Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 1 of 2

Narrative self-awareness
Narrative self-awareness is a frequent issue in first-person manuscripts from clients or potential clients. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure there was a name for it – it just fell into the “I know it when I see it” category that something was off in the writing.

Then at a writers’ conference years ago, a famous author (so famous I’ve forgotten her name or I’d give her credit) mentioned the self-aware narrator as one of the biggest obstacles many beginning (and some advanced) writers face. She went on to define the self-aware narrator as (and I’m paraphrasing):

“…when the first-person character, who is, of course, the story’s narrator, is aware that she is the narrator and mindful of you, the reader. Thus, she tells her story to you, always conscious of your existence and her role of telling the story. This generally makes for a very drab novel and keeps the reader outside the character’s experience. It’s the difference between watching a great movie or having a friend who saw the movie describe it to you in excruciating detail for an hour and a half. It’s boring and awful. Stop it.”

But how do you stop doing it if you don’t know what it is, how to recognize it, or how to address it?

The first-person narrator can become self-aware when the author feels distant from the character and projects the story to the readers through the character. The writer isn’t getting inside the character and letting readers experience the story through the character’s eyes, from inside her head and inside her skin.

Narrative self-awareness may be useful in certain narrative portions of a story in some genres – where the character steps into the role of first-person narrator to ruminate on life, reminisce about the past, or consider her options. But in an active or dialogue scene with other characters, the self-aware narrator needs to disappear and let the character experience the moment first-hand.

The self-aware character “self-narrates” the story (more on this in Part II). She tells readers what happens to her as opposed to readers experiencing the scene from inside the point-of-view character. The narration comes across as the character viewing herself and the story, then relaying that information to readers. It’s a distancing way to tell a first-person story (or a close third-person story, for that matter). It feels like the narrator is speaking directly to readers. It damages the biggest strength of a first-person narrative: the close, intimate perspective.

When the narrator/character talks directly to the reader, the reader’s brain subconsciously processes it as “this is the author stepping onto the page to tell me something… it’s a novel, fiction, not a real character or real events.” The self-aware narrator knows it’s just a story and that she has a role to play, and narrates the story from that perspective. This breaks the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.”

When this happens, it usually manifests as “self-narration.” And that’s often when a reader sets a book down and never picks it up again.

See Part 2 here.


Dec 10 2013

Tag, you’re it

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“Why do you recommend avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible?” she asked sweetly.

Dialogue tags do good and necessary things. They help readers keep it straight in their minds who is speaking, thus reducing confusion and getting lost in the dialogue. The problem with dialogue tags is when they’re overused. Keeping them to a minimum is the key. With almost any writing issue, overuse is the problem rather than a ‘never do this’ rule. This is true with dialogue tags.

Tags aren’t the only way to cue readers as to who is speaking. There are several ways to do this. Many newer writers haven’t mastered all the different ways to do this, so they rely too heavily on tags.

Tags have some inherent negatives, so overuse amplifies those negatives. When used sparingly and intermixed with other types of cues, those negatives are minimized and don’t attract attention to themselves, which interrupts the story in the reader’s mind.

Negatives for tags:

- They constantly remind readers that they are reading a story. Just when the reader is getting good and involved in the scene, there’s a ‘she said’ that momentarily — subconsciously and for a fraction of a second — reminds the reader that they’re just reading a work of fiction, not experiencing a real moment. Load up on tags, and all those fractions of a second start to add up and interrupt the story for the reader.

- Choppy writing breaks up the smooth flow of dialogue. Overuse can give the prose a staccato, repetitive sound in the reader’s head.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered.

- Overcompensating for too many tags by getting too creative with the tags.
“You’re sexy,” he growled.
“So are you,” she purred.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” he suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” she concurred.
This type of tag draws attention to itself, away from the words of dialogue, the characters, and the scene.

- Adding adverbs or phrases to tell the reader how something was said. Rather than letting the spoken words carry the tone, the writer feels the need to describe the tone.
“We could go to my place,” he suggested suggestively.
“Is your wife out of town?” she inquired curiously.
“Yes, she went to stay with her mother,” he responded in a conspiratorial tone.
“Then let’s go,” she purred sweetly.

All of this overuse, repetition, staccato choppiness, awkward ‘saidisms,’ overuse of adverbs and tone description adds up to a mess that creates stilted dialogue and breaks the moment of the scene for readers. It adds ‘tell’ at the expense of ‘show.’

A few other tools you can use to reduce the need for dialogue tags:

- Action beats:
“Then let’s go.” She stepped to the curb and waved for a taxi.

- Internal thoughts. Similar to an action beat, but an internal, first-person thought:
“Then let’s go.” What am I doing? He’s a married man.

- Internal narration:
She’d never had a fling with a married man before, but her lust overpowered her Catholic guilt. “Then let’s go.”

