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Keep Readers Close to Action and Emotion

on May 12th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 15, 2013

Quite a few of the manuscripts I’ve read recently contain filters that keep readers away from the action, one step removed from events and emotion and the power of a scene.

You’ve probably seen the same thing, maybe in your own writing. You might not be certain what’s wrong or know how to fix the problem, but if your story has all the proper elements and should be strong but isn’t engaging—for you or your readers—maybe you’re keeping readers at a distance. Maybe you’re using filters that hold emotion and the impact of a scene away from the reader. Maybe you’ve created a separation, an extra step, between action/event/emotion and the reader.

Do any of the following phrasings sound familiar?

Jen turned toward the window. She heard a sound, a footstep, crunching the gravel outside. She figured she should hide, so she dropped behind the couch.

——–

As soon as he entered the foyer, he saw a body swinging in the entryway. He also saw the rifle against the wall. He heard the gentle tinkle of the chandelier.

——–

I felt the wood under my fingers, rough and brittle.

——–

I heard a cracking sound before I felt the room shake violently.

Reporting what a character sees, hears, feels, and watches can keep readers at a distance. These words can serve as filters to lessen the impact of the action or the emotion. Instead of encouraging the character and the reader to experience the elements of a scene, filters mute the power of those elements. The impact is weakened when it should be heightened. The reader is pushed away rather than pulled close.

A comparison—

Jen turned toward the window. A footstep crunched the gravel outside, only two feet away. She dropped behind the couch.

——–

He rushed into the foyer. A body hanging from the chandelier twisted with a gentle tinkle. A rifle, the rifle, lay against the wall.

——–

Rough wood broke under my fingers, brittle and dry.

——–

A thundering crack preceded the room’s violent shaking.

 

These are simple sentences, true. With simple changes. Yet the simplest changes can make a big difference to a piece of fiction. The effect of again and again reporting what a character experiences adds up over the course of a scene, a chapter, and a story. It adds up to distance. Can you imagine how a story would read if Jen always told us what she was doing rather than inviting us to experience those events with her?

Not all fixes for the problems in your story will be tough ones. Sometimes the answer is as simple as a word choice.

Let action unfold without a report. Let emotion be experienced, not noted.

______________________________

Are there times when reporting an action and using these filtering words would work for the story? Of course. A blindfolded character might note what he could hear as he was driven away from his home. A woman might say that she tasted the chocolate in her coffee if she hadn’t expected the flavor. Another character might report that she could actually see a ghost, surprised by the sight.

When the sensing is more important than what is sensed, reporting that a character sees, hears, or feels something works well. When the event or emotion is—or should be—the focus, then you don’t want to diffuse the moment with words that report.

Help readers experience the events of your story by inviting readers into the action. Let them see, touch, hear, and imagine at the same time the characters do, not a step or two behind them.

Don’t let characters get between action and reader unless you’re creating distance for a purpose.

And definitely don’t push readers away from emotions, either the characters’ or their own.

Stir emotions and then push forward without pulling back again to make note of those emotions. That is, let the emotions stand on their own. Don’t point out they are emotions and that both the character and reader should now feel something.

Which would you rather read, especially if the style was consistent throughout a novel?

Jen trembled. She knew she should run, but she felt the fear lock her feet to the floor.

OR

Jen trembled. Fear locked her feet to the floor.

The emotional impact is usually far stronger without commentary from writer and/or character. 

Trust yourself. If you’ve written an emotion-inducing moment or scene, let the emotion play out without resorting to a play-by-play of what led to that emotion or what the reader should be feeling.

Get to the point. Rather than tell the reader about something, show that something. Let readers feel, not only hear about an event or emotion.

My suggestion here is to be mindful of the words you use to describe an event. Think close rather than distant, direct rather than filtered. Do a word search for felt, thought, saw, watched, heard, tasted, smelled, and knew. These tend to be the words used most often as filters and to create distance.

These are not necessarily wrong words and they’re not always overused, so don’t think you have to cut each one. But do check to see how many times you use each. See how many additional filter words you use in the same passage or scene. If there are too many, if the effect is distancing for the reader—if readers don’t engage with your characters or story events—consider changing your words.

Unless distance is required, rewrite sentences to draw readers close. Allow readers to experience actions and emotions as if they were present in the scene, not reading a police report or diary or even a character’s thoughts.

Keep readers close and interested.

Keep the words interesting for them.

Write engaging fiction.

***

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10 Responses to “Keep Readers Close to Action and Emotion”

  1. Well-said. This is helpful.

    Now, to just remember all this while writing.

  2. Shoba, I think this kind of skill comes easier with practice. Once you’ve had to change these words again and again in a couple of rewrites or self-edits, you’ll start using the phrases less often.

    Also, I wouldn’t worry about these as you’re writing. Get the words and story down first and then clean up such phrases on an editing pass.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  3. Great post. I think the see/hear/smell/saw/noticed/felt etc. should be used as seldom as adverbs. :)

    Angela Ackerman

  4. Grace says:

    This is definitely something that I need to work on. Thanks for this clear and in-depth post on this subject! I guess the old mantras that apply to so many things in life apply to writing, as well: show don’t tell, share don’t sell.
    :)

  5. Angela, isn’t it odd that the simplest of words can destroy what we’ve worked so hard to create? Amazing, the power of words.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  6. Grace, showing does have its strengths, doesn’t it? And while we may need to tell at times, that telling shouldn’t go on and on. For the listener, a recitation of events is as exciting as looking at hundreds of a neighbor’s vacation photos—it’s just not the same as being there.

    I’m glad you found the article a helpful reminder.

  7. Cynthianna says:

    Bravo! You’ve really hit the nail on the head here (pardon the cliche). When I feel distanced from a story I believe it’s because the author chooses to keep me away from the characters’ emotions. Don’t play it safe with dry, boring, police-line-up descriptions–go wild and let your emotions run free, authors!

  8. Distance from character emotion and character reaction holds readers away, doesn’t it, Cynthianna? But there are sure ways to draw them close.

    Thanks for jumping in the conversation.

  9. Great post, it’s a good example of how we grow as a writer. I think we all have done this to some extent in the past. I’m editing a novella I started awhile ago, and I’m trying to rework the story to remove filters.

  10. Madison, I think you’re right, that many began their early stories with filters. But as soon as a writer sees the difference in impact and emotion and immediacy when filters are removed, that writer will never again filter character actions or words or emotions. The writing is just so much more vibrant without filters.

    I wish you good editing with the novella.

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