The Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop (NWAWW) is a tough place. If you get through what they have to teach you, you’ll be a better writer. I’m not saying they’re perfect—what group of people is?—but I am saying they have a lot to teach, and it’s earned by spending years in the trenches, something they’re trying to keep you from having to do.
One of the Golden Rules at NWAWW is total immersion of your reader with your character. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing first or third person, the idea is to put your reader inside your character’s head(s).
The chief way they teach to do this is by doing away with something we’ve had drilled into us by years of reading: conveying experiences by telling the reader the character is experiencing them.
I know, sounds a bit confusing, but stick with me here.
Think for a moment about the first-person shooter (FPS) video game. Even if you’ve never played one, I’m sure you’ve seen them. They’re the ones where the player runs through the game viewing everything via the avatar’s eyes—quite literally. Generally, these games involve lots of violence, hence lots of weapons, so the default view is one where there’s a pair of hands in the lower portion of the screen, and they’re usually carrying a gun of some sort. Examples of this game are Doom, Half Life, pretty much any combat game a lá Modern Combat. The idea here being that the player is the avatar.
It’s a good model to keep in mind when writing.
I just reread Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Prince is the kind of fantasy that would have Legolas running off to have a screaming hissy fit. The protagonist of the novel isn’t even good enough really to be called an antihero. As the man who loaned me the book said, “All you’re left with is a villain who’s facing worse villains.”
It’s a really good book, but I’m not here to review it. I’m here to use it as an example.
There’s a scene late in the book where the protagonist—named Jorg (which I think is actually pronounced George)—has just tricked some soldiers into giving him sanctuary in his enemy’s castle with the idea of taking it over. It’s a long shot, but that’s what Jorg is all about. There was one sentence that stuck out to me, something I’m sure had been happening the entire book, that inspired me to write this post, and it goes like this: I could see squads of soldiers assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates.
Hah! No spoilers there.
In a way, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. It tells me what Jorg sees, and it doesn’t waste much time doing it. Notice I said much.
But…this isn’t the way we think to ourselves, is it? We don’t go I can see squads of soldiers blah blah blah. No, it’s more like, Squads of soldiers were assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates.
Do you see the difference there? More importantly, do you feel the difference?
When I tell you that the character sees/feels/thinks something, I’m holding you out at a bit of distance, say an arm’s length. I’m telling you the character sees/feels/thinks something. But if I just show you that something, the way I did in the edited example, I’m putting you right inside the character’s head.
“But wait a minute,” you say. “I see that in books all the time.”
Yes, you do. Doesn’t make it right. I see politicians doing their level best to put us all in boxes that have nothing to do with us as individuals, but that doesn’t make it right. Just makes them power hungry. And wrong.
Don’t be a power hungry writer. Don’t make us observe from a distance. Let us experience everything first-hand.
Sure, sometimes we have to phrase it that way, such as Even from where I sat, I could see soldiers assembling in the great courtyard beyond the gates. That quantifies something for us, shows us that the character is a long ways off, but he can still see the mass of soldiers. That tells us there are lots of soldiers up there in that there courtyard.
But for the most part, we can just describe what the character sees without saying the character sees it. I think if you’ll pay attention, you’ll see that a lot in books, too. It puts us in something called stream of consciousness. It’s a subtle thing, but it makes all the difference in the world on how much your reader cares for your character.
Don’t tell us the railing felt cold under my hand, tell us the railing was cold under my hand. In fact, if you’re like me, when a character says something felt a certain way, I’m always left with a little bit of doubt: Does it just feel that way, or is it really that way?
This is where writing is better than the movies. In the movies, because of the medium, we’re always viewing the characters from the outside. We have to interpret what the character feels through the actor, and not all of them are good at conveying what they should. I’m often left wondering exactly what I missed in a scene just because an actor gets an expression that leaves him looking vaguely constipated. I know that’s not what he’s supposed to be telling me, but since I’m not sure what he is supposed to be telling me, I’m left wondering if maybe he just needed to visit the nearest restroom but was afraid to in the midst of all this drama.
But in a book, I can have the character say I was confused. Not I felt confused. I was confused. And even that isn’t ideal, because that’s just him telling you he’s confused. That’s like saying I was embarrassed. Why not let us experience that embarrassment? Heat crept up my cheeks and I wanted to look away. Sure, that ups the word count, but isn’t it much richer than I was embarrassed?
Haven’t we all felt that heat on our cheeks—and sometimes on the backs of our necks—when we’ve done something to embarrass ourselves? And doesn’t me showing you what the character feels bring up that sensation in us, if only vicariously? But even if it’s just vicarious, it immerses us in the story deeper, makes us feel what the character feels, live the life the character lives.
And when we finish the book, we’ll feel like we’ve had to leave off from visiting an old friend instead of just closing the cover of another good story. Good stories are always remembered fondly. But old friends…well, we go back and visit them time and time again. And we trust them to introduce us to new friends who may very well become old friends, don’t we?
Something to think about.