Sep 12 2011

Creating complex fiction

I’m wondering if you can give some tips for creating more complex stories? I tend to gravitate toward writing stories with only a handful of characters, with only one or two subplots (the most I’ve done is seven primary characters, only one of whom is a POV character, and three minor subplots). This is fine, and I’m confident in my abilities to write these types of stories, but I’d love to try writing something…grander…than that. I’m just not really sure where to start or what to keep in mind. Any tips or suggestions would be great! Thanks! – Cameron Chapman, Vermont

Great question. One option is to write two completely different novels, print out the manuscripts, then shuffle the pages together like a deck of cards. Voila! Complexity.

Okay, probably not.

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex and just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it. But that’s not what you asked.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge.  The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me).

And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’

Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well. Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot.

Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.

Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past). Back to ‘The Big Chill’ as an example, while there is some reminiscing going on about times past, the entire movie takes place over the course of one weekend. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t two different timeframes.

The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women.

So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer.

To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share.

This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life.

The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story?

Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time.

I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart. We’ll see if I’ve been able to get the words on the page to convey to readers the complexities of the story in my head, but at least that was my goal.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

–          The Group protagonist

–          Two or more timeframes

–          The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

–          The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction.

I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.

Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.

Jul 17 2011

Do you filter your fiction?

I was recently told by an editor that I use too many ‘filters’ in my novel manuscript and I should remove them. What is a filter, and why are they bad? – A question asked by several writers and editing clients of mine.

First, I’ll point out (as I frequently do) that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules that say ‘never do this’ or ‘always do that.’ But there are writing techniques that can help your writing become more engaging to readers.

One of those writing techniques is to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the number of filters.

So what is a filter?

The most basic form of a filter is when the writer tells the reader that a characters sees, hears, smells, feels (as in the sense of touch), or tastes something. A related, and slightly more nuanced filter, is when the writer tells the reader that a character notices, realizes, recognizes, or feels (as in an emotion) something.

So what’s wrong with telling readers that a character experiences something through her senses? Isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do? It lets readers know what the character is sensing. It shows the reader the event rather than telling it. It engages the five senses (and emotions) of the reader. It’s one way to use more show than tell, isn’t it?

Yes and no. (How’s that for ambiguous?) Yes, you want the readers to experience the story through the senses of the character. Engaging the five senses plus emotional reactions of the readers helps them engage more closely with the character.

But a filter – or at least an abundance of filters – can have the opposite effect. Filters come between the character and the reader, and instead of showing the experience, the writer tells the reader what the character experiences. The writer tells the reader what the character is sensing rather than letting the reader sense it directly.

If the scene is clearly in the point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. Show the ‘something,’ and readers will intuitively assume the POV character sees/hears/smells it.

Filters remove the reader from the character’s experience by one step. The important part of the sentence becomes the action of sensing something rather than the thing sensed.

Okay, this will make more sense with some examples.

ORIGINAL: When Joe heard the rattling, shaking sound, he looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of him. He knew it was ready to strike. Joe felt the panic rise in his throat.

This sentence has a several filters in it, some direct, some indirect. ‘Joe heard’ and ‘saw’ are direct filters. ‘Sound,’ ‘he looked,’ and ‘he knew’ are a bit more indirect. ‘Joe felt’ is filtering an emotion rather than one of the physical senses.

In what should be an active and tense scene, the writer steps onto the page to tell the reader that Joe heard something, and describes the sound Joe heard. Then the writer tells readers that Joe looked down and saw something. Next, the writer tells the reader what Joe saw, and continues on to tell the reader what Joe knew. Finally, the writer tells the reader how Joe felt.

Each of these filters, individually, removes the reader from the direct experience by a fraction. Taken together, this live scene has become a narrated scene in which readers are told about the event rather than experience it directly through the POV character.

