Fiction Writers Should Be Heard Not Seen

The modern aesthetic is for fiction authors to be invisible. That’s why so many novels are written from a close third or first person point of view. Early novelists often jump into the middle of their stories for short asides or long dissertations, but that style is long gone and today’s writers need to remove the last vestiges of their presence from their stories. Writers should be heard and not seen. Examples of where this issue needs to be addressed follow.

Let’s start with chapter headings. Cute or even informative chapter headings should be dispensed with. They remind the reader that there’s an author telling this story and s/he wants you to know the theme of this chapter is “Madeline Meets a Stranger” or some such title. Better are chapters headed solely by the number of the chapter, and only if absolutely necessary the date, time, and/or location when the chapter begins. The latter, however, can easily be injected into the beginning of the chapter. “It was the first of January and he was late to his half past ten appointment at his lawyer’s Chicago office.” I even recommend removing the word chapter. Just the number please.

It is more important, however, to eliminate the dozen ways authors remind readers of their existence in the body of their stories. A novel I read recently jumped from scene to scene without the traditional blank line break. This meme is borrowed from television and movies where it works fine. As viewers, we’re used to scene jumps, but not so much in books. The standard is a blank line between scenes when the story shifts point of view from one character to another or when there’s a break in time or a shift in locations. Eliminating that break is off-putting. It doesn’t just remind us there’s an author telling this story, it punches us in the nose with that fact. Ouch. Formatting tricks break the readers’ engagement in the story. Save them for graphic novels.

Another example of authors reminding readers of their presence is when they fill in background information. We writers call this ‘backstory.’ Here the author is too lazy to provide the information in the course of the story, so s/he stops to tell it in one lump sum. Backstory reminds the reader that you, Mr. or Ms. Author, are telling this story. It lessens readers’ emotional connection to your story, which is why it should be avoided. The solution is to find ways to introduce the information through external or internal dialogue or mete it out in short bursts. “Landing at Heathrow reminded him of his last unhappy visit to London.”

Authors are adept at finding other ways to protrude into their stories. A sneaky way of doing so is to insert information that the characters in the scene would not know or see. They write sentences such as “Little did she know she would never see him again,” or “They were unaware of the armed men approaching their cabin.” A more subtle example of this is describing something a character would be unlikely to notice.

If your character is in the middle of a car chase, he’s unlikely to pay attention to the woman pushing the baby carriage unless she’s about to cross in front of his car. Nor will he pay attention to the fact that the clock on the town hall had fallen behind once again.

Authors want to make their world real and thus insert details into the story. Occasionally they point out a detail that if they thought a moment they’d realize their characters would not notice at that particular moment. A character might notice the tattoo on a waiter’s wrist as he’s taking the order, but probably wouldn’t pay attention in the darkened restaurant lighting that he hadn’t shaved that morning or to the brand of cigarette the man standing in the restaurant’s doorway was smoking. These are examples of the author showing the reader how observant s/he is and they should be avoided unless they have some pertinence to the story. Coming into the restaurant, a character might notice the smells, the noise level, and the layout of the tables, but s/he would probably not pay attention to the wait staff’s uniforms, or the maître d’s hairstyle, or think of title of the song piped in as background––because presumably there’s a purpose to the character’s being in that location at the time. If it’s to meet someone, the character is looking to see if s/he is already there or to select the ideal table location or find the emergency exit.

Another subtle way authors have of sneaking into their stories is in dialogue where characters provide information they wouldn’t need to tell each other. “You know, Mary. The odor of this bakery reminds me of Grandma Schmidt’s kitchen with the crockery her parents brought with them from Germany when they escaped in 1938.” If Mary knows Grandma Schmidt, the other character doesn’t need to tell her that the family brought over their kitchen crockery when they escaped in 1938. She already knows.

One way to catch these and other ways we writers have of intruding into our stories is to read them out loud before they are made public. When reading out loud it’s easier to catch when the voice is yours as opposed to your character’s or the detail is one your character wouldn’t see or hear or smell at that moment.

Today’s readers love stories in which they can identify with the characters and feel engaged in the story. They don’t want authors to put a barrier up between them and the story, which is what those ancient techniques do. Formatting tricks, chapter titles, irrelevant details, and backstory say, “look at me, the author. Aren’t I wonderful!” In truth, the reader will think you’re wonderful if you remain hidden, letting them hear you through your characters and not in your own voice.

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