: The most valuable tip I’ll ever give you — and it’s short too!

As a librarian, I hear a lot of comments about the evils of television. The theory seems to be that television is nothing but passive, brain-candy, rotting the collective IQ of American youth. Movies, for some reason, are slightly superior. (All these judgments, mind you, are made regardless of content.) But reading, oh, reading is an intellectual activity.

In fact, someone once did a study of brain activity during various tasks—hooking up electrodes and all—and the brain was only a scant fraction more active when a person was reading than when they were watching TV. I don’t remember exactly what scored highest, but puzzles and debate were right up near the top. However, both reading and watching TV scored very low on the brain activity scale. So much for the myth that reading is somehow better for you.

Since I never considered reading a “superior” form of entertainment this didn’t bother me—but it did set me thinking. I’d always known that TV and movies were just another medium to tell a story, and that the quality of the story was what made it good or bad. But as a medium, film seems to have all the advantages: the color and immediacy of action in real time. The ability (a huge advantage!) to manipulate the audience’s emotions through music. The simple fact that film can tell the same story in a shorter time span. At one time, books could describe things that film couldn’t show, but with modern special effects, even that advantage is lost.

So what is it that keeps us reading? What’s the one advantage that still makes a good book beat out even a good movie, any day?

Books have the ability to put us inside the characters’ heads and hearts. We know what they think, and we feel what they feel.

With film, no matter how brilliant the actor, the audience is always on the outside. Watching, but not being. Which brings me to the best tip you’ll ever get from me: emotion, emotion, emotion. This is the only advantage a writer has. Master it, and I guarantee you’ll be at least half way to producing fiction that people want to read.

Mind, over-the-top, purple prose won’t usually work—it tends to evoke laughter instead of the intended result. But any time you can get your reader feeling along with your character, suspension of disbelief is bound to follow. This may be simple in theory, but it’s a lot harder in application. The place I personally tend to fall short is in action scenes. When fists, swords, and blaster bolts are flying, it’s hard to find time to creep under the character’s skin. But taking the time to do so is the difference between a scene that makes the reader’s own breathing quicken, and one that feels flat and static no matter how much action appears on the page.

So dig in, and get your reader inside your character’s head. Because the books we love, the ones we remember, the ones that move us more than any movie could, are the books where the characters crept into our hearts. And the reason they were able to come into our hearts, was because the writer allowed us to see into theirs.

Spring 2003