REVISION: The rattle and shake stopped Joe in his tracks. Coiled in front of him, the snake blocked his path, ready to strike. He stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

Same scene, same sentences, zero filters. It’s more direct. It shows readers the moment at the same time and in the same way that Joe experiences it. Readers hear the rattle, see the snake, sense the danger, and feel the panic as if they are Joe. If the scene is firmly established in Joe’s POV, readers will intuitively know that Joe hears the rattle, sees the snake, and feels a bit panicked.

So, do I need to remove every filter word in my manuscript?

As with most writing techniques, it’s the heavy reliance on a particular usage that creates a noticeable problem. If, in your 100,000-word, 400-page manuscript, you’ve used a dozen filters, or even two dozen, or however many (there’s no formula), and most of your scenes are written without filters, then a few scattered about here and there probably aren’t doing any harm. But are they doing any good? One secret to great writing is that no word is wasted.

As with any writing tip, there are exceptions.

There are times when, due to the nature of the scene, multiple characters interacting, or various other situations, you may need to specify that a character sees or hears something in order for the scene to be clear.

EXAMPLE: Keeping the snake in his peripheral vision, Joe looked at the large boulder beside him, and wondered if he could jump on top of it before the snake lashed out.

In this case, it’s important to make sure readers know that Joe sees the boulder while keeping his eye on the snake. The filters in this example don’t bother me, and more importantly, probably wouldn’t bother a reader.

EXAMPLE: Joe held onto the rough surface of the boulder and peeked around, watching, waiting. He knew the snake was there somewhere. He could feel it.

In this example, I don’t view these as filters. In this case, the ‘senses’ are the important actions. Peeked, watching, knew, feel – all of these words add to the scene, show us what Joe is doing physically and his internal emotions. Note the filter that isn’t there: ‘Joe felt the rough surface of the boulder as he held on.’

Likewise, you may need to state the negative filter when a character does not see or hear something.

EXAMPLE: Joe calmed his breathing, but he couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of his heart.

But I’m writing in first person. Wouldn’t a first-person character say what she sees or hears or feels?

It may be even more important to avoid filters in a first-person story. One of the primary benefits of writing in first person is that it presents the story in a closer perspective and lets readers experience the story from inside the character’s skin and head. Adding filters creates a distance between that first-person character and the reader, and it makes the story more narrated – it’s more ‘told’ to the reader by the narrator rather than experienced by the reader.

Let’s take Joe and the snake and make him a first-person character.

ORIGINAL: When I heard the rattling, shaking sound, I looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of me. I knew it was ready to strike. I felt the panic rise in my throat.

REVISE: The rattle and shake stopped me in my tracks. Coiled in front of me, the snake blocked my path, ready to strike. I stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

If the POV character is clear, if readers are in the POV character’s head, whether first or third person doesn’t matter – filtering the scene creates added distance between the character and the reader.

As always, there’s a wide degree of latitude for personal, subjective taste and writing style. But if you want your readers to experience the scene much more directly, reduce or avoid filters.

Apr 16 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 3 of 3

In Part I and II, we looked at the persons involved in a novel and the voice used in the writing. For a quick recap: 

– Persons

  • Author
  • Narrator
  • Character (or characters)

 – Voices

  • First person
  • Third person limited
  • Third person omniscient

Now we can finally get back to the original questions on POV.

As noted at the very beginning of this series, POV is defined as “through whose eyes and ears the reader witnesses the scene.” The author writes the story, the narrator tells the story, and the character experiences the story. Through which character does the reader experience any given scene? That’s the POV character. Might be in first- or third-person voice, and might be filtered through a separate narrator or witnessed directly through a first-person narrator-character. Might have one single POV for the entire book, or there might be 42 POVs.

In first-person voice, the character and the narrator are the same person (most of the time – more on this in a minute). Usually this is the main character, but not always. Some obvious examples of when a secondary character is the first-person narrator include the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Holmes is the main character but Watson is the narrator, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which is narrated in first person by the secondary character, Nick Carraway. This creates a first-person voice but with a bit of the third-person distance. The narrator can provide a wider perspective that the main character could not.

In third-person voice, the character and the narrator are two separate persons, and the narrator isn’t a character in the story but a disembodied voice or eye – like a movie camera – showing the actions and events.

