January 3rd, 2020

Let Your Characters Tell the Story

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?

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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:

Dialogue

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

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.

Environmental Interaction

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.

Most important…

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!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Eldred

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/.

25 responses to “Let Your Characters Tell the Story”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Yes! As a reader, the book is about the characters, so why shouldn't it be that way for me as a writer. I prefer 3rd person Deep POV, which gets me into the character's head. And, since I have no way of knowing where the story is going when I start writing, I have to rely on the characters to lead the way.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    'don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.' THIS! As aspiring writers, I think we sometimes listen TOO much to other's wisdom. Part of the fun of learning to write (wasn't fun at the time, but I realize it, looking back) is discovery. Discovering your voice, how YOU write a book.

    I think the most essential tool to become a writer is to keep a toddler's learning mentality - they don't think they've failed if they can't figure something out. They try again.

    Thanks for this, Eldred (should we call you Eldred or Bob?)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      We call him Bob, Laura. 🙂 But it's hard to beat Eldred for a searchable writing name, right? Your favorite line was my favorite line too.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I like the toddler thing, Laura. In my house we call that looking at the the world through "new eyes."

      Eldred is my middle name. Jenny is right; I publish under that name because it's more unique and moves me to the top of the search engines. It also sounds more literary than Bob. As for what to call me, call me anything you like--just don't call me late for dinner!

  3. ecellenb says:

    Lots of good suggestions here, Eldred! When I began writing for other people my writing style could have been considered "hot mess."

    It took some time to stop head hopping, mixing tenses, and not making good use of dialogue. Those action tags make a positive difference.

    As for my favorite point of view, I prefer third-person limited and generally past tense.

    • Kris Maze says:

      Hi Ellen,
      I've struggled with a "hot mess" of POV when changing from third to first person and then back to third! Sometimes it pays to stick with what I did best! Thanks for your honest reflection and sharing!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Yeah, I was a hot mess too, Ellen. I think we all start that way. Thank the good lord for honest feedback and gentle guidance from a caring critique group!

      • ecellenb says:

        No fooling, Eldred! Everyone should experience the critique groups we had, have still for you. Constructive criticism means makes an enormous difference. I truly appreciate those who not only saw the issues but gave alternatives.

  4. Great post to kick some ass in 2020! Thanks. I'm still in learning mode, but I'm really getting my arms around how to use dialogue to tell the story...and how to use active dialogue tags to keep things moving. Keep sharing your insights with us. Please. And thank you.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I hear you with this, Chris! I remember in my first Margie immersion, when I realized I had no body language. Like anywhere! It was both terrifying and exciting as hell. 🙂

      • Eldred Bird says:

        Jenny, isn't it great feeling when something like that clicks for you? It's like the door to a whole new dimension opens. I feel that way every a class or critique unlocks something for me. I'd love to do one of Margie's immersion sessions someday.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Christopher. The truth is we are always (or at least should be) in learning mode. Perfection in writing is a moving target. Keep learning, growing, and looking at the world with the wonder of a child.

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    I like Third-Person Deep POV.

    I've had to unteach myself head-bopping.

    denise

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I had the same prob;em in the beginning as well. While there is a proper time and place for third person omniscient narration, I find it rarely works for me.

  6. Mary Bailey says:

    Dear Eldred,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, so much that I read it twice. I have a lot of dialogue in my writing, so your thoughts have given me confidence.

    Thanks, Mary

  7. jeannenicholas says:

    Great review of the important Character issues, Mr. Bird. I always have to remind myself to limit the details so the characters dialogue and action tell the story not my details. I try to remember this Steven Covey quote "Sow a Thought, reap an action; Sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny." This can be applied to the characters we write. The inner dialogue, the actions, the tweaks and habits. I'm sure Steven was probably talking about someone attaining positive characteristics in themselves, but when I think about creating characters I think about the entire building and how one little twitch could convey so much. Unfortunately, the one thing I cannot seem to do is keep my POV steady. I love to head-hop. Working on that now. I'm finding with practice I can spot it in my own work more regularly. Edits are really fun (a deadpanned voice trailed off).

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Great quote, Jeannen, I and think it totally applies in this case. If we approach building traits in our characters the same way we approach it in our own lives, we end up building deeper and more sympathetic characters. The deeper the character, the more real they become, and the more we are able to put them front and center.

      As for editing, that's my favorite part. Writing the first draft is like digging out the clay; editing is where we sculpt it into the masterpiece it's meant to be.

  8. barbdelong says:

    Great post, Eldred! I prefer 3rd person deep POV, past tense to read and write. My problem is choosing which of two character to be POV in a scene. Sometimes both have a lot to lose or have equal (to me) emotional investment. The only way I decide is to write the scene both ways. Even then, I've been edited to switch it back. Sigh.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      It can be hard to do when you have equally weighted characters in a scene. If my MC is in the scene, I automatically go to them for deep POV, as the whole book is ultimately about them. If the MC isn't present, I look to see who is really driving the scene. One character may be more emotionally invested, but if another character is the one that drives the action and ultimately exposes what ever information needs to be established or exposed, then I will go with them. Think about what you're trying to accomplish with the scene and who is going to best accomplish it.

  9. Wendy Leslie says:

    Thank you Eldred, (great name) so much for this, from a notorious head-hopper.
    It's reassuring to know one-is-not-alone but also, there's a way out.
    I think your last post hit the button.

  10. Thank you for highlighting the need for us to release our characters. I tend to be an overprotective mother hen, and want to do the talking, and explaining, on their behalves!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I understand where you're coming from, Glenda. It can be tough to trust and follow our children rather than lead. But if we've done a good job developing them, they can take us to some interesting places.

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