On the topic of keeping a reader engaged:

Dialog is a great way to balance out a scene of description and action. Dialog allows conflict, information, reveal of character, and so on and so on.

My main character spends two chapters (Ch 2 and 4) alone in the wilderness. (Chapter 3 is in another point of view.) Feedback I get is that chapters 2/4 are well written, all the parts are there, I've done everything 'right' but it's tough for readers to feel connected to the character.

In these chapters, my character has internal thoughts (written as indirect past tense), a couple flashbacks that are dialog, a couple exclamations/talking out loud, and conflict between himself and the environment. In other words, I've tried to compensate for the lack of dialog with other devices. (Perhaps I ended up with something disjointed as a result. Not sure.)

I'm wondering if there's something about a lack of a second character for the MC to bounce off of that is giving readers a hard time being in the scene. What do you think?

I don't plan to add a second character, but if you have any insight into this I will take it on board and let it stew with the other fixes I'm playing around with. The advice I've gotten is to add his thoughts and emotions, but they are already there as indirect past tense.

Incidentally, one of my constraints (and this will sound like a non-sequitur but I don't think it is) is that I don't allow normal swear words in this world. Having my character yell "F***!" during a crisis might work wonders (and the lack of that expletive might be what's missing for the reader) but I'm hoping to avoid standard swear words. It's too early in the book for the in-world words to carry the same weight.

Edit: More feedback from readers in real life has me shortening some of the segments in these chapters, reducing some of the extraneous 'disjointed' bits, and (as always) keeping the character's motivations clear. Two disjointed bits were linked which adds a metaphysical vibe in that paragraph which is cool.

It's getting there.

Also, a few occasional telling words appear to be helpful. (reader: "Does he hate being there?" me: "No, he loves being alone. I showed that." "Oh, yes you did. But I hate hiking." "OK. Look at this version where I add in his feeling as a tell." "Oh! Yes, I get it now.")

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    Have you ever seen the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent? You could learn a lot from it about how to write effectively with just one character. – J.G. Aug 19 at 16:00
  • @J.G. Sadly I am not a whovian but my daughter is and she hopes to convert me. I'll suggest this episode. Thank you! – DPT Aug 19 at 16:08
  • Is there some action/plot progress in chapters 2 and 4? If it's all just "internal thoughts", then yes, those chapters are going to be more difficult. – Alexander Aug 20 at 23:46
  • @Alexander: Chapter 4 is point of no return. So, yes. – DPT Aug 23 at 20:25
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Without reading the results I have no idea if you disjointed things trying to compensate for a lack of inter-character interactions, I do know you can have quite successful narratives without including multiple characters mainly by including the "internal dialog" of the character you do have. You're doing that but using a tense that I find really problematic, I think that to foster reader engagement with the character the reader needs to understand what the character is going through, as they are going through it. In short I would look closely at a present tense personal approach to these chapters, I feel this will increase the intensity and immediacy of the character's experiences as seen by the reader and increase character engagement.

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    Thanks. I see some agents and writers advocate strongly against italicized immediate thought, and they say indirect third is a closer narration. I'm converting some of his thoughts back to direct italicized, this morning. We'll see. – DPT Aug 19 at 16:00
  • Ash - after having one of the readers re-read some of the converted text with direct italicized thought, the reader seems to connect with my protagonist more easily. Thanks again. – DPT Aug 20 at 14:30
  • @DPT No worries glad it was useful to you. – Ash Aug 20 at 14:36

Without the text, it's hard to judge. However, I think your problem come from a lack of feeling. Having internal thoughts, flashbacks and descriptive behavior (not necessarily swearing out loud) of the protagonist is good. But you need the reader to connect to the character and the best way to do that is to use emotions. The stronger the emotion, the better.

The best way to make people care about your character is to make the reader feel for him/her. Make your character suffer, being sad, scared or in pain. Make the reader understand why the character feel this way. Use the empathy of your reader. Empathy connect people and it also work for book character.