So when can a first-person story be told by a narrator who is not a character?

Bit of a trick question, but it’s quite common. When a story starts with something like ‘Back when I was a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River,’ the author has established a split narrator/character in first person. The main character is the young boy in the story; the narrator is the grown man looking back on his childhood.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. In the second paragraph:

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

This immediately establishes the character and the narrator as the same person at two different ages. The narrator is Scout, the grown woman, looking back on her childhood and the events that occurred to Scout, the young girl.

A more recent example is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, with the opening lines:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

There are two versions of the same girl – the living and eventually murdered child who is the main character, and her ghost who narrates the story.

This technique provides a nice advantage to writers (and readers). It maintains the close, intimate perspective of first-person narrative, while the narrator can also provide a wider perspective that usually requires third person. The difficulties in this technique are to create a character-narrator with a similar enough yet distinct voice to be the same person at different ages, and to always clue the reader in as to whose POV the story is in at any given point, the narrator or the character. This requires some subtlety in the writing.

Standard techniques in POV

The persons, the voices, and the POVs provide almost limitless options for how to tell a story. But for those writers who like rules to provide some guidelines for their writing, as well as for writers who like to know what the rules are in order to break them intelligently, there are some standard techniques which have proved over time to be the best ways to tell most stories. There are so many exceptions that this topic always creates discussion and debate, and has been known to spark heated arguments among writers. Seems all writers and editors have deeply held beliefs on this topic, each will tell you exactly how it should be done, and they will all contradict each other. Most readers, on the other hand, will only be able to tell you that they liked a book or that it bored or confused them.

I don’t believe in hard, fast rules when it comes to something as creative as writing fiction, but here’s my list of the most common, standard POV techniques generally accepted in mainstream, genre and commercial fiction today:

In third person:

– Keep the total number of POV characters in a book to no more than two or three.

– Maintain a focus on a single main character.

– Keep each scene to a single POV.

– If you can keep each chapter to a single POV, great. If you need to switch to a new scene in a new POV but within the same chapter, use a clear scene break by centering on the page three asterisks or cross-hatches (* * * or # # #) to signal readers that the scene has ended and a completely new scene is beginning.

– Don’t “head-hop,” where a scene bounces back and forth between characters’ POVs every few paragraphs, or even within a single paragraph or sentence.

– When you switch POV to a different character, ensure readers are instantly clued in as to whose POV they are in. No one wants to read three or four paragraphs, or a page or two, before realizing it’s in the POV of a different character than initially assumed.

– If you’re going to use more than one character’s POV, make sure you establish this early in the book by bringing in the different POVs within the first few scenes. You don’t want to read five or ten or twenty chapters all in one POV, then suddenly have it switch to a different POV character.

In first person:

– Stick with the first person and the single character for the entire novel.

– If you’re going to ignore that technique and use multiple first-person narrators, make sure readers instantly know who is narrating the scene, and give each first-person narrator a unique and distinctive voice. If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then two is a good maximum. Or 42 if your last name is Palahniuk.

– If you’re using the split narrator/character – the older narrator looking back on his life – be sure readers know which POV they are in at any given moment: the character or the narrator. The narrator will have advantage of hindsight and knows the full story, while the character has a perspective limited by where he is in the story.

If mixing first and third:

– Have a plan and know what you’re doing.

– Think about it again.

– Have trusted beta readers who will tell you if it’s working or not.

For every standard technique, there will be some bestseller or classic piece of literature that ignores that technique. That’s fine, of course, but for new or debut writers it’s very difficult to break out of those general standards and do it well. That sometimes takes a level of artistic genius that very few writers can pull off, or at least a level of experience in writing to learn how to do it deftly.

But if you understand the persons, the voices, and the points-of-view available to you, how they interact with each other, and the pros and cons of each, you can confidently find the best way to write your story. 

If you’re still not sure, try writing some of the scenes in both first and third person, and see if one strikes you as the better choice for your story.

