Use Fiction Techniques to Increase Reader Involvement
by Sandra Glahn, ThM, PhD
Originally presented at the Evangelical Press Association Nat’l Meeting,
Colorado Springs, May 2006
In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle observes, “ Jesus was not a theologian; he was God who told stories.”
But why tell stories instead of simply giving detailed explanations?
Salman Rushdie said this about “story”: “In a free society, people are free to tell and interpret their own stories. Tyranny is when other people have the right to censure or kill the storytellers who get out of line. We are, as human beings, storytelling animals. We are the only creature on the earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what it is and what its life means. Therefore the story is of unusual importance to us, whether we are writers or not. It is something unusually important to human nature.”
As we move from print back to a more aural and visual culture, “story” is more important than ever. John Mecklin, editor of the New York Times’ SF Weekly described a shift that has happened in journalism as U.S. culture has shifted. He told Columbia Journalism Review what their publication now does: “We don’t do newspaper journalism. We tell a story as a story, a narrative, something with themes and character development, a narrative line with rising and falling action—all those things you learned in English class about how people tell stories to each other. We tell deeply researched, extremely factual stories so that we never use a pyramid style, because people don’t tell stories to each other in that crap-ass style—they interest each other.”
So how do we use principles of storytelling to write better prose, whether fiction or non-fiction?
Remember how you assessed classic books back in lit class? Your teacher probably told you that every story had four elements: narration, setting, plot, and characterization. Well, to write great stories, we still need these four elements. Let’s look at them from a writer’s perspective.
Choose the narrative voice.
Narration is the way the story gets told—the voice of the storyteller, point of view (POV), tone, and techniques.
Part of figuring out the “voice” for your narrator is choosing the point of view from which to tell the story. Here are your options:
Third person limited
Third person multiple
Third person omniscient
Imagine three singers—Bono, Willie Nelson, and Janet Jackson—singing “This Little Light of Mine.” The plot doesn’t change from singer to singer—we know that no bushel will hide that persistent little flicker. But each singer’s tone of voice gives the story a unique flair. The writer does the same thing with words to establish style. Do you want one character to tell the entire thing solo? Or will you hear from each one individually? Can you read others’ minds (not recommended) or stick to one mind at a time?
(For more on this topic, check out my favorite resource on this subject. It’s Penelope Stokes’s chapter on POV in The Complete Guide to Writing and Selling the Christian Novel.)
Consider some examples of POV in Scripture:
Boaz: “He awoke and behold! A woman was lying at this feet!” (Ruth 3:8). The reader knows it’s Ruth, but the storyteller puts us in Boaz’s point of view.
We are never told if Bathsheba had any responsibility in seducing King David. We’re supposed to totally see the sin from David’s point of view (2 Sam. 11). And he is guilty as sin.
“Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Gen 32:24). Readers know that “man” is the angel of God. But Moses tells it from Jacob’s point of view. To him, initially his opponent was just some man.
“Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah” (Josh. 15:63). Again, readers know they technically could have taken the land if they had exercised faith. But from their POV, they could not pull it off.
Once you know your POV, choose a tense. You have two options: past or present. Most people go with past; present is rare. But Frank McCourt used present for Angela’s Ashes, and he did all right (i.e., a Pulitzer.) It’s super tough to sustain present, so I suggest you wait till you’ve published your first novel to give it a try. Here’s a present-tense story: “We dash off to the store, and we run a red light, and this car comes careening through and hits us. We fly through the windshield, because neither of us has on a seatbelt….”
Now, consider this same story from a first-person POV: “We dash off to the store, and we run a red light, and this car comes careening through and hits us. We fly through the windshield, because neither of us has on a seatbelt…. The End.” The narrator has to be present in every moment. And he or she can’t get injured badly or die!
Make up your characters.
You can have so much fun making up characters. Red hair or green? Plump or average? Chiseled-jaw or that of a lesser mortal? What does she drive—a Jag or a Yugo? Rich or poor? Young or old? Country bumpkin or city dweller? Tats?
Google “character generator” for help with names and personalities if you get stuck. Or even if you just want a chuckle.