Don't be afraid of overdoing it. It's harder to connect to people through words, so be precise and use details. If your character goes through a blizzard, he's not just cold. He is frozen, his fingers are burning, and although he is happy to no longer feel the pain in his feet, he is worried that he no longuer feel anything in his feet. He his scared and lonely, the dusk would be there soon and it would be impossible for him to find his way in the dark. If he doesn't find a shelter before then, he will probably freeze to death.

I hope this last paragraph help you understand what I mean. I'm french so I'm sure you could do better but it was just to illustrate my point.


Edit in response to comment:

If you already did all that and people still doesn't care, try adding a reason to why he wants/needs to go home. Is someone waiting for him? Is someone sick/young/unable needing him? Does he have a mission to accomplish? Dreams to fulfil? Why can't he stop here and die? Why must he survive?

  • That's very useful. It definitely comes down to feeling. I'm abusing the poor kid with all sorts of wilderness challenges,, and have tried to hone in on the specific details, but it's not yet working. How would you describe dehydration? He's not thirsty, as you say, he's desperate, worried he will die, won't reach the river .... and still no one cares.:) Any advice? – DPT Aug 19 at 15:24
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    I respond in an "edit". Hope that help. Doesn't really know what more you can do. – Noon Aug 19 at 15:35

A chapter generally needs a miniature conflict and arc of its own, and as such must have some kind of tension. As you pointed out, having multiple characters makes it somewhat easy, but a character that's alone seemingly can't bring a conflict or arc about.

Here, one has to shift the focus to internal conflict. In the novel I'm writing, I've recently come across such a dilemma, as a couple of chapters of the novel is covering a young girl who's smuggled herself out of her city in a crate... well, sitting around in a crate and scavenging for food and drink when she knows she won't be seen leaving said crate.

She doesn't say a word, however, what she does do is wrestle between regretting her bid for freedom and standing by it, reflecting on the irony of pursuing freedom by trapping herself in a box, thinking about her sister (who was the only part of her home that she truly loved) and dreaming of what she thinks her destination is (setting her up for a payoff when she ends up anywhere but where she intended).

So yes, either shift to internal conflicts, or as I alluded to in the last example, use the alone time to demonstrate the characters' expectations of the future in order to set up future conflict.

Are chapters with a single character inherently more difficult for an average reader to connect with?

And why that should be? I mean, I don't have the average reader preferences (nobody has, probably, and we could discuss who is your average reader depending on the genre and the demographics) but there is no reason why single-character scenes should be more difficult.

You are absolutely right when mentioning dialog: it is a great way of keeping a scene dinamic and interesting. When done right.

But ultimately you have to be good at writing dialog and dialog must be consistent with your character to work out well. A poorly written dialog can be perceived as stiff, useless or just unimportant, and the "average" reader will bore through it anyway. So, your question can be turned around completely: isn't a well built, single-character scene easier to write?

My point is that for both things there are requirements to meet and pitfalls to avoid, depending on the plot points, the situation and the characters involved. It also tends to depend on the kind of writer you are: someone is more apt to dialog scenes, where someone else is more prone to long single-character scenes and descriptions (I remember someone mentioning H.P. Lovercraft as one of the latter kind of writers).

There are differences in readers too, of course. Some will enjoy your single-character scenes as your protagonist struggle in the wilderness. There is no point in forcing dialog in a scene if you, as writer of the story, feel no need to.

You have to trust your internal narrator telling you that's the way the scene is meant to go.

On a side note, regarding your problem with your feedback-givers not feeling attached with the main character, I'd give it time. That's not exactly a sign of lacking a dialog scene. Personally, I rarely grow fond of a character overnight, so unless your chapters are 50 pages long each, I wouldn't lose my mind over it.

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    Thank you. You have a point--feedback at a chapter level may be different than feedback at a 'book' level. I think this is part of it. And, quite possibly the readers who enjoy the chapter aren't bothering to tell me 'I connected with your character.' – DPT Aug 20 at 9:42
  • You're welcome! – Liquid Aug 20 at 10:18

There are quite a few critically acclaimed novels that feature only a single character. For example, William Golding's Pincher Martin tells of how the protagonist reaches a rock in the sea after a ship wreck and later dies there. It is a brilliant novel, and you may learn a few things from it for your own work.