Apr 9 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 2 of 3

As discussed in Part I, your primary choices for voice are first person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient. Voice affects your POV choices, but the two are not interchangeable terms.

The different voices impact readers in different ways, especially regarding how closely they are drawn into the character. Generally speaking (with lots of exceptions), it goes like this:

– First person: Closest perspective

– Third person limited: Next closest perspective with a wide range from close to distant

– Third person omniscient: Most distant perspective

The second primary effect your choice will have on the story is how wide or narrow of a perspective is provided. Think of it as a camera lens. A close-up shot is more intimate with the subject, but shows less of the surroundings. A wide angle shot is further from the subject, but shows more of the surroundings. The closer in the reader is to a character, the more limited the perspective.

– First person: Most limited perspective

– Third person limited: Somewhat limited perspective, but wider than first person

– Third person omniscient: Unlimited perspective

This is where the writer has to make some choices in how to tell the story in order to achieve the desired effect. What’s most important? A close but limited perspective, or a more distant but wider perspective?

Advantages and disadvantages

To choose which voice to tell the story from, it’s good to know some of the advantages and disadvantages of being in close versus distant, and limited versus unlimited.

– First person: Very intimate, draws the reader in as close as possible to the character. The reader gets to know the character, hears the inner thoughts and feels what the character feels. The reader also sees and hears and smells the story through the character’s senses. Requires a strong, sympathetic lead character to whom readers can relate, and a character with a strong, unique and engaging voice. Because the scene is viewed strictly through the narrator-character’s eyes and ears, another difficulty is how to present information and events that are outside the character’s point-of-view.

– Third person limited: While somewhat less intimate than first person, it can still be very close to the main character. The narrator can drop in and report on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, and the reader can witness the story through the character’s eyes and ears. But the writer can also switch to different POV characters to present scenes or narrative information the main character doesn’t see or know, and can also drop in on the thoughts and feelings of additional characters in different scenes. One of the difficulties is to maintain a tight focus on the main character so readers can relate rather than bouncing around too frequently to too many different characters. It can also be difficult to maintain continuity, ensuring information presented outside the main character’s POV doesn’t accidentally slip into the character’s knowledge. For most writers, and readers, this is the most natural style, and it’s the most common in modern novels.

– Third person omniscient: This usually creates more distance between the reader and the main character, but can provide an unlimited amount of information. Third person omniscient was in much wider use in 19th century literature than today. In third person omniscient, the writer can present a scene from multiple POVs and report information or events happening outside the POV characters. The difficulties here, besides creating more distance between reader and the main character, is the potential for the constant barrage of changing and overlapping POVs to become irritating or confusing to the reader. Often called ‘head-hopping,’ if a reader becomes confused as to whose POV she is in, it’s easy to become frustrated with the novel and put it aside, never to pick it up again.

Your choice of which voice to tell the story will depend on what you want to accomplish, the perspectives you want to include in your story, your writing style, and the standards of the genre in which you write.

But can you mix some of these voices? For example, can a novel be narrated in first person by the main character, with additional scenes written in third person in order to present events or information to the reader where the MC isn’t present? Or, can a novel be told by two or more characters, each narrating in first person?

The short answer is always ‘yes.’ A story can be told anyway you want to tell it. The follow-up question is ‘does it work?’ The short answer to that is ‘sometimes.’

Switching voices within a novel can be, and has been, done. It’s been done well and, more often, it’s been done horribly. Most of the horrible ones you’ve never read because they’ve never been published. Unless you’re writing literary or experimental, I recommend against mixing voices. If you do want to mix voices, plan for it in advance. Know when to use each voice and why you’re using it at that particular moment, and make sure the story and the writing overall maintain a cohesive quality. Mixing voices can read like pieces of separate novels that have become accidentally stuck together. Or like a novel in which the author couldn’t make up his mind how to write it.