Your characters need distinct words. People knew John Wayne by his use of “pilgrim.” Tony Soprano was always asking, “How you doin’?” before ordering calzone. Capisce? Fans of Duck Dynasty recognize “happy, happy, happy.”
If you hear a British-accented voice saying, “spit-spot,” and “practically perfect in every way,” it has to be Disney’s favorite nanny. And if another voice grates with a Jersey “Oh-h-h-h, Mr. Sheffield!” followed by a snorty little snigger, you know it comes from a different nanny.
Spoken voice is to TV what written voice is to novel-writing. “Voice” shows up in each character’s use—or non-use—of accent, pet phrases, favorite subjects, metaphor, slang, vocabulary, contractions, sentence structure, and even sheer quantity of words.
One of my favorite “voice teachers” is Barbara Kingsolver, especially her work The Poisonwood Bible. Adah’s character toys with palindromes and has funky diction peppered with phrases such as, “Walk to learn. I and Path. Long one is Congo.” Ruth-May uses words such as “a-struttin’,” while Leah likes to say “smack.” She might exclaim, “We were smack in the middle” or “He walked smack-dab into that door.” Each character has her own pet subjects and vocabulary words. One daughter obsesses over her appearance. Another focuses on what her father thinks. What each chooses to talk about, or even think about, is as important as how she speaks. The reader knows who’s talking without needing dialogue tags because of the combination of speech factors that identify each character.
In Dickens’s Great Expectations, if someone says, “Something is about to turn up,” we can be fairly certain it’s Mr. Micawber.
How this “voice” info translated to one of my medical thrillers (False Positive) is that a genius doc who speaks English as a second language rarely uses contractions. And his figures of speech reflect his occupation. He leaves it to the botanist to say, “She turned pale as a lily,” and chooses for himself a surgical suite simile: “She turned white as gauze.”
When I write a character with a colloquial voice, I have to restrain myself. Just a hint here and there reminds the reader without turning character into caricature. Here’s overdone:
Y’all, I’m sittin’ in this hea-h Denvah airport fixin’ to catch me an air-o-plane to the northlands of Yankee country. Goin’ to Oregon, dontcha know.
If I were to maintain that voice for an entire book, my Texas readers would say, “That Glahn woman has a big ol’ gap in her mind—bless her heart.” And my British readers? They’d likely reserve “mind the gap” for tube rides and condemn my excess with a one-word pronouncement: “Pity.”
Just one “fixin’” is enough to remind the reader that your character lives in the South. The key is to keep the reader in the story world, not noticing he or she is having to stop and work to figure out what your character is saying.
Syntax plays a role, too. Consider this quote from a character in “Return of the Jedi”: “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.” You know it has to be Yoda.
Speaking of Star Wars, consider how character emotion is communicated. The princess, contrary to stereotype, stays logical in the most intense situations while Chewy has a meltdown at the worst possible times. Count on it.
Your setting provides the narrative with the “world.” Setting includes cosmic depictions of a number of factors:
Time—past, present, or future. In Star Wars, the genius was in using futuristic technology but saying it happened long, long ago in a galaxy far away. In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the kids begin in present-day London until they walk through a wardrobe.
Space or scope. Will you have the universe at your disposal, as in Star Wars? Or will you set it all in one city, as in Cheers or Friends or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Or even one house, as in Home Improvement.
Culture. Is your work going to be reality or fantasy? Midsummer Night’s Dream or MacBeth? American culture or Arabic? Consider watching this TED talk about the danger of telling a single culture’s story.
Geography. Where will your story take place? All in one location? Or across the world, as in The DaVinci Code? Tahiti? The developing world? Narnia? Hogwarts? In Moby Dick it was the sea. In The Hobbit, we began in Middle Earth, but we took a journey to a place far away and back. In Flannery O’Connor’s works, we always stay in the south. In the Gospel of Mark, we’re living in Israel under crushing Roman rule. In Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love, we’re in Gold Rush California for a retelling of Hosea. Jane Austen? Small country estates inhabited by strong female leads.
