Thursday, February 23, 2012

Removing the Layer of Distance

Imagine you’re reading what should be a really good book. The settings are detailed, the dialogue is fairly witty, and important, action-packed thing are happening in its plot.
And yet, you still feel unsatisfied.
Your attention lags. You find your inner reading voice drifting into a dull monotone. You catch yourself skimming more than once. At the very least, you find you don’t quite care about the main character, or whatever trials they’re overcoming.
It should be a really good book, and yet you just can’t get into it.
One possibility is that the author has left a level of distance between you and the story’s main character.
I see it all the time when I review short stories and first chapters**, especially among less experienced writers. Exciting things are happening. But we – the readers – are a step removed from the action, like we’re watching the events from across the street. We see the characters moving, but… We’re not really there.
To demonstrate, here’s some very rough, paraphrased lines from a scene in my WIP:
“David flinched as the kickball flew over his head. As Jameson and the other kids laughed, David scowled and went after the ball, vaulting over the fence and landing with a grunt on the other side.”
Not the best sentence in the world, but it’s not the worst, either. A little Tell-y. A little flat. A little more likely to drop our attention. It’s written like an outline, leaving us to fill in most of the details.
Now, let’s step into David’s shoes, and try to see the scene through his eyes.
“He turned his back to Jameson and stalked toward the fence. He vaulted it, moments before realizing that fence-vaulting probably wasn’t something they’d expect from him – the ‘crazy, formerly-kidnapped slacker’. He didn’t look back to gauge their expressions as heat crept up the back of his neck. Orange ball. David blinked as his eyes adjusted to the mottled light under the trees. Just find the stupid orange ball and toss it back to ‘em before somebody breaks out the baseball bats from the storage locker.”
I’d like to think that the scene from my actual draft is an improvement, although it’s still a bit rough. XD
At the very least, David’s more engaged in this scene. He’s moving. We’re hearing his thoughts. Seeing things from his perspective. We can infer more about his personality.
It’s my belief that readers can get more invested in a character – more drawn into the story – once they step into the character’s shoes. Obviously, methods may vary depending on what Point of View you use, but there are few tactics that can really start to connect your character with the scene around them.
  • Show your character’s opinions and perspectives. And not just in the dialogue. “Just find the stupid orange ball…” David doesn’t care about the game they’re playing, and chances are it’s not just because of any screw-ups on his part.
  • Use word choice to show the character’s mood. “David stalked…” As opposed to ‘jogged’, or ‘skipped’, or just plain ‘walked’. Using a tense verb carries David’s tension. If your character is at one of the lowest of low points in their life, the stars may not ‘twinkle’, the birds may not ‘chirp’, and dogs may not ‘yip’. They will – respectively – glimmer, caw, and growl.
  • Keep the focus on your main character. They’re called ‘main’ for a reason. I could’ve added a few sentences about Jameson nudging one of his buddies. Or I could’ve gone into detail about the way he smirks at David’s back. But instead, we get “heat crept up the back of [David’s] neck”. David is our focus.
Don’t make us watch events from across the street. Take away the layer of distance, and place us firmly into the scene. Put us into the main character’s shoes, and let us feel what they feel.
Have you read a book where you just couldn’t connect with the main character? Are your character’s engaged in every scene? Do they cast their own perspectives onto everything they see? And, uh, thanks for putting up with the rough example from my WIP. XD
 **This also could be because I read some early drafts, before the author’s gone back to tweak all the things into their final, polished form. XD


  1. *cough* I feel like my first chapter at least partially inspired this post…*kicks Aerael* Just kidding. ^_^ I've redone the first two pages so far today, and I like them so much better! The layer of distance is peeling away nicely, under the guide of your comments. =)

    I love the example, btw! Pretty clean, and very intriguing—makes me want to read the rest, which is probably the highest compliment for an excerpt. ^_^

    1. Oh, no, no! It wasn't anybody in particular that brought this on. XD Just something I've noticed more than a few people struggling with. If I had to pinpoint anyone, it would probably be the VERY inexperienced kids at my school who've written stories in English and stuff that we had to peer-review. Lots of distant narration. XD

      Glad your revisions are going well! ^^ And, thanks. XD Glad you're interested, especially since this excerpt only has a tiny little bit of the elements that make up the whole book. XD

    2. Hahaha, I thought as much. I just like to take credit whenever I can. XP