Take the Reader Inside
By Scott Nicholson

(Ever wanted to be a writer? Sign up for my free occasional newsletter and learn the good, the bad, and the ugly. My writing advice is free and worth what you pay for it. Just send an email to hauntedcomputer-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. This article is free and uncopyrighted, meaning you can publish it in your blog, journal, newsletter, webzine, etc., as long as you include my byline and web address.)

I do some freelance editing as a sideline to my writing and day-job journalism, and the experience has helped me more than I ever thought it would.

It’s allowed to me to find common mistakes in the work of others, and in turn I sometimes find those problems in my own fiction. While some of these are of the mundane variety (it’s amazing the number of times people confuse “isle” and “aisle”), others are more fundamental. The biggest killer I’ve seen is writing “outside” the character instead of plopping the reader into the story.

In unskilled writing, the author will introduce the character with a visual info dump: “Bobby stood six feet two and 210 pounds. His blue eyes scanned the room and he pushed back a lock of brown hair from his forehead. He saw a bone on the kitchen table, and he walked toward it. He picked it up even though it was bloody.”

We still know nothing about Bobby. While the omniscient viewpoint is valid and has a place, most fiction writers utilize some form of limited third-person viewpoint. The author decides how deep the limitation goes; a blend of omniscience and private perspective can tell us much more about a character than any physical description can.

The “he saw,” “he walked,” and “he picked up” suggest action, but they don’t cause the reader to feel the action.

Here’s an option slightly better: “The bone lay on the table. Bobby held it to the light. Blood from the lukewarm bone streaked his fingers, giving off a wet-dog smell. A lock of hair, what his ex-wife had called his ‘Superman curl,’ fell into his eyes and he pushed it away.”

We get more of a sense of Bobby as a fine physical specimen because of the reference to Superman (though it’s possible his ex-wife was hyperbolic for the sake of humor). We also have engaged three of the senses: smell, sight, touch.

Unskilled writers often rely too heavily on sight and sound, forgetting that smell, touch, and taste often make dramatic impressions and have strong associations for most people. Their characters “see” and “hear” things, but rarely experience them.

“He saw a ghost and he was scared.” Does the job? Yes. And a job it is, because reading a hundred such sentences is a chore I would wish on no one.

A little better: “The diaphanous form separated itself from the mist and drifted toward him. His heart skipped three beats and then made up for lost time.” Not exactly high art, but it does lay out a more vivid scene.

“Bobby hated Swiss cheese.” Useless fact by itself.

“As a child, Bobby had suffered a nightmare in which hundreds of sharp-toothed rodents spilled from the dark caves of a chunk of Swiss cheese.” That’s enough to give me pause the next time I eat Swiss cheese.

One of the cardinal rules of fiction is “Show, don’t tell.” I believe you need to go a little deeper than that. “Engage, don’t inform.”

After all, the writer supplies only half the story. The reader builds the other half through the bricks and mortar of her own imagination, inspired by your blueprint. Next time you cast a cold eye on your own work, ask yourself how much you are forcing on your readers and how much you are allowing them the delight of discovery. Go inside the characters, and take the reader with you.


(Scott Nicholson is the author of THE FARM, THE MANOR, THE HOME, THE
RED CHURCH, THE HARVEST and the collection THANK YOU FOR THE FLOWERS. His website
http://www.hauntedcomputer.com contains writing articles,
news, and a blog.)

Back to Articles page

HomeScott's Where, When, WhyJournalLinks to Scott's available storiesFor Writers And Other Losers/Author InterviewsWho Scott thinks he isLinks to writers and e-zinesPress KitE-mail Scott
self-publishing digital books publish your own book indie writers writing self-publish your work e-book audience traditional publishing is dead the e-book era authors

Scott Nicholson copyright 2001-2010ŠAll rights reserved