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Suturing: Making Our Readers One With the Story

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?

30 comments:

  1. Jody, this is a great post. I always come away from your blog with the gears in my mind hard at work.

    If I write in first person, I tend to focus more on the internal struggle; if I'm writing in third, I'm not nearly as good about addressing it. And now I know to pay more attention to both aspects.

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  2. ohhh, good thoughts. I think I struggle more with what makes them tick- internal.

    First person is difficult for me to keep track of, but I tend to get into the character more.

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  3. For me, I feel the closest to a character when the author gives me an intimate look at how the character suffers from his or her own flaws. When a character makes decisions, often times to her own detriment, I gain a more intimate relationship with that character, and I find myself rooting for that character in a deep way.

    I love the visual "suturing" provides. The idea of weaving the internal and the external to form a set of complex emotions helps us to identify with what we hope to be complex characters. I'm thinking I struggle more with the internal when I write, the actual showing of the internal struggles.

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  4. I try and do both depending on the scene. I think getting the balance right is the tricky part.

    And I absolutely bawled when I read Where The Red Fern grows.

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  5. I strive to make that emotional connection with the reader and learned so much through Susan May Warren's Deep and Wide book. But by focusing on the emotional impact, sometimes I struggle with keeping the plot rich too. It's a balancing act I'm working to learn.

    I haven't anyone who hasn't cried while reading Where the Red Fern Grows. In junior high, one of the guys cried while doing an oral book report.

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  6. Choosing which outer details to hone in on--that's more of what I struggle with. I love this idea of suturing. It's really the heart of why I write.

    Love that pic. of you and Maria M.
    ~ Wendy

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  7. Fantastic post, Jody! I struggle with this a lot - I'm good at the outer details, but I really need to force myself to go inside. But I agree that weaving the two together really develops a holistic character and story.

    I think I'm really going to have to spend some time on this with my WIP this weekend! Thanks for the insight.

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  8. I love this correlatoin of photography and characterization!

    Your posts are so insightful, thanks for not changing!

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  9. I love feeling this with happy things the characters go through, I just have to watch it when something bad happens and I actually get grumpy in my real life thinking it is me.... :O)

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  10. Great way of putting it, Jody. I've already started mapping out some inner and outer conflicts for one of my characters and this puts it into a more focused perspective.

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  11. Your analysis is brilliant Jody. I think you really captured this in your first book, where I definitely connected with the characters through your internalisations and then bam something amazing happens in the wider picture to carry you forward in the plot.

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  12. This was great! Perfect example, too. Where the Red Fern Grows had me sobbing so loud, my boys thought someone really died.

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE when I connect with characters that deeply.

    Thanks for giving me a technique I can apply in my own writing.

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  13. I love this concept! I struggle more with slowing down and showing the inner struggle. I'm working on it though! I might have to bookmark this and keep it as a reminder!

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  14. Jody--Great advice that I'll certainly use. BTW, I included this one as part of my Friday Link Love post today!

    Thanks for putting it up!

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  15. Another amazing post, Jody! My brain is on fire right now, thinking about my story and what I did or didn't do. Must. Go. Look. :-)

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  16. Hey everybody! Thanks for stopping by today and sharing your experiences. I really do think it's always a balancing act trying to get the right amounts of internal narration and exterior showing of emotion. But the deeper we go, the deeper we suture our readers to our stories.

    Thanks for including the post in your Friday Links, Jon Paul! I'll have to try to swing by later and take a look!

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  17. Jody, what a great job you did of explaining the value of suturing and how to accomplish it. I have a wonderful CP (you know you you are =) who pointed out my tendency to focus on the external elements at the expense of the inner. My reason was that I was doing my best to show and not tell. However, I've come to see through your great instruction that both are necessary. I've paid particular attention to those "suturing" passages in stories I've read since, and I can see how the combination works so well.

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  18. This is great! I've never thought of it as a fine balance of showing the internal thoughts vs showing what is happening on the outside showing the physical reactions. I'm still struggling sometimes with some subtle Telling actions, even. I used to show physical reactions too much, and am trying to pare them down so they don't cut down the flow of the dialogue so much. All a learning process!

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  19. Great tips. Thanks for putting this together.

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  20. I've never had this explained so well. Thank you.

    I just re-wrote a problem scene and it ended up almost entirely dialogue. My next step will be to go back and add actions and thoughts to solidify the conversation. Then I'll add sensory details. It's difficult for me to get everything balanced on the first try.

    Have a great weekend!

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  21. Great post, Jody. Someone asked me the other day what major mistakes newbie writers make - and I said one of them was the failure to truly engage the reader. You've described exactly this process - of making the reader feel what the character feels and why everything matters to them. I'm off to tweet!

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  22. Excellent post, Jody. Writing is really a balancing act! There are so many elements to consider. But you're right, a successful novel is one where the reader connects with the character.

    BTW, I love The Moral Premise. It gave me a new perspective on writing.

    Lorena

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  23. I've always struggled with the internal. A love the way you referred to a photograph look at characters, it puts a much clear prospective on creating an unforgettable character.

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  24. I enjoy your posts and the lessons. I found it challenging to dive into the internals but it is very worthwhile indeed.

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  25. Great post! Conveying internal struggles was something I particularly struggled with in the novel draft I finished in November. I'd heard a lot about the evils of too many internal monologues, and I think I probably erred on the side of caution and ended up with too much external action. The thing is, I know what my characters are thinking; I just have to remember that the reader doesn't yet and it's up to me to show them. I'll be remembering your tips on keeping it balanced when I do my rewrite!

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  26. Thanks Jody, for this great post. I always struggle with a character's internal struggle and conflict, but am really working hard on it. Love the technique of suturing. Will have to work on it.

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  27. This was such a good post, Jody. I try to do both, but your post made me realize that I need to go deeper into my character's heart and soul conflicts. This also comes at a good time, because I'm starting into a new rewrite of a novel, and I'll be quite mindful of these insights as I work on it. (This is a post I've bookmarked, and I'll pass it on to friends!)

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  28. Good info, thanks so much. :) Have a wonderful week!
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  29. I struggle with balance. My critique partners remind me to slow down in important scenes. I'm afraid of boring the reader, and yet there are times when the scene needs to move in slow motion. Thanks for these great tips!

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