Writing Tip – How to Not Engage a Reader

An ongoing problem with the novel I’m working on has been a tone that feels detached, almost reporter-like, which makes it hard for a reader to engage with what one of the point-of-view characters especially is feeling. Much as I enjoy the revision process, I sometimes shy away from dealing with global problems like tone and voice. I prefer dealing with problems that can be solved locally: tightening a scene here, fleshing out a scene there, heighten drama by switching the order of a couple of events or by changing through whose point of view a particular scene is experienced.

Well recently, when dealing with a minor issue in my novel (to avoid having to deal with any bigger issues), a phrase leapt out at me; it might have been:

David tries to comfort himself with the thought that…

Hm, I thought. That’s the kind of phrase that holds a character at a distance from the reader. If the reader is inside a character’s head, as they should be, the reader does not need to be told that David is comforting himself or that he’s having a thought. How about just what was actually in his head:

At least she first trusted him with knowing about Jacob, and he had kept her secret too.

I decided to skim through the manuscript for other places I might have inadvertantly created this problematic distance, this detached tone. It became a fairly mechanical exercise: delete problematic phrases, look at the sentences again, and wherever necessary rewrite them. Here’s a list of words I’ve now deleted from David’s scenes:

David can’t help noticing that    David hates it when    He wonders    He likes gardening best when David thinks in a way that he hopes lets the woman know what he thinks of her suggestion.    He figured that out    he suspects    David sees    he notices     David hopes     Thinking    David wonders    David thinks    David is thinking    if he could think    David is grateful to her    David doesn’t see    He doesn’t want to argue    David hears    He keeps telling himself that    makes it feel like    To stop his    , and remembers hearing something,    To stop himself thinking about that,    David recognizes the voice    David feels    he’d give anything,    he can’t stop himself from    he can’t stand it    When he sees    he thinks    but then he sees    He wants    He gets the impression    He wishes    David decides to    He knows    he’s heard    When he sees    the creeping sense that    , he doesn’t know.    Without deciding he’s going to,    Why does he feel    he tries to picture    he can’t stop seeing    He tries telling himself    He’s been over it all dozens of times, things he’s heard and thought, and how things might have happened, trying to make things come out right, but he keeps on coming to the same question:    Glad for    he is happy    this time sounds    In no rush to get home,    David wants    He wishes    he wishes David would like to say,    he’s managed to quit turning possibilities over in his mind,    and David hopes    convinced that    feeling heavier    David has to admit    David feels sweat    David remembers    David wishes    David wants to     that’s been bothering him    Wishing he could    David thinks    David feels himself blush at the thought    David wishes    he sees    David can see    he can’t tell    hoping she’ll explain.    David doesn’t know    he doesn’t want    He remembers    David can see    David is afraid    He wants to    David sees how    David pictures    He wants    David is not at all sure    He glances down    he does know that    he can’t begin to imagine    he wishes    He doesn’t know    he sees    He has been thinking that    he’s not so sure    He has a feeling he’s going to feel    David doesn’t know    His memory… floods back.    He sees    He sees    Remembering that    For a second he thinks    he doesn’t want to    Out of the corner of his eye, David sees    he avoids looking    and knows right away    David considers    freezes him where he stands.    David cannot imagine it.    David doesn’t want    David feels light-headed    He should be pleased to know    David feels like he is drowning    Without thinking, he lets    David sees    David can’t stop wondering,    Thinking he’ll    For a moment David sees    he sees    he thinks he’ll    he sees    he feels    he tells himself    and David wonders    Already he can feel    He wants to    he thinks of    It bugs him that    It also bugs David that    David’s surprised that    David would be happy to    David wants to    David thinks,    it occurs to him that    David feels the familiar…    he sees that    , wondering if    and wondering if    David can see that     David doubts he will ever think    Not knowing what he intends    He would like to    David hears that    David knows he could    he also knows    David gets the impression    David is almost embarrassed    He feels    David can see

I repeated this “exercise” with the novel’s other point-of-view character’s scenes. Her list is much shorter, but similar. Has the detached tone now been “fixed”? Probably not, but don’t you think it’s bound to be improved?! I won’t know till my next read-through, or maybe even till my esteemed writing group offers me more feedback. But before either of those things happen, I have more than a few more revisions to deal with. Please wish me luck!

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Kathy Stinson is the author of the classic Red Is Best and the award-winning The Man with the Violin. Her wide range of titles includes picture books, non-fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, horror, biography, series books, and short stories. She has met with her readers in every province and territory of Canada, in the United States, Britain, Liberia, and Korea. She lives in a small town in Ontario.

Kathy Stinson


  1. Rebecca Upjohn on February 9, 2011 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for this Kathy. I'm struggling with a similar problem and this looks like a useful filter to check where things go off the track.

  2. Kathy Stinson on February 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Glad this looks like a helpful approach, Rebecca. If your problem is similar to mine, this probably won't solve it entirely, but it'll be a good start. All best with your project.

  3. Janet Barclay on February 12, 2011 at 2:49 am

    I don't write fiction, but I have a similar issue when I'm writing blog posts. I often begin with a paragraph explaining why or how I came to be writing about a particular subject, which doesn't make for a very compelling introduction. Now, I allow myself to write that paragraph, just to get the thoughts out of my head, then delete it once the meatier part of the post begins. It's all about pulling the reader in!

  4. Kathy Stinson on February 12, 2011 at 6:19 am

    As I was saying to my writing class in Guelph this week, I call that paragraph (or scene or chapter) that you allow yourself to write to get thoughts out of your head and delete once you've got to the meaty stuff "throat clearing".

    I think many writers allow themselves to do this, because starting anywhere is better than not starting, and good writers learn to recognize where a reader is likely to get interested, and where they are simply "clearing their throats" as they prepare to say what needs to be said.

    With regard to blog posts, I suspect that whether they start with the throat-clearing or the meat may determine whether or not a post even gets read. If readers can be impatient for a book or story to begin, I think they're probably even more impatient for a blog post to make its point.

    Thanks for raising this other way that we can inadvertantly create distance between our material and our readers, Janet.

  5. Susan Blakeney on February 18, 2011 at 2:52 am

    I've just completed a draft of a project I've been working on and have managed to get closer to my main character than ever before, but still there are moments, and scenes, where a stepped-back point of view pulls the reader away from the main character. Until now, I couldn't decide just what was wrong. This blog post describes the issue perfectly. Thank you for this! It appears I too need to go through the exercise of clearing the throat-clearing out of this story.

  6. Kathy Stinson on February 18, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    All the best with those revisions, Susan.

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