The rules. Can animals talk, as in Velveteen Rabbit or Alice in Wonderland? Can characters do time travel? Do they come back to life after dying? Or are the rules of your world like the rules of the world you inhabit outside of your imagination?
Here’s a suggestion for using setting to its greatest advantage: Have that setting communicate more than the place itself.
For example, in the biblical story of Jezebel and Nabal, Jezebel plots to have the Jezreel vineyard owner stoned to death so her husband, Ahab, can seize his property. Ruthless! An innocent man murdered. But some seventeen or so years later where is Jezebel when dogs eat her? Jezreel.
Where is Peter when he denies Christ three times? By a charcoal fire.
Where is Jesus when he offers Peter three chances to declare his love? By a charcoal fire.
In the former, the place itself communicates something about the long memory of God and his ability to bring perfect justice. In the latter, the location communicates something of the desire for reconciliation and redemption.
So look for symbolic potential in the very place where you set your story.
And also look for symbolic potential in the details. A jolly person may eat jelly beans. A risk-taker may teeter on one leg of chair.
Plot your events.
Aristotle in Poetics said that plot is a fixed sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. He felt that plot was the most important part of story. Today some say the character is more important. But regardless of which side you land on, we can agree on this: plot is important.
Not all stories and cultures have a beginning, middle, and end. Think of how Joseph’s story unfolds in Genesis. It doesn’t have such clear plot points. And many African stories are told in a circular fashion.
But most Westerners expect the three-paneled structure. Our classic novels, TV shows, and movies have developed in us an expectation for a beginning where we meet the characters and central conflict, a middle where the conflict escalates, and a climax with closing scenes. As the old saying goes, “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.”
What is essential to your story in terms of developing plot is the main character’s motivation. What does he or she want? You don’t have a story until something goes wrong. So you give your character a strong desire, and then put obstacles in front of achieving the end. As another old saying goes, “First act, get your leading character up a tree; second act, throw rocks at him; third act, get him down.” Consider the conflict in these scenarios:
A man loves his pregnant wife, but she disappears
A transplant patient wants to run again, but she gets the wrong organ
Miners get trapped
A king gets tempted
A brother gets sold
How the events appear—that is, their order, turning points, breakthroughs, developments and resolutions—reveal your characters’ motivations and keep the story moving.
The events are the actions or happenings that bring about change. And as the change happens, you want to provide the reader with an emotional experience. The change may be external, as in solving a crime. Or it may be internal, as in wrestling with prejudice.
Sidney Sheldon, who sold more than 300 million books, said, “Take a group of interesting characters and put them in harrowing situations. I try to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, so the reader must turn just one more page to find out what happens next.”
Suspense keeps a reader turning the page, saying endlessly, “Just one more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep.” Your goal as a writer: Keep that reader from putting down the book. Keep him from doing his laundry. Keep her from paying her bills. Keep them from getting any rest. Make them stay up to finish it.
When motivations get thwarted, you have conflict. To create conflict you have forces vying to prevail. And in throwing rocks at your character up a tree, you reveal his or her core values and beliefs. Conflict names the overall goal and identifies the forces that help or hinder it. Here are some examples of types of conflict:
With another person–relational
Luke vs. Darth Vader
Old Man and the Sea
The Perfect Storm
With a deadline
Die Hard 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Sales of any kind
With the supernatural, aliens
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Garden of Eden
With value systems
The Book of Jonah
In the mind; inner turmoil
The Testament – alcoholism, purposelessness
A Beautiful Mind
Conflicts with Society
A plot needs lots of conflict to keep readers interested. But not so much that they say, “This is ridiculous.”
Each key conflict has…
points of view
something at stake
In addition, readers love a believable surprise. They may think “I want to figure this out” but actually they respect being realistically outsmarted.
When resolving the conflict…
Plant enough clues that they say, “I should have seen it coming.”
Plant few enough that you don’t give it away.
To come up with conflict, begin by asking…
Who are my characters?
What drives them?
