This Week’s Bit of String: I’m real, you’re real…we’re all real here.
When he was eleven my son philosophised, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who exists, and everyone else is just in my head. But then I think, everyone else must wonder the same thing too!’
I think we’ve all wondered that, particularly at the pre-pubescent and adolescent stages. Some, I suspect, never fully grow out of it. It’s hard to fully acknowledge the reality, the depth and immediacy of other human beings. While we strive to make our actual selves acknowledged in real life, how can we ensure our fiction comes across as real, too?
Making the Impossible Possible
I’ve been jousting with my novel lately. I gallop backward, take a dramatic tilt at it, assess the damage, then try again to strengthen it, shove it into a more powerful form.
Books are wondrous. Consider this quote from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: ‘You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of your words… There are many kinds of magic, after all.’
A book’s power, to teach, transform, or enable escape, all derives from one source: its believability. We must first believe. Readers should think they’re there, not just in the story’s setting, but in the main characters’ heads. So once I’ve made a first pass through the rough draft, tightening the plot while clarifying the story arc, then I go through aiming to eliminate distance between story and reader.
Rejecting the Passive
We’ve all been told to purge passive verbs as much as possible, to help our readers feel they’re in the midst of the action. ‘He walked’ replaces ‘he was walking;’ ‘she lay awake’ might replace ‘she couldn’t sleep.’
Apart from these usual suspects, I cull ‘flagging’ words: to think, to feel, to realise, to see… I say flagging words since they cause the narrative to flag a little, plus they mark the distance between character and reader. But they’re commonly known as filter words, and there are some good posts about why/ how to avoid them.
I’m writing in third person limited point of view, so the character dominating each chapter is clear. Any thought shown belongs to him or her, without specification.
We also have to be careful with point of view because a character is unlikely to describe their own facial expression to give clues to their feelings. Instead, I put in the visceral details of that emotion. (Here’s another article about conveying emotion more vividly.)
Draft 2: Placing the incriminating photo face down on her desk, Phoebe frowned at it and tapped her foot. It made her feel a bit sick.
Draft 3: Phoebe placed the incriminating photo face down on her desk. She fidgeted her hands in her hoodie sleeves, the cuff seams rough against her wrists, her stomach squirming too.
Don’t ask me about Draft 1.
This round of edits makes the difference between reading someone’s thoughts, rather than just reading about someone thinking.
Immediacy vs Serenity
Almost twenty years on, I see the Seinfeld mantra ‘Serenity now!’ appear sometimes on social media. When I’m editing (or writing), I don’t want serenity. We write and edit to shake things up, to jolt people awake with an extra dose of reality. The phrase sticking in my head while I work is, ‘Immediacy now!’
Why immediacy? Immediate means ‘without delay.’ The story shoots into the reader’s bloodstream. It means ‘very close’, e.g. your immediate family; the story provides a direct connection.
The Latin origins of the word Immediate can be interpreted a couple of ways. There’s the root medium, meaning ‘middle’, so it means putting something in the middle. It also breaks down to mean ‘not intervening,’ using the prefix im as not, and the root mediate: to intervene or negotiate. Making our work immediate makes it uncompromising, clear, smack dab in the middle of the reader’s path.
As Wallace Stegner’s somewhat autobiographical main character toasts at an impromptu picnic in Crossing to Safety: ‘Let us be unignorable.’
It takes a lot to achieve believability. I’ve outlined my method later in the process. Do you have any tricks to share? Do you have different priorities altogether when editing?
My son summed up his musings on reality thus: ‘The only person who can prove your existence is YOU. But you can only really prove it to yourself.’
The first part of his concluding statement reminds us how high the stakes are. The second part… well, as writers, we have to believe that isn’t strictly true. We have to think we can work magic.