One exception is a story with two main characters – often a romance or erotica piece. You may want to present your love story from the perspective of both characters, but want to maintain the close perspective of first person. In this case, writing in alternating first person voices can work. The key is to ensure you have two intriguing, interesting, and compelling characters, each with a unique, distinctive, and engaging voice. That’s hard enough to pull off with a single main character. If a reader gets lost or is easily confused as to which character is narrating a scene because the voices aren’t distinctive enough from each other, you’ll create an irritated reader who may put the book down and not recommend it to friends. If one character is compelling and the other irritating or boring, then you’ve only got half a book that’s worth reading. Introduce both voices early in the book – don’t write ten chapters in one character’s voice then suddenly switch to a new first person narrator. Alternate them on a regular basis. This doesn’t have to be every other chapter back and forth, but frequently enough so readers get both characters and both perspectives.

One of my favorite and rather extreme examples of a novel with multiple first person voices is Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, with 42 (yes, 42) first-person voices. It’s as if the book was written by a journalist who interviewed and collected information from everyone who knew the main character, Rant Casey. Each scene is told from the first person voice of a different character. Gradually the character and the story unfold. This is the exception that proves the ‘rule’ (no, I don’t believe in rules), so if you’re as gifted a writer as Chuck, feel free to give multiple first person voices a try. It’s experimental, so when it works, it’s genius. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, however, it’s just going to sound, well, experimental, self-indulgent, or just plain old amateurish.

Now we’ve touched on how different voices can impact a story, and a few of the pros and cons of each voice.

Next up: How does voice affect POV?

Apr 2 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 1 of 3

I’ve received a variety of questions related to point-of-view (POV), so rather than answer each one individually, I’ve decided to compile a basic overview of the topic in three parts. A few of the questions include:

– Should I select a POV and stick with it throughout an entire novel? Or can POV change from one chapter to the next?

– I constantly see examples of successful authors changing POV, sometimes frequently and within chapters. Is there a definitive rule or a set of general guidelines on changing POV? 

– How does one handle a situation where information needs to be conveyed that the first-person narrator can’t possibly know?

– Which POV is best?

– What is head-hopping and why is it a bad thing?

Ah, the oh-so-complex and ever-controversial point-of-view (POV) discussion. Books have been written on this subject, so there’s no way I can fully cover the topic in a blog, not that I know everything there is to know about POV anyway. I’ll break this up into smaller chunks, but I’ll still barely scratch the surface.

POV is one of the critical decisions a writer makes with a story, usually before writing a single word.

I have to state for the record that, as a rule, I don’t like ‘rules.’ I believe there are general guidelines, accepted standards and writing techniques that are common in writing. They are common because they’ve proved over time to make for better, clearer writing, keep readers interested and entertained, and readers are familiar and comfortable with these techniques.

But writing is part craft, part art. Art is often about stretching boundaries, redefining standards, breaking ‘rules’ or writing new ones. The answer to your POV question is “it depends.” It depends on the story, the genre, the writer’s style, and how deftly a talented writer can pull it off.

Let’s start with a definition and the basic building blocks that work up to POV: Persons, voices, and perspective.

POV is, in the simplest form, whose eyes we are seeing the story through at any given point.

Before we even get into the POV options, let’s look at the ‘persons’ involved in a story.

– The author

– The narrator

– The main character (or other characters)

These are obviously not the same. They can and do overlap at times, but they are not interchangeable. Understanding how these persons relate and interact is key to POV.

The author vs. the narrator

The author is you, the writer. The person at the keyboard or with paper and pen. When a reader sits down with a book, she knows someone wrote it. There’s a name on the cover. The reader opens up a novel and it starts out:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

The reader knows this isn’t J.D. Salinger, the author, speaking. It’s the narrator of the story. Yes, Salinger wrote those words, but the reader immediately separates the author from the narrator. In this case, the narrator is also the main character.

The narrator vs. the character

For a completely different example:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Here again, we have a narrator speaking, separate and apart from the author, but the narrator is speaking about the main character (the old man) rather than the main character speaking for himself. So there are immediately three ‘persons’ involved in this story: the author who wrote the words, the narrator who is speaking, and the old man.