There are also quite a few bestsellers that feature chapters in which the protagonist is alone. For example, Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild tells the (true) story of an inexperienced hiker dying alone in the wilderness. In many chapters the protagonist is alone. It has an Amazon sales rank of #208 in Books and was made into a movie that was nominated for two Golden Globes and two Academy Awards.

Obviously, chapters with only a single character will neither prevent your novel from earning critical acclaim nor prevent it from becoming a bestseller. Therefore the answer to your first question is clearly:

Are they more difficult for the reader?

No. All bad writing is difficult for the reader and all good writing is easy on the reader. It does not matter what you write, only how.

Do you have any tips?

Your preconception that a single-character scene needs to be written somehow differently from other kinds of scenes or is more difficult to write is wrong. All scenes are equally difficult to write well and require the same approach: Get yourself mentally into your character(s) and their situation and employ your mastery of language to describe what you see. If you are really there, and if you have mastered language, there is nothing difficult about any kind of scene. If you aren't, and haven't, all scenes are impossible to write.

Unblock your mind.

  • Why is this getting downvoted? – Liquid Aug 20 at 9:01
  • @Liquid I did not down vote it, and will pop it up to zero. The question is "Are scenes with a lone character more difficult for the reader?" This answer appears to (1) equate fame with ease (and cites a book with a sales rank of greater than 1,000,000) and (2) also to have misread the question as: "Is such a chapter more difficult for the writer?" I assume one or the other of these is the reason for the down vote. The answer did not address the question, although such a low sales rank of the cited book supports the idea that readers aren't keen on single character stories. – DPT Aug 20 at 9:18
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    @DPT I see your points and I understand that some users may have took those as a reason to downvote, but imho the core of this answer is "All bad writing is difficult for the reader and all good writer is easy on the reader." - and that's pretty understandable and on-point, hence my surprise. – Liquid Aug 20 at 9:23
  • @DPT First, I have edited the answer to give an example with a sales rank of 208. I think that is proof that chapters with the protagonist alone do not put readers off. Second, how else, if not through critical acclaim (Pincher Martin) and sales (Into the Wild), would you measure ease of reading? Third, I have clearly answered your question with: "Are they more difficult for the reader? No." I have explained this assessment (bad writing is difficult). Fourth, you have asked for tips on writing such chapters, so addressing the writing aspect of it is part of your question. – user32754 Aug 20 at 10:15
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    @DPT The first Story I thought about when reading the question was Patrick Rothfuss' bestseller "The name of the Wind". It features such a scene in the wilderness very earlie in the Story. I don't remember the exact details of the scene, but it's still strong in my... emotional memory. It definitly connected somehow more then maybe even the rest of the book. So, definitly worth a read to see what you can learn from it. – Lichtbringer Aug 23 at 4:25

Have you tried converting the internal dialog to the one character talking to him/herself? Or even talking to the internal monalog? Talking to yourself does not mean you are a crazy person... lots of people will do this when alone as sometimes, you need to hear your thoughts vocalized and the reason you don't think those thoughts would work.

It is essentially what happens in the Dr. Who story that was suggested to you (you'll need some serious background to get to the point where you can understand it), but that is essentially all the Doctor does, is talk to himself or personifying an object. Another great series that uses it much more frequently is Archer, where several characters will have to hold a scene all on their own, and must talk there way through it (Archer and Lana often get these scenes... Pam has minor ones... Malory has a whole episode where she has one line of dialog with another actual human... and she's speaking in the numerous scenes she is in... and yes, it is awesome.). If you want a single movie, try Cast Away, in which Tom Hanks is alone and isolated from humans for several years and bounces ideas off of Wilson... a soccer ball with a painted face on it, for much of the movie... and can get some viewers very emotionally invested in Wilson's well being. Apparently, Wilson has a "script" where all his responses are given, so Tom Hanks could know what his character is supposed to be reacting too, but this half of the conversation is never portrayed on screen.

The trick in all of these is they manifest in typically two sided question/answer sections. If talking to yourself, you ask and answer the question, essentially debating yourself in every action. It shows how your character prioritizes the situation. If you're talking to a stand in for a human, that doesn't speak, this can manifest in distinct voices in spoken dialog that the human does... or can equally manifest in the human explaining his actions to the object, with occasional emotional responses to what the human percieves as the the object mouthing off. I tend to write dialog on the fly, so my trick with this is to write out both sides of the conversation, but give my beta readers an edited cut where I removed the object's dialog.

