Have you ever identified so closely with a character in a book that you almost felt “one” with the character?
I recently finished reading Where the Red Fern Grows. Wilson Rawls spends the entire book making you fall in love with the main character, Billy, and his dogs. By the end, when Billy is trying to save his dogs from dying, you can’t help crying, perhaps even literally sobbing.
What is it about some characters, some books, that elicit such strong emotion from us the readers? And how can we replicate that technique as writers?
Stanley Williams in his book, The Moral Premise, talks about the process of making our audience one with the story. While he addresses film writers, the principle applies to fiction writers across the board. He uses the term “suturing” and describes it as “the ultimate connection . . . when the audience identifies with the character so strongly that the audience’s physical and emotional essence is the same as the character’s.”
When we think about suturing, we generally think of sewing or splicing two things together (like a doctor stitching together skin). However, in the case of suturing in fiction, we’re attempting to make our readers one with the story and characters.
But how exactly do we suture our readers to the story? How can we make them feel so closely tied to the characters that they feel one?
Stanley talks about suturing from a film perspective. And as I thought more about suturing and how I handle the technique, here are my thoughts on suturing for fiction writers:
1. Take the camera lens deep inside the characters:
Right from the start we need to give our characters a moral struggle that readers can identify with—a controlling vice that opposes the development of a virtue in our character’s life. In other words, give them an inner conflict that they must work through. The key is to find an underlying issue that is timeless so that a wide audience can relate to the struggle. For example, maybe our characters will wrestle with betrayal vs. friendship, dishonor vs. honor, or selfishness vs. sacrifice.
The point is that we need to go deep inside, find the issues that are driving our characters. Then show them struggling through the conflict. Most writers learn early on to “show not tell” their character’s emtions. If the hero is angry we don’t tell the reader: “Bob was angry.” Instead, we show Bob’s anger in a variety of ways through his actions, dialog, and mannerisms. We can show Bob kicking the dog and yelling at his wife or speaking in terse, short bursts.
But we can’t forget to take the camera deep inside his heart and soul. What is he wrestling with underneath the surface and why? Yes, this will likely require some brief internal narration. But if we leave it out, then we risk keeping our readers at a distance. The deeper we go into our characters internal struggles, the closer we can suture our readers to that character.
2. Do close-up shots of the characters’ outer struggles.
The outer shots should catch them in the act of struggling with the inner conflicts. When we give those brief glimpses of their internal struggles through narration, then we can use the camera to focus on specific actions that will mirror the deep conflicts.
There will be times when we need to do panoramic shots and catch the wide view of what is happening in the scene. But when we always try to capture everything that’s going on, we lose the impact of slowing down and focusing on the emotion our character is exhibiting at that moment.
We can take our mental camera lens and get a close-up of the deep grooves on a character’s forehead, or his balled fist, or the strained pulse in his neck. Those close-ups help us visualize in a more intense way what is going on inside and help stregthen the impact of the internal narration.
When we combine the deep internal shots with the intense outer ones, we're suturing our readers to our characters and giving them the opportunity to become one with the story.
Summary: I think writers tend to err on one side or the other—either going into the character’s head too often or staying mostly on the outside showing the external struggles. When we find a balance that works for our style and our stories, then we’re a step closer to getting our readers to care enough about our characters that they'll weep for them.
What do you think of the technique of suturing? Which do you struggle with more—taking the camera inside and showing the internal conflict? Or slowing down and focusing on significant outer details?