If you hear authors say their characters “took over,” these writers are talking about the characters’ motivations making them act in consistent ways. An author may have an idea for a plot, but once the character has a key motivation, that author may realize the character would not follow the original plotline, because it would not work given the specific motivation. At that point, the character takes over!
Every time a character steps on stage, s/he wants something. What?
Plot and character arcs are intertwined. Will your hero change drastically, as in the movie True Lies? Or will she remain steadfast, as did Erin Brockavich?
Know that it’s better to show than tell what a character is like. Rather than saying the husband loved his wife, show him bringing her coffee in bed every morning.
Motivation is what makes characters both believable and interesting.
What made Maria leave the children?
What drove Frodo to take the journey?
What made Esther risk her neck?
Every action needs a motivation. So what passion motivates your characters?
Anger overran injustice?
Fear due to past abandonment?
Longing to cure disease?
A desire to cure the disease that killed your mother?
Once you have a key motivation, remember to give your “good guys” some flaws and your “bad guys” some virtues. Think about Bible characters. Peter was spirited but impulsive. Remember that little scene with the sword and Malchus’s ear? Moses was humble but angry—so he never got to cross into the land. Interestingly, few main characters in the Bible are portrayed without faults: Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Jesus are the only ones that come to mind in 1,249 pages. But still…consider how unpredictable Jesus is. That moneychanger action in the temple with the whip and tables was not exactly behavior designed to win friends and influence people.
If we give our Christian characters no flaws, they will be the least interesting characters, and no one will identify with them. Yuck!
While we’re talking about faith, allow me to recommend that characters communicate truth in some way other than via the pulpit or being the talking-head pastor. Also, watch out for Christianese (e.g., “he went forward,” “bathed in prayer,” “evangelized”). In the words of Penelope Stokes, most Christian-market writers “are acutely aware of the problems inherent in gratuitous sex, violence and profanity. But few Christian authors are equally concerned about gratuitous religion.”
When using faith themes, go for subtle but clear. A great example of this is the Christmas scene in the first six or so paragraphs of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, chapter two. Read that.
The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.
–Emily Dickinson, “Tell All the Truth”
Or rent The Green Mile and study how Tom Hanks’s character handles his faith as a “lay person.”
As you describe your characters’ motivations, keep the action moving. That is, move the drama ahead with character description rather than stopping the action to tell.
No: George was a nervous, dark-haired man with long fingers. He was afraid to ask for a raise.
Yes: George had worked up the courage to talk to his boss. He stood in her doorway running long fingers through his dark hair to keep them from trembling.
See how in the first example, the action stopped so I could describe? In the second, the description actually revealed an action—which showed something about the character’s emotion.
Now that we’ve reviewed the big four that your English teacher taught you, or should have, I have a few additional tips to offer.
Choose an overarching metaphor.
Here’s a sample from Julie Lyons, then editor in chief of the weekly alternative paper Dallas Observer. Note the unifying theme seen via italicized words (italics mine) that contribute to her extended metaphor in this piece of news reporting:
“To hear lawyers at the Dallas law firm of Baron & Budd tell it, they are frontline warriors in a battle against callous corporations whose product, asbestos, claimed the lives and health of thousands of working men. But the first casualty of war is truth, and at Baron & Budd, one of the city’s most successful law firms, the truth, if not killed outright, is sometimes missing in action.”
Weave in aesthetics, community, and mystery with absolute truth.
Consider the Eucharist, or The Lord’s Supper. The rite includes the sense of hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Through the centuries this simple practice has communicated the presence of God to communities literate and illiterate. It combines sensory data with community, mystery, and truth.
Or what about baptism. It incorporates sight, sound, and touch—at the least. And it too includes sensory data, community, mystery, and truth.
Use the senses to engage your readers’ imaginations. Smell is the most memory-intensive, yet the least used in writing. In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson wrote, “For Christians, whose largest investment is in the invisible, imagination is indispensable.” So engage through the senses and emotions. And don’t leave out community, mystery, and truth.
Here’s another one from Lyons: “An Amarillo teen who was convicted of manslaughter for intentionally driving his Cadillac over a 19-year-old punk rocker initially told police the victim had slipped on the ice and fallen under his car.”
