Take the Reader Inside
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.
Its 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 (its amazing the number of times people confuse isle and aisle), others are more fundamental. The biggest killer Ive 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 dont cause the reader to feel the action.
Heres 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 its 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. Thats enough to give me pause the next time I eat Swiss cheese.
One of the cardinal rules of fiction is Show, dont tell. I believe you need to go a little deeper than that. Engage, dont 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.
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