The Distance Trap
Episode #7 of the course Ten editing techniques to perfect your fiction writing by K.C. Finn
In the old days of literary fiction, the voice of the author was always present. When you read Dickens or Austen, you can feel the presence of those writers in the work. Commercial fiction doesn’t work like that these days. Pick up any Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, and you’ll find yourselves sitting on the shoulder of the main character, deeply involved in their world, with no sign of a narrator present. It’s what agents are looking for across the board nowadays.
There are many ways to get your readers closer to your characters—for example, through strong physical sensations, good description, and authentic dialogue. But right now, we’re going to examine a grammatical technique that you can pick up quickly in your editing sessions, which will speed up your writing and remove the authorial voice from your work in a heartbeat!
Here’s how it works. Below, I’ve compiled a list of related words that should not be in your writing. These useless verbs make sentences longer, add authorial narration, and create too much distance between the reader and the character. Underneath each deadly word, you’ll find an example of how to remove it and rework it into a much more effective sentence, leaping with ease over the distance trap!
Felt (see also: sensed, perceived). You, as the author, don’t need to tell us how characters feel. Show us instead by describing their actions and reactions to their physical sensations.
Before: Lori felt cold.
After: Lori shivered.
Realized (see also: gathered, learned, thought). Realization should be a sudden, impactful moment. Telling us that a character is about to realize something destroys that impact totally.
Before: There was a knock at the door. Tim realized that something was wrong.
After: There was a knock at the door. Something was wrong.
Saw (see also: heard, tasted, smelled). If you’re telling your story from the narrator’s perspective, then we know that what you’re describing is what they’re seeing. We don’t need to be told that they are seeing it all the time. It stops us from looking through their eyes and getting the full experience of the moment.
Before: Maria saw the vast expanse of the mountains before her.
After: The vast expanse of the mountains lay before Maria.
As you read through your work, keep a list of these deadly words by your side to help you spot potential areas for improvement. Conversely, you might also want to leave the words in, just now and then, if you’re deliberately trying to create distance. This could be useful if the character is losing consciousness, in a daydream, or perhaps even drugged. Experiment with the different effects and see what happens!
Tomorrow’s lesson explores another technique from the world of drama, and this time, we’ll be focusing on editing dialogue. Get ready for a simple scripting and reading exercise to be sure that your characters are in good voice!
Before that, have a go at getting closer to your characters!
Not everyone who loves writing comes from an English language background, so if you’re a little rusty on your types of narration, remind yourself with this fun lesson from BBC Bitesize before you tackle today’s technique.
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