by Eldred "Bob" Bird
Recently, I received feedback on my manuscript, Cold Karma, from one of my beta readers and was pleasantly surprised. “I really like reading your books,” he said. “You don’t bog things down with a lot of unnecessary details. You let the characters tell the story.”
If I had been wearing a hat, it would have had popped off like a champagne cork due to my head swelling three sizes.
I’m used to getting comments on plot, characters and dialogue, but this wasn’t about those things. His comment was about my writing style—about me as an author. After my head shrunk back to normal size, I put on my analyst cap and thought about what he said.
“You let the characters tell the story.”
That was the key thing that set my work apart for him? But…HOW did I accomplish that?
I broke down my own writing style to analyze what my subconscious already knew.
Put the Characters in Charge
The first thing to jump out at me: my characters seemed to be driving the bus, rather than the narrator.
How did I accomplish this?
By limiting the amount of narration, I was able to push the characters front and center. Focusing on these areas helped:
Let the words come out of your characters’ mouths. Don’t let the narrator take center stage when you can have your characters communicate the information? Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily.
Avoid the data dumps. I try to let conversations between characters bring out details in a more natural way. And it’s a way that doesn’t drag down the pacing of your story. It also provides an opportunity to emphasize specific details through the character’s reaction to a statement.
Use internal dialogue wisely. If the character is alone, I use internal dialogue. We all note details and make comments inside our own brains. I let my characters do it as well.
Note: Beware the head-hop. Head-hopping within a scene can be confusing for the readers. Try to stick inside of a single head each scene, or even each chapter.
Give each character a unique voice. Voice doesn’t just communicate a character’s words, but also who they are as a person. By making your characters’ speech patterns match their personalities, you allow them to reveal little bits of themselves without being overt. Unique voices also allow the reader to know who is talking without using dialogue tags that clutter up a scene and slow the pacing of a conversation.
Action tags are a great place to include non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions. Knowing who’s talking is important, but sometimes “he-said, she-said” can get monotonous. Instead I weave in what’s going on in the scene and how the characters are interacting physically.
Even something as simple as Joe took a drink and wiped his mouth with his sleeve might break up a long piece of dialogue, tell you who is talking, and show you a little about Joe’s lack of table manners.
Showing a character’s interactions with their environment is a great way to immerse readers into the story. Engaging the senses also puts things in the character’s hands. Sight, smell, touch, taste and sound are all important to scene building, and Deep POV allows both the characters and the reader to experience them. The smell of bacon and fresh coffee wafting up the stairs, the soft feel of a worn suede jacket, the distant sound of children giggling as they play—all paint a powerful picture when experienced from the character’s point of view.
Strategic Point of View
Choosing the correct POV makes a difference in character participation. The closer we get to the character, the less we need to rely on narration to tell the story—unless your character is the narrator.
First-Person POV, be it past or present, puts the job of storytelling squarely on the shoulders of the main character. I use first person quite often in short stories as a way of making a quick connection between the reader and main character.
In novels, I prefer to use the Third-Person Limited POV.
The cast of characters is usually larger in a novel and it gives me a more flexibility. In third person limited, I’m only looking over the shoulder of one character, so we’re still close to them. In this POV, the narrator can only see into that one character’s head.
If my main character is in the scene, that’s who I follow, otherwise, it’s what ever character is the main person driving that particular scene. This keeps the story tight to the characters, as the reader only knows what that particular character knows.
So, Let’s Review
- Limiting narration and letting your characters do the talking will help show instead of tell.
- Unique character voices give each character a chance to reveal things about their personality, background, and emotional state.
- Action tags and the five senses weave in details naturally. (A great way to paint the scene without long descriptions.)
- Limited POVs keep your reader closer to the characters.
One Final Thought
The characters can’t always do the job by themselves. There are times when the narrator has to dip his or her paintbrush into the scene. I work hard to limit those times.
Every writer develops their own voice. Mine probably developed this way because it’s the way I like to read but different methods work for different people.
In other words, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong. The best way to tell a story is the way that works for you and your readers, and gets you to “The End.”
Do you have a favorite book where the characters do all the talking? Do you have a favorite point of view to write in? To read in? We want to hear about it down in the comments!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma and Catching Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room and Treble in Paradise: A tale of Sax and Violins.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21 inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website: http://www.eldredbird.com/.