Lessons in Craft: Distancing the Reader

Whenever I critique a fellow writer’s work, especially a newer writer, unintentionally distancing the reader is one of my biggest nitpicks. I make this comment continuously and I think it’s super important in most fiction—STOP DISTANCING THE READER.

There are multiple ways to do this, but the biggest culprits are filter verbs. The next biggest culprit is a lack of connection to the main character. And the third can be POV. Let’s knock these down one-by-one.


FILTER VERBS

These verbs include, but are not limited to, “think, feel, hear, see, watch, notice, observe, wonder, smell, taste, realize” and more. I know I’m missing some, so if you have any to add, please comment below.

These verbs create a barrier between the reader and the character, and they’re rooted in telling rather than showing. They’re also really weak verbs that should be traded for more pointed and efficient ones. Here’s an example:

“Susan heard a thump from the other room and saw the light flutter. She realized someone else was in the house.”

These aren’t a bad couple of sentences and they get the point across, but they aren’t good. I don’t feel scared or tense. I’m not yelling at my screen, “Don’t you dare go in there Susan!” So, let’s cut out the filter verbs (heard and saw and realized) and instead describe the sound, describe the light, and just have the narration reflect her realization.

“A thump rattled in the other room and the light fluttered. Someone else was in the house.”

Okay, better. Rather than filtering everything through Susan, we now have an atmosphere that’s much more effective.


CONNECTION TO THE MC

The down-and-dirty definition: relating the events and actions happening around the MC to the MC.

This is basically where emotions and backstory and voice come into play without dumping information on the reader or using paragraphs of exposition. And it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. There’s a balance to interior thought. You can have too much, or too little, and the sweetspot is somewhere in-between.

In my first drafts of my current MS, I focused mostly on describing actions rather than relating narration to the character (in 3rd person) or through the character (1st person). I found my character’s voice upon my first re-write, but I was terrified of losing it as I entered Act II and its addition of new characters. I don’t pretend to know what voice is, how it can grab a reader, or how to achieve it, but below is what I try to do.

The thing that works for me, and maybe it’ll help you, is relating current events happening in real-time in the MS to past emotional events in my MC’s life. For example, Susan (from the example above) has likely felt scared or apprehensive at some point in her life. Let’s say this is LIGHTS OUT, a movie based on this short film that literally scared the absolute shit out of me and I couldn’t sleep with the lights off for at least a week.

Anyway… In the feature-length movie, LIGHTS OUT, the antagonist is a girl who only exists in the dark and terrorizes a family. It also subverts a bunch of horror tropes and if you haven’t watched it, go do that (just do it in the middle of a sunny day with all your curtains open and also your lights on). Back to the story—**SPOILER ALERT**—the FMC remembers a time when this antagonist visited before, when she was a child. Let’s say Susan is that character.

Our example as written above:
“A thump rattled in the other room and the light fluttered. Someone else was in the house.”

Now, let’s add some connection to the MC. Sometimes (like a few times in a whole book) I describe a whole memory, but most often I try to keep the exposition, aka the backstory, to a minimal 1-3 sentences.

“A thump rattled in the other room and the light fluttered. It’s the same room as last time, as years ago when Susan was too young to comprehend the dangers of the dark. Someone else was in the house.”

BOOM. Now we have a whole host of feelings and information and we only added one sentence! 1. This has happened before. 2. We’ve invoked the childhood fear of the dark. 3. Foreshadowing—something that’s happened before or anything that’s mentioned like this is a promise to the reader about later. Da-dum. Da-dum…

If you do want to describe a whole memory, I have three questions to decipher whether it’s actually necessary and not just an info-dump full of exposition.

Question # 1: Is it relevant?
This is the first and foremost question you should always ask when including any kind of backstory or exposition or description or literally just about anything in your book. If it doesn’t have any bearing or insight on the scene at hand, if it doesn’t foreshadow something later, if it doesn’t effectively characterize a character, then cut it out.

It’s super easy to think every tidbit of information you write in your first draft, or second draft, or third fourth fifth draft, is important and relevant, but it’s probably not. I often discover things about my characters in the first draft, as well as things about my world, about my story. And just as often, those things don’t make it into the final draft.

So, when writing a memory (or when offering any type of exposition or description or characterization, etc), remember that it must be relevant to the scene and to understanding what’s happening on the page.

Question #2: Is it emotional?
There must be an emotional connection that directly relates to the MC in that moment. Perhaps she’s about to face off against her biggest childhood fear and she remembers when her mom checked for monsters under her bed. Emotional and symbolic resonance: Mom isn’t here to defeat the monsters anymore, but the MC has the strength to do so because of her mom’s love and support.

Question #3: Does it muck up the pacing?
Memory is, by definition, slow. It’s a moment suspended in time. That’s not to say it isn’t beneficial to slow the pacing down when the tension is rising, to let the reader soak in it and also draw in the emotional resonance of the scene and how it relates to the MC. But if the tension is already heightened to fever pitch, then perhaps stopping to remember that one time at band camp isn’t the best choice.

I’m a big fan of “breathing” at the top of chapters with a memory. I don’t employ this technique too often because it can become tedious and confuse the reader when you time-jump out of the present action. That said, describing a memory at a break is a good structural trick that can relate that memory to the scene, while also allowing the reader a moment to breathe with the MC.


POV

Sometimes POV is a preference, or an industry trend, or an exploration of voice, or simply the thing that felt right when writing the story. POV should be a conscious choice rather than a default setting. There are pros and cons to each, but I think one of the most detrimental disadvantages is distancing the reader.

3rd Person Omniscient
Definition: the narrator speaks with the voice of the author, assuming an omniscient (all-knowing) perspective of the story; he can know any character’s private thoughts, narrate secret scenes or hidden events, etc. Example of Omni. POV: THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

A lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers start out in this POV, only to run into problems like head-hopping (a post on that to come), flat characterization, and distancing the reader. By definition, 3rd Person Omni POV puts up a gauzy curtain between the reader and the characters and can keep the reader from connecting to the character(s).

3rd Person Limited
Definition: all characters are described using pronouns, but the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character and follows them closely. Example: the majority of books since forever, but I digress–ENDER’S GAME, TRUTHWITCH (though this book alternates narrators), etc.

While there are disadvantages, focusing on one character allows for the reader to connect and sympathize with that character, which in turn draws the reader in rather than distancing. If you go “deep,” then the connection only grows. Kim Weiland does a much better job laying it all out than I ever could.

1st Person
Definition: on character narrates the story at a time, using “I, me, my” pronouns. This character may be speaking about him or herself or sharing events that he or she is experiencing. Example: a lot of YA novels are written in this POV, like THE HATE U GIVE, THESE BROKEN STARS, etc.

This is literally the easiest way to connect a reader to a character, having them live the book through the MC.


These aren’t the only things yanking your reader out of the story and distancing them from your characters, but they’re definitely a start.

Do you have any tips or tricks to keep your reader connected to the character?

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4 thoughts on “Lessons in Craft: Distancing the Reader

  1. Tim Kimber says:

    This great, as ever. Of those foreshadowing caveats, though, I think it is this one that newbie writers almost always balls up: Question #3: Does it muck up the pacing?

    Pacing is one of the hardest things to master, and yet one of the most important skills to develop if you want to keep a reader’s attention. There’s no hard and fast rules, but dumping a great chapter of flashback in the middle of your action sequence is a sure way to have your reader skimming until their back in the now.

    Great stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

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