10.04.2018

Getting Familiar

The transition from narrating what a character does to what a character thinks is transformational for a writer.  Neophyte authors usually start from the outside, as though their main character is merely someone who does more walking and talking than others. Breaking through the barrier to interior work can be done in various ways. One is to allow a character to judge a situation on his own terms.

How does this work? Let’s say two characters are vying to solve a puzzle leading to a family heirloom emerald necklace worth millions of dollars. Laura comes upon Elmore, in the dead of night, pulling a secret lever opening a hidden wall in the library. If you as the author don’t put thoughts in Laura’s head, you’re missing out on half of the dramatic impact the scene contains.

So you personalize her reactions. Think from her perspective. First of all, what is the object worth to her in plot terms? Tell it her way, such as: “She had to stop him. She wouldn’t permit millions to be stolen from under her nose.” When you narrate plot advances that way, the words become charged. What happens matters to the character.

Now sit back and take a longer view. She’s been looking for that necklace for 100 pages, say. She feels like it is hers already, because of all that effort.  So you write that way: “She felt the pistol resting in her bathrobe pocket. That’s how far she would go to protect the necklace. Her necklace.” Again, all you’re doing is telling the reader about plot events, but the version becomes charged by relating how she feels about them.

You can also get personal by having a character disparage another. People say unkind things about others all the time, and that helps the reader feel like he is included in an inside joke. In the running example above, you could insert something like: “A scratch on the lock told her it had been recently jimmied. By Elmore. She should have known a snoop like that would find the treasure.”

Finally—and I can’t believe authors neglect this—you tell the reader how the character feels about a plot object. That tells the reader how she should feel about it: direct transference. What happens when Laura finally holds the necklace in her hands? “She gulped at the glorious sight. It was all she could have ever imagined.”

The plot proceedings haven’t changed. Only the viewpoint has. Each step of the way becomes charged emotionally. Now the reader cares what happens.

Exercise: Review a scene and highlight every sentence that is told neutrally—i.e., there is no assigned point of view for the statement. Now go back and examine each one. Sometimes you can’t apply a point of view—e.g., the moon is full no matter who looks at it. But you’d be surprised by how many times you can give the statement to a character.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
—Harper Lee

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine




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