Often, this develops a "relationship" where a rational and emotional side of the character evolves... there's a famous saying that "Character is what you are in the dark". Basically, everything the character is, is best revealed when no one is watching... this is your time to shine and establish your character's driving emotions and logical examination... typically the emotional aspects get the vocalization if the speaker is logical, and can easily get to the point in the self-argument that his reactions to the logical's correct assertions can be wonderful scene ending gags... Imagine a vocal emotional telling the silent logical that fearing bears in the cave he is going to camp in was silly... only for a roar to issue from somewhere in the cave and the emotional to quip about how the silent logical better not say "I told you so" or some other appropriate surrender or defeat of his argument. It's funny, it's silly, but it also relatable as hell... Who loves being told they're wrong? Especially hearing it from your self.

  • Having a character start talking to themselves a lot to compensate for a lack of dialogue can get very unrealistic very fast. Archer and Dr Who can get away with that because they are inherently campy shows to begin with, not to mention that the TV medium is very different from a novel. There are many, many ways to describe things and convey information other than dialogue (one sided or two sided). – JBiggs Aug 23 at 18:39
  • I tend to be forgiving if it helps establish a character's personality... The only thing I could think of where it wouldn't work from a narrative storypoint is if the character is a mysterious person who the perspective shift discovers in the wilderness... which might be the case given the early chapters and the PoV change the OP indicated. – hszmv Aug 23 at 19:58
  • I had pruned out all italicized thought and adding a bit back in has really helped, at least for this problem. Talking out loud - he does a little bit. One idea I have is to have him bring the ashes of his grandfather to spread, and he talks to the ashes. But that brings in other problems. – DPT Aug 23 at 20:26
  • How did he get lost in the woods? Just for helpful ideas... it's not a bad idea... but its a little unnerving to some. – hszmv Aug 23 at 20:42

I think you may be trying too hard.

If you really want to keep flashbacks in there, go ahead, but in general, when people are put into a survival type situation, their focus becomes very immediate, very concrete, and very practical for obvious reasons. I spent 3 years in combat without an ounce of time for reflection as an example. You just don't have a lot of time and energy for flashbacks when you are trying to survive.

I would recommend the novel Hatchet as a great way to describe a wilderness survival type situation. The majority of this novel takes place with one character alone, trying to survive in the wild.

Spend some time just being in nature. I think a lot of people are so urbanized and hyper-socialized that they think life is a giant sitcom. There is actually a whole lot going on in the quiet places that have no dialogue whatsoever. Many novels have captured the beauty of the wild, the bloody taste of striving to survive against the odds, the inner growth that can come from solitude. These things are part of human nature just as much as social interaction. You can use the "quietness" of the wilderness chapter as a juxtaposition from the busyness of the chapters with lots of characters in them. Try reading Hemingway. Not only is it always a good idea to read great writing when trying to write good writing, but he was a master of capturing man versus nature and man versus himself and juxtaposing wild pursuits in nature against complex social drama (Sun Also Rises comes to mind).

Focus on using simple descriptions of the character's actions to convey what they are feeling and thinking. It is challenging but incredibly rewarding if you do it right. Think of a 1970s naturalist movie: we have a wild expanse, we have a protagonist portrayed very realistically, we gain no artificial insight into what they think or feel except what we can directly observe. This kind of storytelling requires patience but can be very powerful.

Imagine putting this kind of thing into prose:

Character has survived plane crash but clearly can't walk.

Spends an hour crafting a splint from a sapling with a pocket knife.

Crawls down a steep ravine with an empty jerry can.

Fills the can at a stream, then slowly, agonizingly starts crawling back up the ravine wall.

Gets to the top, collapses, grabs the can, and pulls himself back toward the wrecked plane.

Character reaches toward plane where some baggage is still hanging in the upside down fuselage.

Character dislodges the plane and it suddenly slides down the ravine, setting off a minor avalanche that buries it in rock at the bottom of the ravine.

