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Unfiltered Fiction: One key to keeping your reader engaged

A close up of an old typewriter
A typewriter — not mine — which as we all know is the symbol of all serious writerists

When I spent a few years reading slush pile manuscripts for a small publisher, I started to realise that the manuscripts which failed to engage all seemed to have something in common: a feeling that the reader was being kept at a distance from the characters, from the story, from the moment.

Writing fiction is one of the trickiest things you’ll ever do (That’s not physically taxing) because it is, as I have said before, a kind of magic or illusion. You need to convince the reader that even though they know that what you’re writing about isn’t real, they should still feel engaged as though it was. This is where film often has it easier — film can use sensation (sound, vision) to engage the audience in a moment and make them feel. But prose is just markings on a page. There is no sensory engagement to enhance or trick the reader. There is only the use of words to create and weave a reality around the reader.

So the writer of prose starts at a disadvantage because the reader is already one step removed from the “reality” of a story. They are sat outside of it. They have no reason to try and engage with it beyond their own inclination. So we need to work harder to make sure that inclination is strong.

And so we need to think about how we bring the reader closer to the world.

There are a number of ways to do this. One of these — and I will try and talk about this in a later blog post — is to ensure the emotional honesty of the book. That is, we need to make the readers feel as close to the interior emotional state of the characters as possible. This is a matter often of instinct and experimentation of the part of the writer to find that way of transmitting their own emotional state onto the page (and removing their own filters along the way).

But an easier method — and one we’ll focus on just now — is that of simply removing filters in your writing. Filters are words that stand between the reader and the direct sensation of a scene, especially as it is already filtered through the point of view of a character. Filters especially tend to remove the reader when reading a manuscript written in close point of view (whether first or third) — a scene experienced directly from one character’s point of view (This is my preferred method of POV, for reasons again we’ll discuss another day).

A paper filter for coffee
Yes, it’s a coffee filter, not a writing filter…

Let’s look at the following (rough and ready, but relatively simple) example:

Russel walked along the woodland path. Above him, he heard the birds singing in the trees.

Simple, right? But we establish from the start of that sentence that we’re “beside” Russel (or in his POV) and thus we know that anything we see or hear is from Russel’s experience. We don’t need need to be told that heard the birds.

Russel walked the woodland path. Above, the birds were singing in the trees.

It’s a small change, but it brings us closer to him and tricks us into experiencing the world more directly through his experience. The filter of “he heard” which adds another layer of distance between the character’s experience and the reader is gone. More subtly by saying “above” rather than “above him” we place the reader directly in Russel’s POV rather than having them one step removed, looking at Russel looking up.

So let’s look at a stronger example from the POV of a protagonist we know nothing about except their direct experience:

They felt their throat become raw as they screamed, feeling the unbearable pain in their leg.

The “felt” and “feeling” here are filtering – distancing us – the reader and the character’s direct experience.

Their throat became raw as they screamed. The pain in their leg was unbearable.

Now, its not Shakespearean, but again, just getting rid of the filters makes it more direct and immediate for the reader.

Basically, any time a POV character — whether in first or third person (or even second!) — experiences something you don’t need to distance the reader from them by telling us that this what the character experienced. The writing itself has already established its POV, and so we can make a logical guess as to who is experiencing the sensation. Removing the filters makes the writing more immediate and more dramatic.

The exception to this would generally be when another character has an experience that is not direct. As in this moment between me and my boy-cat, Mycroft.

Russel looked at Mycroft, whose ears were twitching. Mycroft had clearly heard something nearby.

Here, we can filter Mycroft’s experience because we are experiencing Russel’s experience of Mycroft’s experience (but to filter any further would be a) unnecessarily confusing and b) adding another layer between the reader and the direct effects of the drama.

My cat, Mycroft, looking a bit alarmed.
It’s Mycroft, at the moment that made that made me think of the above example… Now you no longer need to ask me “where do you get your ideas from…?”

Dropping filters between the reader and the experience of the characters in your dramatic writing is one of the easiest ways to get “closer” to the action and to bring your reader right into the moment. So try it in your own writing: drop the he/she/I/they “heard” or “felt” or “saw” and see how much more immediate the moments you’re describing become and how much closer you feel to the characters who are directly experiencing those moments.

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