3 : 3 March 2004

How to Persuade the Readers of Your Fiction?
Todd J. Holcomb



Fiction is not about telling the reader that something is, feels, or looks a specific way, it is about convincing the reader that it is so. Fiction attempts to reproduce the emotional impact of experience, but written fiction has to be translated from words to images in the mind. The third chapter of Janet Burroway's book, Writing Fiction, expounds on the techniques of drawing the reader so far into a fiction story that they believe it.


"Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness," writes Burroway in her excellent textbook on writing, Writing Fiction. She quotes William Strunk, Jr. who wrote that if there was any one point of agreement among writing artists, it is that significant details are vital to effectiveness. I was personally encouraged to read this because I favor the details in my own writing. Authors that failed to give me enough detail left me feeling misplaced in the story. Burroway addresses this later in her chapter as well. But there are certain hurdles in accomplishing this goal, and we should be aware of these!

Not just any detail is significant, but when it appeals to the senses, then it becomes "definite" and "concrete." Details need to be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched, for in this way, the reader experiences the story through the character. The details will convince the reader of the story. When the character's experiences are seen, heard, and felt, then the reader can believe the "magic if" of a fiction story. Also details become a background for what is to follow, portending some mystery, something unexpected, something gripping the attention of the reader. Details can be used for many purposes in a narrative.

A writer can mean more than he says when he uses details. He can lead the reader to discover an abstract thought, or make a certain judgment, based on the details of the story that appeal to the reader's senses. Much of the pleasure of reading comes from the reader's egotistical sense that he is clever enough to understand, but when the author explains or interprets for him, it shows that the author does not think the reader intelligent enough.


Appealing to the senses makes a detail concrete. It becomes significant when it conveys an idea, judgment, or both. Details are powerful tools for introducing and developing a character without forcing those inferences on the reader. By simply stating that something is so, it distances the reader from the character or situation. It fails to explain the intricacies of why something is so. Details can do that. Burroway gives an example of a description of a family that can be interpreted in two different ways solely by using different details to explain the same statements. A girl described as stubborn from her parents' point of view may be sympathized with if stubborn was described from her point of view. The difference is in the details of actions and words used to describe "stubborn."


Since an author cannot convey all that there is to be conveyed in a single moment of a single day, he must convey what is significant. He wants the reader to know the character individually and immediately. He also wants the reader to be making judgments, because if he is not, then he is not interested. For an author not to direct the reader's judgment is for him to invite indifference. It is possible, however, for the author to direct the reader's judgment in more than one direction in order to create mixed feelings.


With a final word on detail, Burroway focuses on writing about emotion. If the reader is simply told that a character feels a certain way, it will have little relevance to him. He will be left at a dispassionate distance from the drama; instead, emotion needs to be the body's physical reaction to information that the senses receive. Emotion is rarely pure, so depicting the full spectrum of emotion in a scene can become chaotic. John L'Heureux said, "Get control of emotion by avoiding the mention of the emotion. To avoid melodrama, aim for a restrained tone rather that an exaggerated one…Don't reach for dramatic language, but for what's implied."


Looking through the character rather than looking at the character brings the reader right into the middle of the story. If the reader observes a character observing something, then he is two steps removed from the experience. This is a form of filtering in which the author writes through "some observing consciousness," as John Gardner puts it in The Art of Fiction. Phrases such as, "he saw," or "he noticed," force the reader to observe the observer, ripping him out of the scene, and slowing down the story. Filtering is a common mistake that can be hard to detect, but once it is recognized, it can easily be cut away for more vivid writing.


Another way to keep the writing vivid is to use the active voice instead of the passive voice. This means that the character does things, rather than having things done to him. There is, however, a time and a place for the passive voice, when the character is unknown or insignificant, for instance. Passive voice in selected contexts is still very useful. The sentence structure is a powerful instrument in the hands of a creative writer to bring many effects to his narrative. Certain effects can be achieved by using the passive voice as well, such as showing a character's helplessness. It is the active voice, though, that will bring characters and descriptions to life.

Try this technique: If you are writing a narrative in a cross-cultural context, understand the normal use conventions of sentence types in the non-English environment or the character that you portray. Use that is most compelling in that language environment for your character. Some illustrations can be easily found in the works of Pearl S. Buck.

Following closely on the heels of the passive voice are linking verbs. These are verbs that tell us the state of something, i.e., "her hair looked beautiful." Or, "He was very happy." Active verbs let the reader experience the thing rather than observe it. The reader does not want to just know that "she felt sad," he wants to see and to infer her emotion for himself. Burroway asks this question, "How often are things or are they acted upon, when they could more forcefully do?"


Similar to poetry, prose has rhythm, and it is just as important as the active voice and verbs to keeping the flow of the prose going smoothly. Attempting to depict the scene of a slow, languid river with short, choppy sentences is counterproductive. Whereas, a longer more fluid sentence will allow the reader to experience through the character the laziness of the river. Likewise, a busy scene needs to be written with busy sentences: short, halting, mimicking the pace of the scene. Rolfe Humphries points out that adverbs that express emphasis or suddenness usually slow the sentence down. For example, "They stopped very abruptly," is not as abrupt as, "They stopped." In this way, the choice of words will also set the pace of the rhythm. Water rushing past the fleeing heroes emphasizes the rush. An author can give energy and vitality to his writing by using his words and sentence structure to build a rhythm consistent with the pace of the scene.

Remember that each event and character in a narrative may demaind its own rhythm, or tenor. Observe the world around you, carefully listen to the conversations, and choose what is most appropriate for the context. Again, our goal is not simply to become realistic in language use, but to produce something that has its own relish. Reproducing reality is not the goal, but to recreate the reality to provide a rich experience and Christian redemption is our goal in writing Christian fiction.


All of these things, significant detail, the active voice, and prose rhythm, help the author achieve the sensuous in fiction; however, all of it is to no avail if the reader is wrenched out of the story by misspellings or grammatical errors. The goal is for the story to be a fluid dream that the reader can sink into. Spelling, grammar, paragraphing, and punctuation are the tools that make that possible, but they need to be invisible. These are like the slight of hand in a magician's trick. If the slight of hand is revealed, then the whole trick is spoiled. So it is with a story. Janet Burroway has something very significant to say for all of us:

Unlike the techniques of narrative, the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation can be coldly learned anywhere in the English-speaking world - and they should be learned by anyone who aspires to write.