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Kim Tomsic

Thursday, November 2, 2023

3 Ways to Ignite Readers' Connections With Your Characters and Give Them a Shoulder-to-Shoulder Experience

Story is about 

  • emotionally compelling characters
  • who face seemingly impossible hurdles 
  • because enormous stakes are on the line (thank you Christopher Vogler and Michael Hague)

WEARING THE PROTAGONIST'S SHOES: Readers want to be entertained and to feel something. They want to put their feet in the shoes of the protagonist and have an experience - brain science + Lisa Cron's book Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence has proven this. 

So let's deliver that! 

3 WAYS: Here are three ways you can pull your readers in for a shoulder-to-shoulder experience with your protagonist:



1.  HUG CLOSE: Delete words (when it makes sense) that keep the reader at arm’s length. To draw the reader closer, so that they have a shoulder-to-shoulder experience alongside your protagonist, consider deleting:

·       She heard

       She saw

       She felt

       She knew

The reader does not want to be a spectator who is told what is happening and what the character feels, the reader wants an experience, they want all the feels.


Be judicious. Only remove (saw, heard, felt, knew) whenever reasonable. It’s not an “always” rule, it’s a try-it-and-see-if-you-give-your-reader-a-closer-experience exercise.


Questions to ask yourself:

·       Does keeping or removing such words make sense at that moment in your plot?

·       Is the reader being held at arm’s length?

·       How can I invite the reader closer?


2.      2.  REAL TIME: Put reader in “real” time. To prioritize the reader in storytelling, keep them

close and allowing them to have experiences at the exact same time as the protagonist(whenever possible).

 Putting a reader in “real time” allows the reader to experience an event alongside the protagonist, even if you’re writing in past tense.


For example, rather than saying:


"She heard snakes hissing in the castle turret … …” instead, put the reader  shoulder-to-shoulder with the protagonist, and let them hear the hissing at the same moment.


Example from The Very Last Castle by Travis Jonkers illustrated by Mark Pett.


“Hiss, Hiss, Hiss,”

“Snakes,” said Ibb’s grandfather.

Notice that not only is the reader experiencing the snakes at the same time as Ibb (even though the story is in past tense), but also the story transforms into more of a performance piece!


FEEL don’t NAME: Let readers feel emotions rather than hearing you, the author, name the emotion. Give us those gripping, exciting, threatening, heartfelt moments whenever possible by selecting strong verbs rather than by naming the experience. For example:


Instead of “He was excited” you might change to “He pumped his fist” or “He bounced from foot to foot.”  


Search your manuscript for “to be” verbs and see how you might transform those verbs to workhorses for your story.


STRONGEST CURRENCY IN STORYTELLING: “In storytelling, emotion is the

strongest currency. It lasts longer than novelty or tension, and it makes the rest of the story more engaging…” but for emotion to work, there “has to be something in the scene worth getting emotional over…Readers should witness characters reasoning and coming to conclusions, rather than simply hearing a summary of their thought process…
Readers need the context provided by thoughts and feelings. Without understanding what the character is thinking and feeling, they won’t know what to think or feel either.” Quotes from Narrating a Close Point of View and The Power of Close Perspective by Chris Winkle.

Don’t cork up the character’s feelings and don’t belabor feelings either. Pay attention to what the illustrator is going to deliver and note when simple and/or power verbs deliver the emotion!


Reminder: The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression  can help you with ideas for using body feels and/or movements for expressing emotion.  


Happy writing!





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