Notice that little word “initially.” It suggests he’ll revise his story later, which makes readers wonder why and want to read on.
Use figures of speech.
Lyons again: “It lasted, at most, two or three seconds–enough time to send a million impulses that ripped through her mind like neural buckshot.”
She gave us something to imagine, something to picture, which made the writing concrete.
Write effective dialogue.
Sometime when you’re sitting in a restaurant or an airport terminal, notice how people talk. They rarely speak in complete sentences; they use fragments. And sometimes they use bad grammar. People definitely speak more casually than we write. So use fragments. And avoid pausing a lot to describe in the middle of dialogue. Bear in mind that most communication is non-verbal. So instead of “I don’t know,” you can say that she shrugged. Instead of saying “I like the idea,” use thumbs up.
In terms of punctuation, use dashes for interrupted thought and ellipses for minds trailing off.
“But I thought you said th—”
“But I thought you said something else….”
Another thing: Nix dialogue tags when possible. Don’t feel you have to get rid of every, “he said, she said.” But work to avoid giving every speaker a dialogue tag every time a word is uttered. Here’s an example:
No: “I like the way you sing,” Romeo said with a smile. (Try actually speaking with a smile. Weird.)
Yes: Romeo smiled. “I like the way you sing.”
In fact, use “beats” (those little sentences, like “Romeo smiled”) rather than lots of dialogue tags. Separate the action (beat) from the speaker identification (dialogue tag) as in the example above.
Consider this conversation between two characters:
Mary jerked upright. “I’m leaving now.”
“Why this time?” Her mother’s tone demanded an answer.
“Because I’m… hungry.”
“Right. You just ate.”
Notice zero uses of “Mary said” or “her mother said,” but you know who’s talking, thanks to the beats.
…to name minor characters. If the reader doesn’t need to remember them, go with “the airline pilot” or “the waiter.”
…to use extensive flashback.
…to use extensive forecasting (e.g., Little did she know that day when she got up that it would be the most scary day of her life).
Show more than you tell.
Sometimes you need to “tell,” because you need to summarize the boring stuff. But let the reader discover throughout. For example, replace “he felt happy” with signs that show happiness—he smiled, he laughed, he cheered. The reader will conclude, “He’s happy.” Instead of saying “She’s rude,” say “She belched, she swore, she gestured in traffic.”
So there you have it—all my best suggestions for telling a story. Now put it all together. Like a dance….
Seriously. Think of your favorite choreographed scene—whether something from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or the end of “High School Musical.” The dancers all make their routines look easy, but you know they spent hours practicing.
When readers plow through your story, they won’t notice the structure. But you will have spent hours figuring out your narrative voice/point of view, your setting, your characters and their motivations, and your plot.
Is it good?
I know your teacher probably limited the list to the big four (narration, characterization, setting, plot), but as a person of faith I think it’s important to add one more: Goodness.
When God finished creating the world, he pronounced the setting “good.”
When he finished making characters, he described them as “very good.”
To become a good writer, you must work to hone your craft rather than relying on “talent” or “inspiration.” Most of writing is hard work. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott put it this way: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
So by “good” I mean of excellent quality. But I also mean true and just. That does not mean it must be G-rated. In fact, I think we err when we tone down the effects of sin. Doing so makes redemption unnecessary.
But what does your story communicate? You can’t help but have a message, though I do hope you’ll pay more attention to your characters than to “developing a message.” If their motivations are true, the message will come out without your having to force a sermon. Through Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz we see the importance of appreciating what we already have. Through Harry Potter’s life we see the importance of good winning over evil.
When you finish writing ask yourself if you work detracts from justice and mercy or if it gives voice to it.
As Rushdie said “We are the only creature on the earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what it is and what its life means.” Have you lied about what life is and what it means or does your story tell the truth?
* * *
Self-Editing For Fiction Writers (Browne/King)
Writing for Story (J. Franklin)
Writing and Selling the Christian Novel (P. Stokes)
Good example of narrative non-fiction:
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
To enroll in one of my writing classes, contact dts.edu.