One of the biggest challenges I face every time I pick up my pen is writing to engage the reader. I’m not just telling a story. I’m not just dancing with my characters in a world of my own creation. I’m writing for someone: My audience. Just like a performer wants to engage their audience, I want to engage with my readers.
That means, through the use of language and words, tearing down the barriers that exist between reality and my reader. It means I have to try to make the words on the page more than just words.
That’s not easy. How do I form connections with my reader and tear that wall down? Through my characters and writing.
That doesn’t answer a whole lot, does it? Yet, time and time again, I hear criticism saying, “Improve Characterization!” or “Make the POV more limited!” or “This just didn’t engage me!” without explaining why or how.
This is me, through a series of blog posts and personal opinions, trying to explain the why and how to doing this. Why is engagement so important? What can be done to fix characterization, immediacy, and POV problems? What can be done to save a precious book that is plagued with the problem of engagement?
The first thing I think every writer should consider is the POV types. I’m going to cover three: First Person, Third Person Limited, and Third Person Omniscient. (I will not touch second person with a 11 foot pole for all I often use it in blog posts!)
First Person is an extremely limited POV type. It is done from one character, and uses “I, me, myself, and we” words. Many consider it the ‘closest’ POV type, as readers get into the heads of the character quite directly.
It is also the most difficult to master.
The first resource I’m going to direct you to is Grammar Girl’s Guide to POVs.
Here are some links for you to study up on what First person POV is:
- Wikipedia’s Entry (Remember: Grains of Salt.)
- The Writer’s Craft – Explanation of 1st Person and how it is often marketed
- Ingrid’s Notes - 5 Reasons to use 1st Person POV and 6 Limitations of 1st Person POV
Omniscient voice: It’s considered an evil that plagues writing and makes editors around the world cringe.
Why? It is often abused, unintentionally used, and misused. Some of my favorite, classic books are written in omniscient third person. It can be a beautiful method of writing fully capable of engagement.
Like First Person, it is incredibly difficult to master. So difficult, that the art of mastering it has gone by the wayside, crushed beneath the weight of those who abuse it. So, what is Omniscient Third Person POV?
It is that POV type that allows for the writer to hop around heads. Most writers do this unintentionally. That makes it jarring. To most easily describe it, Omniscient Third Person writing is the act of jumping from two or more character points of view within the same scene.
Changing scenes and shifting points of view to a single new character is Multiple Limited Third POV. This is a very important distinction.
One of the best resources I’ve found to describe the differences between Omniscient and Limited Third Person is Nathan Bransford’s Blog discussing Third Person Omniscient vs Limited Third Person.
Limited Third Person POV is the most engaging out of the third person types as it has the engaging quality of first person but the flexibility of third.
Ironically, this is where my wagon falls apart for providing really spot-on resources about third person. There are plenty of sites that explain what third is, using similar phrasings as I do above. In part, this is why I’m writing this post. I had to figure a lot of this out on my own because there aren’t a lot of resources available that delve into the deeper aspects of third POV. Why is this ironic? Third person is the most commonly used POV type.
I did find a few basic resources you can use to read about limited third. Nathan’s is still the best in my opinion.
While I did stumble on some others, I found the examples to be so poorly written that I don’t feel comfortable sharing them. While those articles did demonstrate the basics, the quality of fiction writing used isn’t something I would showcase.
Now to get into some complexity. As a developmental editor, my goal in my editorial notes is to feel like I’m right there with the characters. I want to be on the edge of my seat when they’re in danger. I want to be holding my breath as they struggle through their inner turmoil. I want to understand them and connect with them. What do I urge writers to do to accomplish this?
Usually I ask them to stop telling and start showing. Physical reactions to things provides a good place to start. People react constantly to the things around them. Then, depending on the character, they think about what is bothering them or what they must do. They worry. They try to find ways out of their problematic situations. They do things. They make decisions. They justify their decisions.
