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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Invisible Novelist

In my opinion, the author should seek to disappear from his or her fiction.

What in the world does this mean? How can the novelist disappear and the novel still get written?

I don't mean the world should have fewer novelists (may it never be!), but that the author should seek to immerse readers so deeply in the story that they forget they're reading a book with words and paragraphs, and instead feel that the story is happening to them.

In other words, the storyteller should step out of the way of the story.

You want your reader to suspend her disbelief, don't you? Especially in the speculative genres we want to be given license to tell however wild or wacky a tale we want, and we want the reader to stay with us. Then one of your imperatives is to stop reminding her that she's reading a book.

What we're talking about here is author intrusion. The reader was happily enjoying the story when all of a sudden the author drew attention to himself and broke the reader out of the illusion that the story was really happening around her.

Imagine you're trying to watch a DVD at home. You're curled on the couch with popcorn and dimmed lights. You slide the DVD in and the movie begins. Then suddenly someone jumps between you and the TV and begins to talk.

"Okay, you're going to love this movie. My original inspiration for it was something that happened in real life. Oh, my, but mine is an interesting life story. It all began with my mother. But to understand me you need to know my mother's life story..."

All the while you're craning your neck trying to see past this pest and see what's going on in the movie.

Finally you get him to sit down. You're really getting into the movie. In fact, you feel tears welling up in your eyes. Up jumps the guy again in front of the TV.

"That's going to make you cry, isn't it? I knew it! I have found in my vast experience as a well-read and well-traveled adult that people can be made to feel emotion if I manipulate the..."

Where did those tears go? Dried up fast. Mr. Explainer had to go and break the mood.

Later you're into the movie again and you're carried away by the special effects in the film. You're feeling like you're actually soaring through Earth's atmosphere on the way to Mars. You're getting a feeling for what it must be like to be an astron—

"That's all done in the computer; did you know that?" It's Mr. Explainer again, up in front of the TV. "I interviewed like ten special effects houses before I finally decided on this one. I didn't like the takeoff here as much as later when they're approaching..."

Okay, you get the point. When the author jumps up and draws attention to himself he both breaks the illusion that the reader is truly experiencing the story and he frustrates and even irritates the reader.

There are many ways authors can intrude on their story, and just as many motives.

They may simply not know they're doing it. A dump truck full of backstory and explanation and exposition stops the story cold and draws attention to the fact that I'm reading a book. Why did the author do this? Probably through inexperience. He needs to go to my Web page and read Tip #10.

Other times the author can do it because he subconsciously wants to draw attention to himself. Ornate language, "impressive" vocabulary, and the strikingly beautiful turn of phrase are sometimes the results.

Don't try to impress the reader. Don't try to make her think you're an amazing writer unlike any the world has ever seen. The reader didn't come to this book to be impressed. The reader came to be entertained by a story. You want her to love the story, not the storyteller. Be like John the Baptist: let the story increase while you decrease. Go back and read Tip #1.

I don't mean to imply that these are the only two explanations for why novelists write this way. There are many others.

Some authors write prose that is truly remarkable to read. It's beautiful. People do come to those authors' books to revel in the prose. But most of us would do better to let it be the story and characters, not our stellar sentences, that we try to cause people to come to love.

How do you step into the background and let your story take center stage?

First, keep your vocabulary "normal." You don't want to dumb down your writing, nor should you atttempt to raise it artificially. Try to keep it within the bounds of what a typical member of your target audience would understand.

Second, avoid the bizarre turn of phrase. Sure, you want to avoid cliché and pursue originality, but not to the extent that it draws attention to itself. Any time you make the reader focus on the words you're using (as opposed to the story you're telling), you snap her out of the illusion that she's in the story.

Third, stick to said. Don't say, "'That's fine,' she breathed." Or "'That stinks,' she pondered." Or "'Okay by me,' she laughed." Ew. Say it with me: Ew.

Don't let characters sigh out words, or chortle them, or postulate, surmise, heave, opine, verbalize, snipe, deride, or question them out. All that does is draw attention to your words.

Said is invisible. Invisible is good. Invisible is what you're striving for. Asked is okay, too (as in "'Is that yours?' she asked"), but almost everything else is blatantly visible and knocks the reader right out of the beautiful construct that is your story.

You can write, "He said, laughing" or "She said with a sigh." Just don't have them sigh or laugh out the words.

What you want is a reader who is so into your story that she forgets she's reading words and turning pages. You want her breathlessly moving beyond the sentences and directly onto the front row of the story. Your words cease to be ends in and of themselves and instead become the vehicle that ushers her into this reality you've created.

When that happens, she'll get to the end of your book and look at the clock, only to realize with surprise that it's three in the morning.



Blogger :-)Ronie said...

Amazing, she said with a sigh. :-D Thanks for this post, Jeff! As always, great and sage advice. I would venture to guess that when you looked at Liberty's Son two years ago, this is what you meant by overwrought prose. LOL Thanks for the clue-in that helped me lighten up. LOL

8:10 AM  

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