By Deb McLeod
The best fiction pulls the reader into the novel’s world and creates an emotional experience. For us writers, that’s the beginning goal. That’s the end goal. That’s the be-all and end-all goal. It’s the writer’s job to both direct the story and step out of the way so the reader can have an experience.
In this series I want to explore ways in which the writer directs and thwarts the emotional journey of the novel. When you see symptoms like the following, you can bet the writer has yet to get out of the way and let the reader experience the novel.
- Continual narration of the character’s feelings
- Scenes that have no conflict
- Scenes that have no forward movement
In my coaching work I run into lots and lots of writers who narrate feelings the whole book through. Some of that is first draft-itus and they just need to rework the words so they’re doing the job of conveying the feeling rather than telling the feeling throughout.
It’s a matter of narrative distance. When you tell the reader how the character feels, it creates distance between the story and the reader. By putting your interpretation there, you are subtly pulling the reader out of their own feeling.
At its heart this issue is connected to Show Don’t Tell. Even when a writer has mastered the show part of the equation and is using actions and sensory detail to help the reader feel the story, they often fall into the habit of telling how the reader is feeling through:
- Dialogue tags
- Inner narration (vs. inner dialogue)
The tag is the 'said' part of a dialogue sentence. 'Said' and 'asked' have been used so much in dialogue that they virtually disappear and the reader skims right over them. The problem comes when the writer doesn’t write the dialogue or dialogue + action to convey the feeling of the words just spoken, but rather takes the shortcut of telling the reader how the dialogue should be interpreted.
- “Leave me alone,” she fired.
- “Leave me alone,” she pleaded.
- “Leave me alone,” she whispered.
It forces them to challenge their writing and write better dialogue and better dialogue + action. If you have to tell the reader how to interpret the words just spoken, your words and the actions of the characters didn’t do their job. If your character says something vehemently, it should be evident from the words themselves or their words combined with actions.
- “Leave me alone.” She slammed the book closed and shoved his arm off the desk.
- “Leave me alone.” She swallowed hard and her eyes cut left to measure the distance to the door.
- “Leave me alone,” she said, but her fingers reached for his.
Inner Narration and Projecting
Inner narration is not the same as inner dialogue. Sometimes a character mulls over his state of being or tries to decide what to do. That’s inner dialogue. Inner narration is when a character narrates his state of being with unnatural self-awareness.
The next example contains both inner narration and projection of feelings. This sentence came in a chapter from a client this week. It’s near the climax of the book, so it’s in an intense scene and an intense moment. One girl has just confessed a deep, dark secret she’s kept from her best friend for more than four years.
“After a few minutes of watching her quiet tears, I surprise myself when I lean over and wrap my arms around her.”First, there may be other issues in this sentence but we’re going to focus on projecting and narrating. Note the projection of surprise in that sentence. The author projects the surprise before the action has a chance to surprise us. It’s a spoiler.
The inner narration of “I surprise myself when I lean over and wrap my arms around her” is akin to the character watching the character. Have you ever met someone who talked about themselves in third person? Isn’t that kind of what’s going on in that example sentence?
What the writer should be aiming for is to take us by surprise, to let us feel that surprise when the best friend is weeping. To let the character lean over to hug her in a surprise movement. Given the conflict in the story, at that moment, it would be a surprise. The reader would feel it and it would reverberate over all the other things we know about the main character and understand something about her we didn’t before. But the writer has taken a shortcut, so we don’t feel the surprise, we don’t get the depth of that moment or the opportunity to let the story unfold inside of us. Instead, we see the character seeing herself be surprised that she leans over and gives her friend a hug. That’s not at all the same thing.
In My Genre
When I point out these small but vital changes that need to be made, many writers defend the continual narration of feelings in exposition and dialogue by saying that in their genre, that’s how the books are written. So I say: Want to rocket to the top of the bestseller lists in your genre? Imagine if you were the one writer who didn’t write that way, but made your readers feel what your characters feel instead of telling them what your characters feel. Wouldn’t that make a difference?
If you narrate the feelings of the characters, you can’t let your readers get lost in the story. There’s a point of view interruption. An author intrusion alert that shows a distrust that your words will make some sort of feeling connection to the reader’s emotion. And if that distrust is there, it’s a sign that you need to rewrite.
The anecdote is to keep your interpretation off the page and write your sentences well enough that they project the feelings of the character. Then, step out of the way and trust that the words will make the reader feel something akin to what you want them to feel. You must learn to trust the story and to trust the reader.
About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see www.debmcleod.com.