By Marissa Graff
As writers, fusing our protagonist with the reader creates the ultimate reading experience. Teacher and writer John Gardener referred to this as “the fictional dream.” It’s a state the reader reaches whereby they feel as though they are inside the story, inside the character’s skin, going through events themselves. Achieving this dream-like state is difficult, while undermining it is surprisingly easy to do. But there are three simple tricks you can utilize that increase the odds of drawing your reader into a literary dream from which they won’t want to wake up.
Remove Filter Verbs
If our goal as writers is to allow the reader to experience our stories as though they ARE our characters, then filter verbs are the enemy. Filter verbs (sometimes called distancing verbs) are sensory verbs like look, smell, hear, taste, feel, think. (Note: variations on these words also count, such as see, listen, notice, wonder, etc.).
They look harmless, right? But these words subtly remind the reader that the character’s eyes are doing the seeing, or their brain is doing the thinking, or their heart is doing the feeling. They subtly tell the reader, psst, this isn’t actually your story. Take a look at the following examples, paying attention to the underlined filter verbs and how they can be removed:
Example: He smelled maple syrup and thought of the last time Dad took him to breakfast.
Instead, try: The sweetness of maple syrup took him back to that booth at the diner, sitting across from Dad.
Example: She peered into her boss’ empty office and wondered why he was gone so much lately.
Instead, try: Her boss’ office was empty yet again.
See the difference? We are inside the characters’ senses in a far more bold and confident way. And yes, the latter examples are harder to write. They require intention. But we must trust the reader to understand that the filter verbs are implied and bring them into the character’s viewpoint.
Note: those examples are both in third-person POV, which is harder to imbue with immediacy and intimacy. But as you can see, it’s worth the effort. There’s room for your reader to feel as though they are in the moment, behind the character’s senses and inside their brain and heart.
Eliminate Time Words
Another way we often gently sabotage ourselves and say, “Hey reader, the narrator is talking to you,” is by using time words. Yes, it’s important to orient your reader with passage-of-time phrases, particularly when there’s a gap in time to account for (the next day, later that evening, the following week, etc.). But in terms of time movement within an active scene, consider cutting words like then, next, after that, finally, and when. Time words are often implied because sentences are linearly structured. They add unnecessary clunk and they subtly send the message the narrator is telling the reader what happened and in what order. Just like the previous examples, time words are underlined below:
Example: When they climb into the car, their face is scrunched up in anger.
Instead, try: They climb into the car with their face scrunched up in anger.
Example: As soon as I walk into the house, I jog upstairs and then answer my phone.
Instead, try: I walk into the house, jog upstairs, and answer my phone.
Minimize Internal Dialogue
Notice how I said minimize—not cut—internal dialogue. Novels can and should include internal dialogue. There are times where, without it, the reader would be lost. Confused. Dying to understand how a character is feeling. Or desperate to know what the character is thinking. Internal dialogue oftentimes is the window that affords the crucial meaning of how the character is making sense of what’s happening around them.
But it’s important to imagine your scenes like a coil that you are working to tighten, word by word. Each time we step away from dialogue or external action, that coil threatens to lose tension. Working with editing clients, I often see internal dialogue sending a subtle signal that says, “Here, let me do the thinking and analyzing and feeling for you, dear reader.”
Some questions to ask as you reevaluate your own usage of internal dialogue:
*It is otherwise impossible to show what’s been told via action and/or dialogue?
*Does it let us know feelings or thoughts the character is hiding from everyone else?
*Is it brief?
That last one is crucial. The longer internal dialogue goes, the more that coil you work to tighten starts to unwind. Author Tim Wynne Jones has referred to long swaths of internal dialogue as Pause Button Violations. Within an active scene, it’s as though the author hits the pause button on all action and dialogue to allow for the internal dialogue. The pause is unnaturally long given the fact that it sits inside an active scene, and can oftentimes be done in a far shorter way or be done using dialogue and action on the page instead.
Consider combing your manuscript in search of these three fictional dream killers. Once you pull them out, you’ll have a far better chance of reeling your reader in.
Resident Writing Coach
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over five years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.