The first step in shaping up your fiction is understanding how to hold the reader’s attention.
What makes fiction come alive?
The short answer is identification. If the reader sees herself in your character or situation and says, “Hey that could be me,” we have identification. That shower scene in Psycho? It’s powerful not only because it’s graphic but because we all take showers. We identify with that experience.
Point of View
Of the many techniques you can use to help you readers put themselves in the story, one of the most powerful is to tell the story from the character’s perspective. When we are in a character’s head, we are in that character’s Point of View (POV). Your story can be written in either 1st person (I did that, I saw this) or 3rd person (he saw this, he did that) and still use the same viewpoint character.
Showing a Character’s Experience
What is important is how closely we represent that character’s experience. When we tell a character’s inner thoughts and sensations, we are in a close POV.
Jim’s heart pounded as he ran. That is Jim’s experience. We can feel it too because we know the sensation.
If we write Jim exerted himself as he ran, we’ve completely lost the experience. We are telling the reader what happened instead of letting her share it.
A Simple Trap
A trap we often fall into is adding a layer between reader and character. For example if we write, Jim felt his heart pound as he ran, we have stepped back slightly from Jim’s heart pounded as he ran. Now we see Jim feeling his heart pound. There is a self-conscious layer between Jim’s experience and the reader’s. That additional layer is the author telling the reader that Jim felt.
Don’t think that if you write in 1st person you are immune. Consider the difference between I felt my heart pound as I ran and my heart pounded as I ran.
Omit Thought Words
Words that point out what the character is thinking like knew, thought, realized or wondered also separate the reader from the experience. Which do you think is stronger?
I knew there was no hope
There was no hope.
If you aren’t sure, try reading the two sentences aloud. You may feel more comfortable with the first one because it sounds more polite, but the second is more direct. When we are trying convey the experience, direct is what we want.
Show Emotions, Don’t Name Them
Words that name an emotion are shortcuts that rob the reader of experience. It’s one thing to say Jane was sad, another much more effective thing to show her in that state.
To do that we have to be in Jane’s experience and know how she would feel and respond to the situation at hand. It’s worth the extra effort because when you show your character responding at that level of detail, the reader identifies.
Now you should have a pretty good handle on what’s expected. Look over the last scene you wrote and find where you can make the point of view closer. Make the changes. Then read the scene again to see how tightening up the POV strengthens your writing.
When you’re finished, you can hit shower.