of oil or dust or manure or hay or the rotton apples at the base of the apple tree just outside? Maybe a mixture of those? Do the hinges on the door creak or smell of a recent oiling? Are the hinges themselves clean or rusted? And a million other things.

Some writers in some genres might go a thousand or two thousand or five thousand words doing nothing but describing the setting before they get into the first plot element or the first bit of action. And if you think that costs them readers, you’re wrong. More often than not, readers will remember that the book started in the midst of action.

(By the way, much has been said about “too much description” so here’s a rule of thumb for you: If the author adds it, no matter how short or terse, it’s too much. Period. If the POV character notices it and adds it, it’s just right. Remember, you’re trying to get the reader into the POV character’s head, not into yours.)

The more your reader is forced to use his imagination—the more details he is forced to provide because you omitted them, intentionally or otherwise—the less likely he is to experience the story you thought you put on paper.

The reader will use his imagination anyway, but only passively. If he has to use his imagination actively to fill in details that you omitted, reading becomes work. And when that happens, he’ll put down your story and walk away, probably muttering that the story was “flat” or “thin.” Because it was. And he didn’t come to work. He came to be entertained.

So yes. It’s a good idea to use all five of the POV character’s physical senses in every opening (every chapter of a novel or every short story), and Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch recommend using them every 500 words.

Me? I just recommend using them in every opening and in every major scene (which for me are the same thing). For me, that’s easier to remember.

And why?


* to firmly ground the reader in the setting, and

* thereby draw him deep into the story.

Which means you’re exerting mind control over your readers. Seriously.

Help Keep Me in Cigars and Coffee

I haven’t mentioned this for awhile. If you find this Journal useful or informative and you want to donate to the cause, please visit the recently revised patronage page at and select a level. Every little bit helps.

Be Wary

I’ve linked to an article via The Passive Voice in “Of Interest” below because it contains some information that might be valuable for some readers.

However, be wary while reading the article. For example, the author of the original post (allegedly an attorney and agent for a particular author, and that’s a whole other ball of ugly) writes, “There are other mechanisms, such as reversion of rights and out-of-print clauses, that can help you retain your copyright.” In actuality, neither of those help you “retain” your copyright. They help you GET BACK your copyright. There’s a huge difference.

And just FYI, with ebooks and the internet being what they are, a publisher can always say, truthfully, a book is NEVER “out of print,” rendering that particular clause useless. Finally, where the author of the OP talks about the “the royalty share between the author and publisher” the percentages shown in the list below that are actually publisher/author, not the other way around as the author of the OP implies.

As always, I recommend indie publishing and “retaining” your copyright yourself.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “How To Animate Book Covers” at

See “Authors: Know Your Rights! Key Provisions in a Publishing Contract” at Be sure to see PG’s take.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1650 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 6 (novel)

Day 1…… 1628 words. Total words to date…… 1628
Day 2…… 2011 words. Total words to date…… 3639

Total fiction words for January……… 66742
Total fiction words for the year………… 66742
Total nonfiction words for December… 18930
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 18930
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 85672

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 55
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 215
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

2 thoughts on “The Journal: A Mind-Control Technique”

  1. Guilty! of not putting in enough description because I know what it looks, smells, feels, tastes like. I’ve been there with the characters, right? I grab and write down the action but don’t always focus on the details as the POV character notices them. Great examples and explanation here. I needed the reminder.
    I think you said it yesterday or the day before, Harvey. Slow down.

    • Yup. Taking my time as a writer has been the most recent big lesson I’ve learned, and oddly enough it was one I taught myself. 🙂

      I was telling another friend via email today (we were discussing the FOH series, “I’ve had to learn to take my time. This is a very long voyage, one in which people have room and time to grow, grow old, and die, and pass along what they learned about being human to the next generation. I have to admit, there are times when I want to rush ahead and Just Get to the Damn Planet already so I can see what’s there. (grin) But the folks who are on the voyage deserve more than that. Think of all I’d have missed if the thing had left lunar orbit early in the first book, flashed through a few generations, and entered into orbit around the target planet. I do hope to get there with them someday, but I also want to enjoy the trip.”

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