7.13.2017

Fill and Rake

If you choose the omniscient narrative voice, you run the risk of storytelling that seems distant and remote. Too often you the author are reporting from on high  rather than a character closely describing the scene. How do you shift the telling to become the point of view of a chosen character?

The craft of getting inside a character’s head employs multiple techniques. One that I find really helps authors is similar to a battering ram. You keep inserting thoughts for the character to an absurd degree. Every time something is said or done, you insert the character’s reaction.

Let’s take a scene featuring a lot of dialogue. You read over the scene with the idea: the character is going to have a thought about everything that is said. Every single time another character says something, you're going to break the dialogue and insert a thought. Of course, to actually do that would slow down the story tremendously. But it puts you in the right frame of mind. So, as you're going through, think to yourself: he said that? What would I think? Write it down. Write down at least a dozen responses per scene.

Why does this technique work? Because you then go back and edit the insertions. Let the material sit, maybe overnight, but a few hours' gap will do. Review the new material you wrote. Take out the thoughts that don't seem to add anything, or are redundant. If the narrative feels too slow, take out a few more. Then look at the ones you kept and pause at each one. Let yourself relax in your chair and think: is that the most telling thing I could put in there? You'll end up with maybe five really interesting thoughts.

Reader identification can be instilled by repeated attention. If you keep signaling that a particular character has a stronger point of view, the reader will start to follow the character more closely. Even better, because you are drilling yourself to insert thoughts, you yourself start to understand the character better. That leads to more free-flowing thoughts, coming right out of the chute the first time you write a scene. You’ve battered your way inside.

Exercise: A further step in this technique is regularly reviewing all of the character’s thoughts. You merely skim the surrounding scene, focusing on what she’s thinking. If you are writing merely topical, skin-deep responses to the action in the scene, you’ll notice it. Then you can think to yourself: how can I go deeper and provide more long-range thoughts that reflect the way I think about things in real life?

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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