Any story can be told from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Salinger could have chosen one (or several) of Holden Caulfield’s schoolmates or teachers or parents to tell the story. Hemingway could have had the old man tell the story himself. I doubt either story would be as good that way. These writers chose the right voices to tell their stories, and they made those choices for a specific reason.


In addition to the three ‘persons’ involved in a story (author, narrator, character), the writer also has to choose the voice to tell the story. This is not to be confused with the writer’s voice, which is more related to writing style, or a character’s voice, which is how a character sounds through dialog, dialect, and inner thoughts.

There are four basic voices to tell the story:

– First person

– Second person

– Third person limited

– Third person omniscient

Often you’ll hear these voices referred to as POV, but I like to differentiate the terms. They are related and overlap, but voice and POV aren’t always interchangeable.

A quick overview of each voice:

First person means the character is telling the story.

I walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind me picked up the pace.

Second person (rarely used, and I don’t recommend it, but I’ll include it here anyway) is when the writer tries to make the reader become the character.

You walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind you picked up the pace.

In third person limited, the narrator is outside the character, watching the action, but can also report on what the character sees, hears, feels, and thinks, and can maintain a fairly tight focus on the POV character.

She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace.

In third person omniscient, the narrator is outside the story, watching all the action, all the characters, and can drop in and out of the viewpoint of any character.

She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace. The man desperately wanted to catch up to her only to return the purse she’d left at the restaurant, but he didn’t want to scare her. The policeman across the street watched them both, waiting for the right moment to intervene.

A final note on second person (You walked down the street). It is rare, more frequent in short stories than in novels. Readers tend to find it irritating and unrealistic, harder to suspend their disbelief. This is especially true if the character of the story is the opposite gender from the reader, or a very different person in terms of age, ethnicity, background, etc. You read: You are a woman, thirty years old, recently divorced from a much older man, and think to yourself, “No, I’m a middle-aged happily married male.” It’s hard for readers to relate to a character in this fashion. In a short story, it can work. To get through an entire novel in this voice is difficult, and it’s seldom used so readers aren’t accustomed to it (and probably don’t want to be). Second person is often perceived as a bit of a gimmick, and readers tend to resent gimmickry in writing.

So that’s a quick overview of the persons and voices available to the writer.

Next up, Part 2: How do each of these persons and voices affect the writer, the point-of-view, and the reader?

Mar 2 2011

Desert Rain published by Horror Bound magazine

My latest short story – and my first attempt at a horror story – has been published by Horror Bound magazine. Read Desert Rain here.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

Feb 23 2011

Chapter endings

Someone who read and critiqued my manuscript recently commented that several of the chapter endings were ‘flat.’ What does the term ‘flat chapter ending’ mean, and how do I fix it?Lorraine, NSW, Australia 

Chapters (and scenes within chapters) should end on a note that makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Often called a ‘thrust,’ it’s something that pushes the reader into the next chapter to find out what happens next, unable to put the book down.

If a chapter ends on a flat note, it’s a good place to put the book down, turn off the light, and go to sleep. And maybe not pick it up again if there wasn’t anything to drive the reader forward.

A flat chapter ending can be a scene that fizzles out. Maybe it’s a scene that never is fully resolved, doesn’t drive the story forward, or doesn’t seem to have a point. Every scene must have a purpose, and that purpose is to push the story forward and raise the interest in some way.

One common situation that causes flat chapter endings is a story that is a collection of scenes from the character’s life, but without a driving, common thread, a story, a plot. Think of reading a journal where the writer details each day as it happens, but there’s no overarching theme or plot – just ‘here’s what happened today.’ Even if each individual journal entry might be well written or interesting on its own, they don’t make for a story that engages the reader.

Here are a few ways to end a chapter on a thrust.

– A cliffhanger: a tense, suspenseful moment that leaves the reader hanging. This doesn’t have to mean an action/thriller/mystery story. An emotional story, a romance, a coming-of-age story – all can end a chapter on a suspenseful moment.

