Make the reader feel
First, capture his attention
Novelty captures the reader’s attention
When you tell the reader something he already knows, his eyes glaze over and he starts waking up. Keep his attention by always providing new information. Only repeat yourself to emphasis something’s importance.
Second, give him a character to live through
Abstract concepts and ideas can be interesting, but they cannot be used as a medium for experience. A vicarious experience requires a character with a core, a perspective that draws you in, details that give the story life.
Focus on a character – the right character
We don’t just want the reader to consume the words, but to devour them. You are the dealer, your character is the drug.
The focus point: the story is not about the events. The story is about people’s reactions to the events.
Understand the viewpoint is not necessarily the focus point. For example, In the Sherlock Holmes stories Sherlock himself is the focal point while doctor Watson is the view point.
Your focus character can be anything from a chair to an alien, as long as he has personality and emotion just like a person.
Third, hook him emotionally
Step 1, Let the reader identify with the character
The reader must be able to relate to the main character(s). This does not require the protagonist to be likeable, just relatable. Relating to a person means connecting to a person, this connection is always an emotional one because the best way to relate to another person is through an emotional experience. A reader cannot identify with a person he is merely told about. The character must be experienced. Revealing characters must happen for identification to happen. The better this connection becomes, the more immersed the reader will become. Conflict is the cause of identification, because conflict forces characters to act and thus reveal themselves.
Conflict -> character actions -> character revealed -> identification
Step 2, connect through emotion
Pin down how the character feels by determining his worries, fears and hopes. We are drawn to people who show vulnerability. A baby crawling on the highway evokes more fear and terror than a drunk crawling on the highway. Vulnerability is a necessary ingredient for identification. We rush to those who need us the most.
If the writing is done well, the reader feels what the character feels. Which means the character must always be feeling something. If he doesn’t feel anything, the reader doesn’t feel anything and puts the story down. The emotion can be explicit, it can be implied, it can be suggested, as long as its there. (Read more about writing emotion)
Let the reader get to know the character intimately
Shallow to Deep
1. Sensory image (shallow). John’s wife is pregnant.
2. Personality; how he relates and interacts with the world. John is a pessimist.
3. Activity; what he does. John makes a noose.
4. History; his past. John has tried this before.
5. Core; the deepest thoughts and feelings. The secrets we don’t tell anyone. John is unable to have kids. He never told his wife for fear she would leave him.
Move the imaginary Camera
Use different camera angles
Aerial shot: view from the sky down, excellent for showing city placement.
Established shot: captures the setting in which the action takes place.
Middle distance: camera moves closer to the action, you see the characters and their interactions.
Close-up: facial expressions, hand gestures and so on.
Macro shot: the detail that is invisible from a distance, for example the pale strip of skin on her ring finger.
Paint the dream
Show, don’t tell
The reader won’t just take your word for anything, he has to see it with his own eyes. The reader won’t feel a thing when told, only when shown. Use narrative summary and exposition only to provide necessary but boring information.
Shallow to Deep Viewpoint Short list:
1. Camera eye (objective, superficial) – John walked down the street.
2. Actions, dialogue, body language & gestures. John grimaced.
3. Perception. Her skin was white as alabaster.
4. Thoughts. John watched Jane tower over the puppy. She won’t harm it.
5. Emotions and attitudes. His throat tightened.
6 Voice (deep immersion). Those fucking storms will ruin the crop.
Long version -> here.
Show the details
Use telling details to sketch the picture
A few telling details can be enough to sketch out entire scenes. You must give the reader specific enough visuals so he can imagine it.
Telling details: describe both specific element(s) of some things and imply/invoke some larger context usually either the scene or the character(s).
Use specific detailed descriptions to fill it in
Be specific. Try to imagine the following lines:
John ate his dinner.
John ate his pasta.
John ate his macaroni with cheese.
On character descriptions: skip the general information. Inform the reader of the things that make that character stand out and recognisable. Tell him what’s particular about this character, the things that make them into individuals.
Use the ladder of abstraction: Abstract to Concrete
Top of the ladder – abstract words – example: freedom
Bottom of the ladder – concrete words – example: apple
Move up and down the ladder but never stay in the middle. Use metaphors and similes to describe abstract things with concrete things that still provide a mental image.
Warning: Keep the details straight
Or risk confusing the reader.
The hero climbs the mountain. The kingdom is visible on his right. Three pages later he reaches the top and turns to his left to look over the kingdom.
Warning: Don’t get too specific too late.
The reader is torn out of the dream when he needs to correct the way he imagined the story while he read it. Give the details up front.
The hero climbs the mountain for three pages with various challenges along the way. When he’s close to the top, you reveal the kingdom is visible on his right. The reader might have spent the last three pages imagining the kingdom to be on his left and is now jarred out of dream-state because he needs to correct the vision.
metaphors (wolf’s teeth) are better than similes (teeth like a wolf)
Avoid referring to the PoV character
Good sensory description lets you forget the filtering device. Phrases such as “he felt” is often unnecessary and reminds the reader it is someone else who feels such things, not him. Stating the experience directly is more effective than filtering it through a device. Filter words are: thought, saw, felt, heard, realized, watched, etc.
Shallow: John heard a dog bark.
Deep: A dog barked.
Character opinions and judgments
Show judgements without referring to the PoV character.
His little rat face crumbled in confusion.
Showing if the PoV character was aware of something or not
Use ‘a’ when noticing something for the first time. Use ‘the’ when the PoV character already knew the object was there.
A chair stood against the door. (noticed)
The box stood on the table. (known)
Use few character references in dialogue
Cut the dialogue tags wherever possible without damaging the clarity.
‘Love day, innit?’ said John.
‘I expect rain later.’ said Jane.
‘Nonsense, not a cloud in the sky.’
‘Fine but don’t come asking for my umbrella later.’
Do refer to the PoV character for intentional actions such as ‘She ran out to meet him.’
Use the right verbs
Active voice tops passive voice
In active voice, the doer steers the action. In passive voice, it overcomes him.
He threw his coat onto the sofa. (active)
The ship was rocked by the waves. (passive)
Movement verbs top stationary verbs
The mental image should always be moving. This creates vitality in the dream. It brings the static to life and pulls the reader deeper into the dream.
“Her hair curls rested on her shoulders.”
“Her black hair curled in ringlets around her cheeks.”
Use descriptive verbs for bonus points
You make the fictional dream lifelike and clear by specifying how something moves.
He threw his coat onto the sofa.
He flung his coat onto the sofa.
Sometimes you need shallow immersion
Deep point of View is not recommended close to doom. Disasters are only entertaining when they happen to other people, not to the reader. This goes for comedy as well as highly dramatic scenes. Creating mental distance helps readers cope with uncomfortable situations.
When the character doesn’t have time to live in his head, the reader shouldn’t either. For example, you don’t have time to think in the middle of a physical fight. You aren’t fully aware of your mental capacities in that moment so deep immersion would be unrealistic and only bog the story down. When the story bogs, the reader’s eyes glaze over and you’ve lost him.
Clark, R. P. (2006) Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writing.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Cron, L. (2012) Wires for Story: the Writer’s Guide to using Brain Science to hook the Readers from the very First Sentence.
Knight, D. (1981) Creating Short Fiction.