Character puts his forehead to the ground and gently cries.

You don't need to be told what is going on in his head. You can imagine it. It becomes that much more powerful because the reader goes through the agony and the frustration with the character. Again, there are many, many ways to convey things without using two characters in dialogue to explain them to your reader. Even if you don't want to go to the extreme of staying firmly "external" to the character's thoughts, you can use a different pace of storytelling intentionally as a bridge or counterpoint in the story as a whole. This is a great way to have character development and maturation take place and make it believable.

  • Thank you. The word 'agonizingly;' is an example of the occasional tell I am adding in. I think it carries its weight in this sort of circumstance, to reel a reader back if they have glazed over. – DPT Aug 23 at 20:29

I suspect you don't have tension; in the sense that the readers are not wondering "what happens next?"

Your character may be cold and scared and (loves being alone? That kind of doesn't fit here), and maybe he needs to get to the stream, but he's not doing anything but plodding to the stream, and that is boring.

If that is all it is, then skip six hours, and he finally reached the stream.

An analogy for this is a sex scene: IRL sex is exciting throughout, but narrated, it is repetitive as hell, and quickly boring, because there are only so many different ways to describe sensations without getting absolutely comical. So yes, walking on the shattered ankle is excruciating. Agonizing. That's it, don't go through the whole thesaurus coming up with ways to say the same thing again and again and again. Skip time to the interesting part.

He sees the stream! Seeing it, tears come to his eyes, he's almost done.

He *reaches the stream, and falls to the ground and pulls himself forward to take a drink. His leg is throbbing, but he shouts in victory.

As for thoughts: I use italicized thoughts all the time; I keep them to the nature of actual thoughts (mine at least), a few words at most.

"The guy with the hat, who was that?"

Alvin. Can't tell him that.

"I don't remember. You mean Richard?"

Other longer thoughts, I narrate in prose, 3rd person limited.

Barry was thinking, if they took the second train, they'd still make it to Rochester with time to spare, but he'd get ninety minutes alone with Sharon, and that might be enough. He just needed a good excuse for Charlie.

Narrating a long continuing state is boring, you need to find the "turning points," what the reader knows will happen next. Think of it as a series of "mindsets" for the hero. Describe the mindset, jump time, describe the new mindset or decision or feeling, jump time, describe the next mindset.

I've described twenty-four straight hours of hard labor in a paragraph, because the mindset didn't change. Then my character was so tired they couldn't go on, and that was a new mindset.

  • Thanks! Tension is definitely an important part of the whole, but it's already in my writing (you may/not recall I spent three revisions on tension.). The pacing is there. Descriptions are there. I think my problem comes down to dialog, because that is immediate. Imagine two characters together who don't exchange a single word for an entire chapter. Something's missing. With a lone character, I've concluded that direct italicized thought is an important replacement for dialog. It's an anchor to keep the reader in the emotional place the character inhabits. Which you say, & I agree. – DPT Aug 24 at 13:35
  • And so, the advice 'out there' to convert such thoughts to indirect non-italicized, while something I agree with in many cases, has its limits. – DPT Aug 24 at 13:37
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    I'll disagree. Consider all the movies you have seen where a silent thief, alone, is infiltrating a complex target. 007, Mission Impossible, Salt, Denzel in The Equalizer, even Indiana Jones with the Boulder. You can have five minutes of zero dialogue, equivalent to fifteen pages of novel, and the scriptwriters don't even have the luxury of reporting thoughts or feelings -- but danger is clearly evident. If your action is not compelling, perhaps it is not dangerous enough, or the danger is not imminent enough. The reader is not wondering what happens on the next page. – Amadeus Aug 24 at 13:39
  • That's different than a novel. You have sound and image. :-) And motion. And popcorn. – DPT Aug 24 at 13:40
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    Which is why I say 5 minutes on screen is equivalent to 15 pages of novel; that is how long it takes to describe imagery and motion. And while you don't have "music", per se, you also have tools the movie does not: Prose, words, the pacing and structure of sentences, and (in 3PL) direct access to the feelings and thoughts of your hero. Those take time to describe, also part of why I use a 3:1 equivalence. – Amadeus Aug 24 at 13:44

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