Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Remove the Barriers in Fiction

This article, written by literary agent Karen Ball, first appeared on the Steve Laube Agency blog. It's used here with her permission.

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Few things empower fiction better than well-developed characters. Which is why you don’t want to create unintentional barriers between your characters and your readers. What barriers, you ask? Well, here’s one that affects POV characters:

John knew he was about to learn something important.

Do you see it? The barrier? No? How about here…

Sally realized she wasn’t getting it.

This barrier is kind of like those rotten little sugar ants that one day are not to be seen, and the next day are crawling all over your counter. You had no idea they were lurking there, unseen, and suddenly they’re everywhere! This sneaky barrier skitters into our writing when we’re not looking and pushes the reader just a step away from our character.

Still not sure what it is? Then consider this. We’re still in John’s and Sally’s POVs:

He was about to learn something important.

She wasn’t getting it.

Yup, it’s the knew and realized. If you guessed it, congrats! If you didn’t, not to worry. Now you know.

When writing a POV character, don’t tell us he or she has realized, or knows, or sees, or hears something. Just show the realizing, knowing, seeing, and so on. Because the fact is, if the POV character didn’t realize, know, see, or whatever, we couldn’t either since we’re perceiving the story through them. So this is not only a barrier to the characters, but it’s redundant.

So not:

Bill saw the man coming toward him.

But

A man came toward him.

It’s not a big change, but it’s one that removes a layer of distance—a barrier, in essence—between the reader and your character. Rather than being told about something, the reader experiences it with the character. After all, that’s much of the power of fiction, that our readers experience the journey and the story with the characters. And part of our job as writers is to ensure they can do that with as few barriers as possible.

—Karen Ball has worked as an editor for several publishers, including Tyndale, Zondervan, and B&H. She is a literary agent with the Steve Laube Agency.

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