We hoped that Florida based author / editor / reviewer Rebecca Hamilton (AKA Inkmuse) would give us the benefit of her experience - when it comes to sharpening up your writing - by making a guest appearance here.
~Rebecca is the author of the popular Forever Girl series
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Follow the 'Inkmuse' and Transform Your Point of View!
Whether we are reading third person or first, we want to feel close to the Point of View (POV) character. We want to experience the story with them. This well known trick I’m about to show you does something a little more though. It will improve several areas of your writing in one shot! Bang! Exclamation point! Get excited, this one is fun!
Not only will you bring the reader closer to the character’s experience, you will also (in many cases) find you have used fewer words. Looking for words to cut in your manuscript? This might be your answer. Readers love brevity, and to boot, it will increase the pace while at the same time enhancing the experience.
So let’s take a look at what we’re talking about here.
Example 1: Mary could hear the birds singing outside. (Distant)
Closer: Mary HEARD the birds singing outside. (Weak)
Close: The birds sang outside. (Strong)
Notes: In the first example We’re three words in before we know what Mary is hearing “the birds singing outside”. When we seek to tighten that up a little, we are two words in before we are inside her experience. But it’s still weak. Why? It’s still weak because if we are in Mary’s close POV, then any sounds described we know to be sounds she is hearing. When we master this line, we’ve found we are directly inside the experience. When we are in Mary’s POV, and we read “The birds sang outside” we have stepped into Mary’s shoes and hear the birds with her. It’s no longer ONLY her experience. We know she is experiencing it, because it’s her POV, but now we are included in the experience.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons you will see writing advice say to watch out for words like see, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. Let’s look at more examples.
Example 2: Alice could see Mark through the window.
Closer: Alice saw Mark through the window.
Close: On the other side of the window, Mark paced in the living room.
Notes: In this example we do lose brevity, but we are more inside of the experience. We not only know Alice saw Mark, but we know what Mark was doing when she saw him. Another option might be: Alice glared at Mark through the window. These are all basic examples–nothing fancy here–but hopefully you can see the benefit of cutting the distance. In the example given in these notes you get an idea of how Alice is feeling about Mark as she looks at him through the window (because of how she looks at him–glaring). We haven’t used the word felt here either though.
Imagine these two lines together: Alice could see Mark through the window. She felt angry at him. Fixed: Alice glared at Mark through the window. Here, we’ve condensed two lines into one, using fewer words, and brought the reader closer to the experience.
Example 3: Mary could feel the rough bark of the tree as she felt her way through the forest.
Closer: Mary felt the rough tree bark as she felt her way through the forest.
Close: Tree bark scraped her fingertips as she felt her way through the forest.
Notes: The final example is only a word shorter than the previous one, but it’s more of an experience for the reader. It’s five words shorter than original though, and much closer to the POV character’s experience.
When your distance is preventing you from showing.
This can happen a lot with emotion on several levels.
Example 1: Mary felt sad. (This is sometimes an attempt to cut a “was” ... Mary was sad - but more about this on another day).
What does sadness feel like? How does sadness affect Mary?
Close: Mary’s heart sank.
Notes: This is cliché. You can do better.
Example 2: Mary was feeling tired.
Closer: Mary felt tired.
Close: Mary’s eyelids drooped.
Depending on the context, you can build more from this. Please keep in mind, showing does not always mean more words, but in this example it will.
Mary’s eyelids drooped. As her car swerved, she jerked her head up and blinked. Two more miles to home. She slapped her face a few times, trying to keep alert.
Notes: Why might this wordier example be a better way to show Mary is tired? Because it gives us a reason to be concerned about her. Is she going to crash her car? She’s so tired she can barely stay awake. She almost nodded off at the wheel and only the sudden swerve of the car awoke her. Perhaps some readers might think she is being foolish, wishing she would just pull over. Here is an opportunity. Maybe she will get in a car accident. Maybe she shouldn’t be as tired as she is. Maybe someone drugged her drink at the work party she just left. Depending on the context of the story, you may have more words, but the subtext of what you provide might make up for it. When it comes to what you are showing, it will all depend on your story. You want to spend more page time on the important parts of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Show versus tell is another post for another day.
Another aspect of Distance.
Another thing to consider in staying close to your character, is how to write in your character’s POV. If your character sees a little girl with round cheeks, would she call them “fat” cheeks? Would she say the girl had an “Angelic face”. Would your character call the cheeks “chubby” or “cherubic”? More than that, would your character even notice the little girl’s cheeks?
Think of it this way… if you were in the mall, what stores would you notice as you walked by? What stores would your best friend notice? What stores would your parents notice? What stores would a five year old notice? What does the room look like to someone who is 6′5? What if they are 4′10? What stands out to you in your house? Probably nothing, unless it’s out of place. What about a burglar? What about a friend visiting for the first time?
To keep a close narrative distance, you want to notice WHAT your character would notice and HOW they would notice it. Perhaps a man thinks the vase on the table is yellow, but a woman might think it’s buttercup. Perhaps the vase on the table is filled with flowers, perhaps it’s filled with azaleas. Perhaps your character wouldn’t even notice the flowers. Maybe they would notice wallpaper stained by cigarette smoke, or dust on the ceiling fans. Perhaps they would notice the gleam of the granite counter tops, or perhaps they would notice the knife set next to the microwave.
And how does your character feel about what they see? Is a coffee cup just a coffee cup, or is a coffee cup that time her ex-husband threw a mug at her and it smashed on the floor? Step in your characters shoes and see the world through their eyes.
Using distance intentionally.
You don’t always have to be close. If you read a book where you are always close to the POV character, having a scene with distance could have a powerful impact on the reader. Perhaps it’s a dream scene, perhaps they are drugged, or perhaps they just received some really bad news. In these cases, it may be more powerful to say something like: I could feel the glass slipping from my hand. It felt like hours had passed before I heard it shatter. My hearing seemed muffled, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton.
Alone, that may not seem like much, but when you have kept a close distance in all of your writing surrounding these moments, the reader will subconsciously take in a distant feel. You open the door for more emotional impact.
This is inline with my usual way of thinking: Absolutes will do you no good. Some “rules” are meant to be broken. It’s all about knowing the when and why of breaking them.
Copyright Rebecca Hamilton 2011
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