Line editing for immediacy
We’ve talked about making narrative decisions and hooking your reader, and now we’re going to talk in more detail about the line-by-line process of making your writing more Immediate. This article is more detailed and assumes you have a mostly complete first draft to work with, so if you’re still in the composing stage, bookmark this post and come back to it later.
Since it’s best not to edit chapters once they’ve been posted, we recommend doing a thorough self-edit before you post. This module is designed to give you some tips on how to approach that. Line editing is always good to do, so feel free to come back to this module whenever you’re working on a new chapter.
Line editing is the process of going over your writing sentence by sentence to make sure your prose is polished and working well to keep your reader captivated. We’ll go over some quick ways to make your prose feel more Immediate. These tips are useful for any chapter you’re working on, not just the first, so be sure to come back to this in the future.
Creating tension with description
In "Beyond the Hook", we talked about using Specific Detail to give hints about character and worldbuilding. You can also use descriptive detail to build narrative tension for your readers that will keep them engaged. The description isn’t just giving the reader a picture in their mind of what’s going on, it’s queuing them to the emotional landscape of the story. Your description, even if it’s not Specific Detail, should help further the emotion and tension of the scene, and thus increase Immediacy by contributing to the narrative tension of the scene.
Let’s compare two descriptions of a sunset:
Low red clouds hung like bloody slashes across the horizon, promising a swift nightfall.
The last rays of the sun bathed the shore in a final kiss of gold.
In the first example the word choice and comparison to “bloody slashes” sets the mood of the scene, and the “swift nightfall” feels ominous, almost deadly. In the second, the emphasis on the “kiss of gold” makes everything seem peaceful and beautiful, almost like the world is being tucked into bed. One sentence here sets the mood for two very different stories and creates different feelings and expectations for the reader. You can use this to either set up reader expectations (for example, by using the bloody clouds to set the mood for a murder), or subvert them (for example, by introducing something shattering and violent into the peaceful scene)
Exercise: Describe the setting of a scene in your opening chapter. Try to match the mood of the scene, without actually describing the events in the scene. How much emotion can you evoke using only the setting? Now that you’ve got that description, are there any parts of it you can incorporate into your scene?
We covered this in “Hooking your readers", but an important reminder is that exposition can really slow down your prose and prevent it from feeling Immediate. Exposition is when you explain or summarize things for the reader. It’s a necessary part of storytelling–without it, there would be way too much detail to sort through. However, exposition should be kept to a minimum, especially in the first chapter. Anything you want the reader to connect to, remember, or care about should be demonstrated through the narration using action and Specific Detail, and anything you want to skim over can be put in exposition. For instance, a step-by-step walkthrough of the main character’s morning routine is not usually necessary information for the story, and we don’t need every detail of it. If it’s important for the reader to know that the protagonist ate breakfast, you can just say she did without bringing us through the whole process of pouring cereal and making coffee.
When you’re line editing, look at the places where you explain things to the reader. Is this something you want them to hang on to? Is it important to the story? If yes, then consider putting it in the story in a more detailed and narrative way. If it’s not important at all, consider taking it out. Extraneous information can really slow down your story, so keep it focused on bringing the reader into the most important information in the story through emotionally compelling action and illustrative Specific Details.
When you’re line editing, make sure everything you’re describing to the reader is relevant to the scene or moment at hand. Describing things is a way of directing the reader’s attention, and Immediacy is about hooking that attention quickly and thoroughly. Make sure that all the information you give your reader is important because the reader is going to assume you’re conveying this information for an important reason. If you’ve directed their attention to something, it should be relevant to the story either now or in the future. Adding in information that isn’t relevant to the scene at hand can really slow down your story, and it can create confusion for the reader since they can get hung up on details or end up waiting for a payoff that never comes.
When you’re line editing, ask yourself “Is it important that the reader learns this now?” Each sentence should ideally advance the plot or expand our knowledge of the character or world.
Filtering, or filter words, is the practice of narrating a character’s perception. It uses words like “saw,” “perceived,” “heard,” “felt,” and “noticed,” to draw attention to the fact that the character is experiencing the action.
|She saw the car pull into the driveway
|The car pulled into the driveaway
|He heard the floorboard creak
|The floorboard creaked
|She flinched when she saw the light turn on
|She flinched when the light turned on
It’s called filtering because the action is being “filtered” through the character’s perception.
Generally, it’s a good idea to stay away from filtering. Filtering adds bulk to your prose and distances the reader from the story. Because it draws attention to the character’s perception, it highlights the fact that the reader is not actually experiencing the action themselves. It means the reader’s access to the action is less immediate and immersive than it would be without the filtering. Reducing filtering makes your prose feel more Immediate. To create greater immersion and Immediacy for your reader, go through your text and remove perception verbs like saw, felt, heard, noticed, etc.
Most fiction writing in English uses past tense. This is a great choice for your story because most readers are going to be familiar with it. It “disappears” and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story.
Some writers like to use the present tense in their stories. This can be a great choice for stories that are super fast-paced. Done well, present tense can make a story feel absolutely edge-of-your-seat gripping (The Hunger Games is a great example of this). However, the present tense also comes with its own pitfalls. Because it’s so Immediate, a lot of writers who are newer to present tense slip into bad habits to try to temper some of that Immediacy.
Most notable of these is an overreliance on what is called Present continuous tense, where the main verb is modified by a form of the verb “to be.”
|Jill is buttoning her coat.
|Jill buttons her coat.
|Andy is sprinting down the road.
|Andy sprints down the road.
|Evan is slamming the door.
|Evan slams the door.
The problem here is that the present continuous adds extra words to the action. It doesn’t disappear from the reader’s eye the way a simple past does, and it doesn’t have the Immediate punch of a simple present. As a result, the actions (the verbs!) feel muffled by the narration. If you’re writing in the present tense, go through and make sure you’re not relying on the present continuous. If you are, that might be an indication that switching back to past tense might be a good idea.
Keep in mind: Immediacy isn’t a matter of past vs. present tense, it’s a matter of using your chosen tense well. Simple past prose with punchy verbs is going to feel much more Immediate than present tense prose with lots of continuous present.
So far, we’ve been focusing on the first chapter, since that’s most important to hooking your reader. However, in order to keep them, you’ve got to maintain your tension. Don’t treat the first chapter in isolation. Having a super Immediate first chapter is great, but keeping the story momentum going in the early chapters is also very important to maintain the sense of Immediacy.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Keep the promises you make in your opening chapter. If you’re promising a high-stakes thriller, the following chapters should help build up that tension. If you’re promising a steamy romance, show us the sparks flying between the protagonists.
If in doubt, give the protagonist a problem to solve. What goal did the opening chapter create for your protagonist, or what block did it put in their way? How are they going to respond to that to keep moving towards their goal? This problem should flow from the opening chapter–if it doesn’t, it might be an indicator that you should pick a different opening. This problem can either be the big overarching problem of the story or a smaller piece of it—it’s up to you.
How can you further develop the problems and questions introduced in the opening chapter across subsequent chapters? What knock-on effects do the events of the opening chapter have on the protagonist?