- Proper paragraph style. Keep each character’s dialogue lines and actions (and internal thoughts/narration) in a separate paragraph. When a line of dialogue, an action, or an internal thought/narration is from a different character, make it a new paragraph. For example, look at this paragraph:
“Then let’s go.” She waved for a taxi. He opened the door to the cab for her and slid in after her. “410 Main Street, please.”
In that paragraph, it’s impossible to tell who said “410 Main Street” because both characters take action in the same paragraph. There should be a new paragraph beginning at ‘He opened the door…’ Then, if “410 Main Street” is in the same paragraph with his action, it’s clear that he said it. If she said it, then “410 Main Street” would go in a third paragraph, and might still need a dialogue tag or action beat so it’s clear who is speaking, depending on the overall context.

- Nature of the dialogue. Take this bit of a scene. Isn’t it clear in each line who is speaking?
“Your place? Your wife isn’t home?”
“No. She’s at her mother’s for the weekend.”
“You know, I’ve never been with a married man before. I don’t want to be a homewrecker.”
“Our home has been wrecked for years. You couldn’t possibly do any more damage to my marriage.”
“I don’t want to be the ‘other’ woman. I can’t share you with her.”
“I promise I’ll leave her as soon as my youngest graduates college.”
“How old is your youngest?”
“Three.”

- Differentiation of voices. This may be the most difficult, but it’s the best way. Readers should be able to tell from a sentence of dialogue which character is speaking because of the manner of speaking.

And finally, a tip on how not to replace dialogue tags: characters repeatedly calling each other by name. In natural conversation, we don’t call each other by name every other sentence. We know who we’re speaking to.
“Bill, is your wife not home?”
“No, Stella, she’s gone to her mother’s for the weekend.”
“Then let’s go, Bill.”
“Okay, Stella.”

“So that’s about everything I know about dialogue tags,” he pontificated wisely.

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Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.


Jul 17 2011

Do you filter your fiction?

I was recently told by an editor that I use too many ‘filters’ in my novel manuscript and I should remove them. What is a filter, and why are they bad? – A question asked by several writers and editing clients of mine.

First, I’ll point out (as I frequently do) that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules that say ‘never do this’ or ‘always do that.’ But there are writing techniques that can help your writing become more engaging to readers.

One of those writing techniques is to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the number of filters.

So what is a filter?

The most basic form of a filter is when the writer tells the reader that a characters sees, hears, smells, feels (as in the sense of touch), or tastes something. A related, and slightly more nuanced filter, is when the writer tells the reader that a character notices, realizes, recognizes, or feels (as in an emotion) something.

So what’s wrong with telling readers that a character experiences something through her senses? Isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do? It lets readers know what the character is sensing. It shows the reader the event rather than telling it. It engages the five senses (and emotions) of the reader. It’s one way to use more show than tell, isn’t it?

Yes and no. (How’s that for ambiguous?) Yes, you want the readers to experience the story through the senses of the character. Engaging the five senses plus emotional reactions of the readers helps them engage more closely with the character.

But a filter – or at least an abundance of filters – can have the opposite effect. Filters come between the character and the reader, and instead of showing the experience, the writer tells the reader what the character experiences. The writer tells the reader what the character is sensing rather than letting the reader sense it directly.

If the scene is clearly in the point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. Show the ‘something,’ and readers will intuitively assume the POV character sees/hears/smells it.

Filters remove the reader from the character’s experience by one step. The important part of the sentence becomes the action of sensing something rather than the thing sensed.

Okay, this will make more sense with some examples.

ORIGINAL: When Joe heard the rattling, shaking sound, he looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of him. He knew it was ready to strike. Joe felt the panic rise in his throat.

This sentence has a several filters in it, some direct, some indirect. ‘Joe heard’ and ‘saw’ are direct filters. ‘Sound,’ ‘he looked,’ and ‘he knew’ are a bit more indirect. ‘Joe felt’ is filtering an emotion rather than one of the physical senses.

In what should be an active and tense scene, the writer steps onto the page to tell the reader that Joe heard something, and describes the sound Joe heard. Then the writer tells readers that Joe looked down and saw something. Next, the writer tells the reader what Joe saw, and continues on to tell the reader what Joe knew. Finally, the writer tells the reader how Joe felt.

Each of these filters, individually, removes the reader from the direct experience by a fraction. Taken together, this live scene has become a narrated scene in which readers are told about the event rather than experience it directly through the POV character.

REVISION: The rattle and shake stopped Joe in his tracks. Coiled in front of him, the snake blocked his path, ready to strike. He stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

Same scene, same sentences, zero filters. It’s more direct. It shows readers the moment at the same time and in the same way that Joe experiences it. Readers hear the rattle, see the snake, sense the danger, and feel the panic as if they are Joe. If the scene is firmly established in Joe’s POV, readers will intuitively know that Joe hears the rattle, sees the snake, and feels a bit panicked.

So, do I need to remove every filter word in my manuscript?

As with most writing techniques, it’s the heavy reliance on a particular usage that creates a noticeable problem. If, in your 100,000-word, 400-page manuscript, you’ve used a dozen filters, or even two dozen, or however many (there’s no formula), and most of your scenes are written without filters, then a few scattered about here and there probably aren’t doing any harm. But are they doing any good? One secret to great writing is that no word is wasted.