They exist. Sometimes, telling can’t be avoided. Sometimes, the best way to make an impact is to show certain elements and be blunt about the character’s acknowledgement of their feelings. Sometimes, you just need to write that one character stares at another one in the hopes that they will trigger a spontaneous combustion that has heat rivaling that of a thousand burning suns… wait, that’s more showing than telling. You got the point. That character really doesn’t like the other one.
Every time you go to write the word ‘love’, ‘hate’, ‘like’, ‘dislike’, and many other ‘emotion’ words, ask yourself, “How can I show this?”
Trust your reader to understand that your character hates the other if they want them to suffer through spontaneous combustion. It’s a lot more fun for me as a reader when I understand the characters emotions without you telling me what the character felt.
That is the first step in your journey to engaging the reader. You want to communicate how a character is reacting, their worries, and their triumphs in such a way that I can connect with that person. Your characters need to be flawed. I am. You are. We all are. Through these flaws and base emotions are a strong common ground.
If you approach it right, you can form connections between your reader and even the most vile people. Absolute good and absolute evil are boring. When the lines blur, the characters become far more realistic and much easier to engage. The key is addressing some form of common ground and motivation that your audience can understand. Then you can start the process of building the evil.
Sometimes, engagement is creating a character that people love to hate. This is someone so counter to what someone feels is ‘good’ or ‘right’ and making them just sympathetic enough that the reader doesn’t walk away in disgust. A good motivation partnered with an evil deed is a very good way to form this engagement. People understand protecting children. People don’t often understand performing horrific acts on someone who did something bad to a child. It is through this sort of contradictory action that you can blend the sympathies of a reader with complete and total hatred of what someone does.
Consider this, however: No matter how good your idea is, execution matters. This is where the resources fall off the map.
How do you do this? How do you balance sympathetic characters and an engaging story with efficiency and keeping the story moving forward? It isn’t uncommon that those who get really deep with characters forget to keep the story moving forward at all times. Yep. That’s a stick in the eye right there. Here are the things I consider while editing for others and while I’m writing:
- Am I communicating my character’s motivations?
- Are my characters making realistic decisions?
- Is my character developing enough to justify this?
- Are my characters flawed? If not, why not? Did they make a mistake? Why not? Were they right? Why?
- Is there any form of conflict or tension in the scene?
- Can I show this better? Is telling a better option?
- Can I justify the existence of this scene in the story? “Character Development” alone is not adequate justification. Every scene needs a purpose! (Exceptions: Every genre has different ‘rules’ in terms of this.)
- Is this bit of exposition necessary? Can I show the exposition through character reactions to items, objects, people of other races, and so on?
- Did I include enough of the setting to make the location feel real? (Characters floating in space aren’t engaging their environment, and they don’t engage me.)
- Can I justify the existence of this scene in the story?
- Are there are a realistic number of relationships with each character? Even unpopular people have some relationships with others, even if they’re bad ones.
- Does this event somehow connect to the plot or the overlying theme of the story?
- Is the writing close enough to each character? If you’re showing, you’re often slipping into more immediate POV with your characters — but there is always room for improvement!
There are a lot more other things that go through my head as I’m editing and writing, but these are among the most frequent commentary I make. The closer I get to accomplishing my goal for a scene, the more often I ask myself “Can I show this better? Is telling a better option?” than I do the other points. Showing is a major part of engaging writing. By showing, you assume the reader has the intelligence to follow along. You don’t patronize them by telling. Yes, I’ve gone there. Often, telling is patronizing. Especially if you went through the effort of showing and then drop the tell bomb, or you drop a tell bomb and go along to showing.
Yes, many writers start by telling then they correct it to showing. That’s fine. I do it too. But, if you don’t remove it, you run risk of patronizing your reader and evoking that sort of reaction in them.
You don’t want that. I certainly don’t. That’s why showing is so important to me.
Writing is hard. It’s something shared universally by all writers. Maybe what we view as hard differs, but it still remains a challenge.
