Giving the Moment to Your Readers
To read a novel is to experience a character’s highs and lows and everything in between. To be carried away into the make-believe world of an author’s imagination. To experience what you would never experience and in ways never imagined. Yet some authors steal these joys from their readers by distancing them. They don’t bring readers into the character’s head or heart, the pulse of the action, the nuances of the fictitious world and so on. They rob readers of the immediacy or the moment of the scene.
Recapping an important scene instead of presenting it firsthand is one way authors deny immediacy to readers. In the following passage, Anna is confronting an unfaithful lover. She has never stood up to a man. Once she does, she leaves empowered.
Anna stood in front of her boyfriend’s door. Her heart racing, she thought of all the mean things she wanted to say to Luc. He had made her believe she was the only woman in his life, when in actuality, she was one of five. Five! She had never been so insulted in all her dating life.
She knocked on the door, hoping Luc wasn’t home, but he opened it. Before she could run away, she began the onslaught of all the wrongs he had committed against her. Luc countered with one lame excuse after another—probably well-rehearsed from all the practice he had had with all the other women who had come before her—or alongside her. When she couldn’t remember any more injustices, she turned on her high heels and strode off. She was shaking, but she had stood up to Luc. No man would ever make her one of five women again. No man would ever wrong Anna Broughton ever again.
Anna’s experience is life alternating and significant to her character and the story. Yet the reader doesn’t get to feel it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or hear it. The two paragraphs should have been developed into a scene, possibly even a chapter. There should have been lots of dialogue, and some minor narrative to flesh it out, which would have put the reader, standing right next to Anna, experiencing the shake of her knees but the thrill of her ride, and cheering her on firsthand. The reader then would have left on the heels of Anna’s high. But the past tense narrative, which is a recap, robs the reader of the immediacy of Anna’s moment. We’re left without having experienced anything.
Author intrusion also distances readers from the scene’s moment.
In her dark corner, Anna saw Luc cuddle up with a tall blonde. The blonde left and a buxom brunette showed up. He made the same moves on her. Four cappuccinos later Anna had counted two more women. Well, you wouldn’t believe what Anna did next.
Among other things, suspense is created by conflict and tension. Suspense is not created by an author, jumping into the story to tell readers that they are in for a big surprise and to keep on reading if they want to know what that big surprise is. Authors who do this pull me right out of the story and tell me they aren’t confident handling suspense or just want to get the story over. This technique also reminds me of the classics and of allegorical novels, where authors intrude to make sure the lesson or the moral of the story is learned. Unless you’re writing an allegory, don’t interrupt the flow of the moment by jumping in.
An author’s choice of words can also pull a reader out of the moment of the story.
In her abstruse corner, Anna witnessed Luc cuddle up with a prodigious blonde in a diaphanous dress, and an hour later with an esoteric-looking brunette in an affluent suit.
As authors, we search for the right word. The right word has to work for the time period, the character, the culture, and all the other details of our work. We are presented with choices and may opt for an impressive-looking word rather than an every day one. But, when was the last time you were in the throes of a passionate scene or the grip of a hair-raising action scene and been stopped cold by an unknown or over-the-top word? When was the last time you pulled out a dictionary to check the meaning of that word? A work of fiction is not a textbook. Don’t use a word that will stop readers cold and ruin the momentum of the scene.
Creative speech tags in dialogue can also disrupt immediacy and readers’ enjoyment of your work. There is nothing wrong with “he said/she said” or even “he replied/she replied”. I’m the first to admit that “said” and “replied” are boring. After all, they’re not creative, and we as authors are. But we have to remember that if we’ve engaged readers, they will be focused on the dialogue and not on the speech tags. Which one of the following keeps you focused on Anna’s moment?
“I loved you, Luc,” Anna managed to squeak out.
“I loved you, Luc,” Anna shrilled at the top of her lungs.
“I loved you, Luc.” Anna said.
“I loved you, Luc.”
My guess would be the third, but the last one works even better. If the author develops the scene properly, the reader doesn’t need to be told how Anna says her parting words to Luc. The reader knows, and the speech tags are redundant.
A misplaced description or an overload of irrelevant information will also ruin the scene’s momentum and pull the reader out of the story.
Anna stood in front of her boyfriend’s door. It was a beautiful redwood door with a bevelled glass that must have cost Luc a fortune. She knocked, hoping he wasn’t home, but Luc opened it. He was wearing a Lacoste polo shirt, a pair of Hugo Boss jeans, and cologne that reminded her of climbing the Rockies with her Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sisters.
Is the description of the door important? Is what Luc’s wearing essential? Is the memory of mountain climbing with her sorority sisters necessary? At that very moment, no, they aren’t. This is Anna’s moment. The author should be focusing on her emotions and then on her triumph. The author should not be focusing on extraneous descriptions or thoughts that detract from the immediacy of Anna’s moment and of the readers’.
Be careful with slight point of view shifts that can also jar a reader. If you’re in one character’s POV, don’t switch to another character’s in the same paragraph.
Anna knocked on the door, hoping Luc wasn’t home, but he opened it. Luc was surprised to see her. He was expecting Marguerite.
The shift in POV is slight, but may lead to reader confusion.
The biggest compliment readers can give authors is that they lost themselves in their stories. Don’t rob the readers’ experiences by distancing them from the moments that make up your stories.