As with any writing tip, there are exceptions.

There are times when, due to the nature of the scene, multiple characters interacting, or various other situations, you may need to specify that a character sees or hears something in order for the scene to be clear.

EXAMPLE: Keeping the snake in his peripheral vision, Joe looked at the large boulder beside him, and wondered if he could jump on top of it before the snake lashed out.

In this case, it’s important to make sure readers know that Joe sees the boulder while keeping his eye on the snake. The filters in this example don’t bother me, and more importantly, probably wouldn’t bother a reader.

EXAMPLE: Joe held onto the rough surface of the boulder and peeked around, watching, waiting. He knew the snake was there somewhere. He could feel it.

In this example, I don’t view these as filters. In this case, the ‘senses’ are the important actions. Peeked, watching, knew, feel – all of these words add to the scene, show us what Joe is doing physically and his internal emotions. Note the filter that isn’t there: ‘Joe felt the rough surface of the boulder as he held on.’

Likewise, you may need to state the negative filter when a character does not see or hear something.

EXAMPLE: Joe calmed his breathing, but he couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of his heart.

But I’m writing in first person. Wouldn’t a first-person character say what she sees or hears or feels?

It may be even more important to avoid filters in a first-person story. One of the primary benefits of writing in first person is that it presents the story in a closer perspective and lets readers experience the story from inside the character’s skin and head. Adding filters creates a distance between that first-person character and the reader, and it makes the story more narrated – it’s more ‘told’ to the reader by the narrator rather than experienced by the reader.

Let’s take Joe and the snake and make him a first-person character.

ORIGINAL: When I heard the rattling, shaking sound, I looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of me. I knew it was ready to strike. I felt the panic rise in my throat.

REVISE: The rattle and shake stopped me in my tracks. Coiled in front of me, the snake blocked my path, ready to strike. I stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

If the POV character is clear, if readers are in the POV character’s head, whether first or third person doesn’t matter – filtering the scene creates added distance between the character and the reader.

As always, there’s a wide degree of latitude for personal, subjective taste and writing style. But if you want your readers to experience the scene much more directly, reduce or avoid filters.


Jan 27 2011

Internal vs. external emotion

I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush?Samantha, Australia

There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling’ (external) rather than ‘showing’ (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as: Bob was sad.

The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is more effective to show Bob’s emotions rather than stating the fact.

Sometimes when a writer wants to show emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I’m not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn’t deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I’m editing your work, you can bet I will strike through that phrase or suggest you find a different way to say it. I’ll probably furrow my brow as I hit the delete key.

Bob sighed, furrowed his brow, and began to cry.

This is now describing Bob’s facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob’s sadness. It’s better than saying ‘Bob was sad,’ at least most of the time.

Often this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it’s only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling’ the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show’ the emotion. It’s still a step removed from the readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling’ the reader some things. It’s all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take more words, and maybe it’s not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.

But if Bob’s sadness is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it’s worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn’t bring the reader into the character’s emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.

Bob’s hand shook as he stared at the photo of his old friend, and he began to cry.

Better, but it’s still missing something – it’s flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob’s hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing’ scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn’t feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal. 

The photo trembled as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.

Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader’s mind, and the reader can feel Bob’s reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn’t tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn’t even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren’t ‘told’ or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as he holds the photo in his trembling hand, he remembers, and the photo blurs.

If writing in first person, remember the narrator can’t see her own face to describe her smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, wouldn’t usually notice when she sighs. You probably don’t stop to think, “I’m smiling now.” But in first person, or in a tight third, the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions much more effectively than describing facial expressions.

Below are a few examples from Samantha’s manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are merely examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it’s always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer’s style, voice and story.

ORIGINAL: I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

 REVISE: I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the existing internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I deleted the ‘shot her daggers’ phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It’s not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the character’s irritation.

ORIGINAL: The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?’

I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!’

REVISE: The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?’

‘Oh, sod off!’

I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard’s actions rather than have the character glance down at her clothes. She already knows what she’s wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.

ORIGINAL: I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi flirted with me, then realised how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just metres away.

REVISE: Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed 12-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy metres away.

Eliminates the blush but shows from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realises’ something rather than just letting the realisation come through naturally.

ORIGINAL: I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.

REVISE: How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we’d crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.

This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease with surprise’ with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?’ That shows her surprise from the inside rather than telling readers she was surprised and the character describing the feeling on her face.

ORIGINAL: I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

REVISE: I slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging’ (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. People sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, fatigued, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn’t really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.

ORIGINAL: I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.

REVISE: None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.

There is nothing wrong with having a character frown or smile or sigh on occasion. The questions to ask yourself each time are: What is the best way to engage the reader in this moment of the story? Am I relying too heavily on external signs of emotion?

Many thanks to Samantha for allowing me to use these examples.