To shine some light on the subjects of justification, character development, supporting world building, and showing versus telling, I’m going to use one of my clients as an example. I know she won’t mind, but to protect her dignity and to prevent her from smashing ceramics over my head, I won’t name names. Most of you know who she is anyway, if you follow me on Google+.
I recently tore her old story to shreds. When I was hired by her, she wanted me to give it all I had. I delivered. I took no hostages, and by the time I was done, the prison chamber that manuscript was held in was splattered red with its blood.
I don’t do that sort of editorial work lightly. I don’t do that sort of editorial work without warning, either. I don’t finish an entire manuscript of that sort of editorial work without consulting the client at the point of no return. I handed over the manuscript edit notes. I averaged over 15 comments per 300ish word page. We won’t talk about the outline notes at the end of the scenes. It was brutal. Honest, polite, and professional, but brutal and intense. For both of us.
I asked more ‘why’ questions than a room full of terrible twos given the chance to talk about anything they wanted. I asked for justifications. I asked for details. I asked why this character made that decision, or why this character wasn’t dead yet. I think I asked that one at least twenty times. I asked questions on why something was done a certain way. I asked her why something was being told to me when showing it would be one or two sentences more.
I challenged the concept of telling the base of the story she felt she wanted to write versus entertaining me. When you ask those questions of yourself, as you write and as you edit, also ask yourself if your reader will enjoy what you’re doing. Ask if your reader will be able to be swept away by the words you write.
Zero is forcing me to ask this each and every week, and it is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written.
I was in a voice / image chat with my client when I challenged her on this. With each and every justification she gave, I took it a step further. I asked, “Why?”
I think one of my most cherished memories was the moment she got really still and quiet and a puzzled expression crossed her face. Then she did this little eye-widening thing and realized where I was going with the questions and why I was asking why. Then, she told me to bugger off and that I broke her brain and that she was going away now. (To which I laughed a lot.)
I’m convinced she built herself a couch fort to recover in.
What did she do? She started asking herself those why questions I was asking her.
Her first few tries weren’t as pretty as they could have been. Beginnings are her weakness, which she admitted to me from the start. I treated that as a challenge to make her write a stellar beginning. (Poor woman.) I told her to redo it and don’t hold back with her conflict and tension punches. Recently, she sent me the scene where she figured it out. All of the elements were there. The writing was engaging. I was reading for my entertainment. I didn’t stop and feel like I had to make a comment because something jarred me from the reading. There were things that needed to be improved, but there were no showstoppers.
She got it right, and it was all due to her pushing her limits and supporting everything her characters did with their motivations and their personalities and putting that to good use. Then, she treated the words as a painting and showed me these things.
Her first step was showing and not telling. Then streamlining her character development. After that, the pieces started to fall together. Her tool was limited third person. She had to make the shift from accidental omniscient limited third, but when she got it right, it worked. I was engaged.
Don’t tell her this, but I’m very, very proud of her.
“Getting it right” is hard. I don’t get it right in my own writing often enough. I can do better. I want to do better. That’s why I take my own medicine, and frequently.
Here are some resource links that I think are useful for this subject. Also keep in mind these are my opinions and how I work. These are things I feel are important. Once again, I can’t offer a lot of quality resources on maintaining POV types. My suggestion for that? Go buy some traditionally published books that have hit the best seller lists that use the three major types and study them.
Imitation is an excellent way to learn.
Showing vs Telling Resources
- Chuck Wendig discusses showing in storytelling
- Maria V Snyder gives some examples of Showing vs Telling
- Wright.edu Creative Writing 101 Paper by Colorado Springs Fiction Writer’s Group on Showing vs Telling (PDF)
- Jerz’s Literacy Blog of Showing vs Telling examples
- Show me! Show me! by Cecil Murphey via Right-Writing
- Chuck Wendig again. I have some serious affection for Chuck. This time, on Characters. I guess this isn’t the time to confess my love for Chuck, is it? (Oops… I just did…)
- Writer’s Digest on creating better characters
- Christopher Buecheler discusses flawed characters
- 12 tips on writing better characters