The Acid Test: You

A common problem for fledgling authors and even those who have written multiple plot-driven novels is the distance that divides them from their main character(s). Because writing involves both narrating a plot event and placing a character within it, a writer tends to focus the first draft on the former, at the expense of the latter. The distance is increased by the common use of the third-person narrator. The “he” or “she” down on the page is coming from inside you, but only as an actor in your drama.

This two-faced process can lead to commentary on the character rather than their experiencing the event from the inside. Let’s take an example: “Josh had to face the downside of leaving college without a plan to achieve the status he craved.” Is that Josh’s thought or the author’s remark about him? It doesn’t really matter, because the reader’s reaction is the same: I’ve never felt that way, not once.

That’s because a reader does not have the same problem as an author. A reader is a vicarious participant, wanting to live inside the head of the main character(s). The closer the experience feels, the more satisfying the story is. This passive stance becomes active only when a reader does not feel that close connection. Uh, the reader puts the book back on the shelf, never to be read again.

A simple test can help you determine the distance of any thought. Put the thought in the first-person narrative voice. If you substitute, using the example above, you get: “I had to face the downside of leaving college without a plan to achieve the status I craved.” Ask yourself: have you ever had such a thought in your entire lifetime? Of course not. You may have never thought you “craved” anything.

A narrative summary is the right place to put such distant writing. If you want to move past a subject quickly, by all means trot out fancier words. It’s not a character’s thought, so you can afford to be more impersonal. The very use of such language is a signal to the reader that a bunch of “factual” material is being covered in one sweep.

With the thoughts, keep shifting into the first-person. That type of writing is the most immediate—and immediacy is what brings a reader close. Dumb down your thoughts if you have to. That lofty statement might become: “It was pretty obvious that not graduating from college was a sure road to feeding a robot.” The reader can feel that, maybe even smile. That is an emotional connection.

Exercise: You can take the self-analysis process one step further. Put the first-person statement within quotation marks, as though it was being spoken aloud. What was the last time you heard someone use “craved” in a conversation? Once you’re done editing, just remove the quotations and change the thought back to the third-person voice.

“Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”  —Victor Borge

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.