Tips from an editor #3: Give your narrator eyes

You may be looking at that title and wondering What on earth is she on about? But let me tell you, narrators without eyes is an issue I’ve come across time and time again.

Imagine your friend is telling you a story. They say this:

“I walked into the room and there was a box in the corner. I opened it and inside… there it was. It was amazing! I’d never seen anything like it. So I took it and left.”

Oh my god! you will think. What was it? What did it look like? Tell me!

This is the problem of the narrator without eyes.

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When you’re writing, you probably have a very clear image in your head of the thing you’re writing about. You can see the characters – what they look like, where they’re standing, what they’re wearing – and you can see their surroundings. But that image will stay in your head unless you put it on the page. When your character climbs a hill and looks out over the scenery, it’s not enough to say, ‘She climbed a hill and looked out over the scenery’. If your character sees something beautiful, it’s not enough to say, ‘She looked at it. It was beautiful.’ If your character wakes up in a hospital, don’t make the reader infer that that is where they are because the character has a headache and then a doctor walks in – describe the hospital room.

The reader needs to see what the character is seeing, and to do this we need description. That means the nuts-and-bolts explanation of the thing that they are seeing (e.g. ‘There was a drip next to her bed’) and the details that bring it to life (e.g. ‘There was a drip next to her bed, half-filled with something straw-coloured, and a plastic tube snaked down from the bag and disappeared under the bandage on her hand’). Without description, the reader is left feeling like Malorie from Bird Box – we know something is out there, but we’ve been blindfolded.

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I have seen some writers try to solve the issue of an eyeless narrator by putting all their description into dialogue. This technique can work now and again, but it probably isn’t the best strategy for an entire book. It looks something like this:

“Look, there’s a box in that corner.”

“I’ll open it.”

“Go on then.”

“Oh, wow! It’s amazing. It’s more gold than I’ve ever seen!”

“Me too! It’s so shiny, and there are rubies too.”

“Is that a pearl?”

“I think it is!”

“We’re going to be rich!”

This time at least the reader gets to see what’s inside the box, but because all the description is happening through dialogue, we are still blind. We are hearing about what is happening, but we still cannot see it. We need stepped-back description, not dialogue, to let us really see what’s going on – otherwise it feels like we’re reaching for a story we can never quite grasp.

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Only description lets us see what’s going on, so give your narrator eyes that the reader can look through. Apart from anything else, description can be really fun to write. That feeling of nailing a description, of successfully transferring the image in your head onto the page, is incredibly satisfying. So flex your writing muscles and get describing. Your readers will thank you!

Do you need a professional editor to give you feedback on your writing project? Contact me to find out how I can help.

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