– A revelation/surprise: something unexpected happens right at the end of the chapter. This can even be an internal realization by the character of something surprising. The tension or thrust is created by the unexpectedness of the new information, and the reader is left wondering how the character will deal with this new situation.

– A new obstacle, challenge, or raising of the stakes: just when things were looking up, or looking bad enough, a new development increases the conflict and makes it more difficult for the main character to achieve her goals.

– A new and interesting character appears on stage, one whom the readers know will create new tension (love interest, antagonist, or whatever the case might be) even if no actual tension is explicitly raised.

– An emotional high (whether for the character, the reader, or both).

– An emotional low.

Having a strong thrust at the end of a chapter can be especially important if it’s one of low tension such as back story or a calm moment in an otherwise tense story. But if this low tension chapter ends low, it deflates the tension of the overall story to that point. A low tension chapter is a good scene to intersperse throughout higher tension scenes to give the reader a breather and to provide flow and pace to the story. If this low-tension chapter ends with something unexpected, it helps drive readers into the next chapter (where ideally the tension and stakes are raised yet again).

There’s also the chapter ending that does double duty. It may seem on the surface like a low, quiet ending, but if the reader knows there’s something ominous looming on the horizon that perhaps the character isn’t even aware of, it still creates that compelling forward motion in the story (and the page-turning).

Your first readers – agents and publishing company editors – are looking for a book they can’t put down. If they find a chapter that doesn’t raise the stakes, increase the tension, or pique their curiosity to keep turning the page, that dull, flat chapter ending makes for the perfect spot to stop reading and send a form rejection letter. That’s because many readers will also be putting the book aside at that point.

And that’s not something a writer wants.

For some specific examples of thrilling chapter endings any writer can adapt and use in his or her own work, I refer you to the literary geniuses at McSweeney’s.

Feb 21 2011

Dancing in the Dark – Interview

A short story of mine has appeared in the anthology Dancing in the Dark, a collection of erotica short stories. I don’t consider myself an erotica writer. My story (Stella & Bailey) is more of a humorous look at a potentially erotic situation than actual erotica, but I’m quite honored that editor Nya Rawlins saw fit to include it in this anthology.

Interviews with the authors are here.

Click here to read an excerpt from Stella & Bailey.

Oh, and you can purchase your very own copy of Dancing in the Dark here.

Feb 16 2011

Tic talk

My critique group recently told me that I have several writing ticks, including the word ‘that.’ What are ticks? How do I get rid of them?Once Bitten, Dogville, U.S.

Tics. Writing tics, not ticks, the bloodsucking little bugs. Although writing tics can suck the life out of a manuscript.

Every writer has tics. I suppose some writers may have ticks, but that’s a subject for someone else’s blog. Writing tics are the repeated words or phrases or actions the writer subconsciously relies on and uses too frequently. The writer won’t notice her tics, but readers will.

The most frequent tic I have is I just repeat the word ‘just’ over and over again. I just don’t see it when I write, and it just comes out naturally. However, they just stand out like a sore thumb (cliché alert) to readers. I have a couple of tics I’m aware of, probably some I’m not aware of yet. Another one is ‘a couple of.’ I’ll use that phrase more than just a couple of times in my writing.

Once you’ve learned what your tics are, they’re pretty easy to spot.

Learning what they are may require the input of your trusted beta readers, a critique group, or a sharp-eyed editor. It’s difficult to notice the repetition when you’re writing, or when you’re reading it back to yourself and editing. Try reading your work out loud. Speaking the words and hearing them will often highlight repetitious and unnecessary words. If you think a word might be a tic, do a search for it in your manuscript and see how often it pops up. Then see if it’s necessary, if it can be deleted or if it should be replaced or rephrased so the repetition doesn’t create an echo.

Tics and repetitions aren’t always words or phrases, but can also be actions. The most commonly abused action I see, which is a tic for many writers, is for characters to sigh. Other action tics I see frequently include smiling, frowning, grinning, and other facial expressions. Some writers are conscious of the repetition, so they get creative or dive into a thesaurus to find synonyms for the repetitive word. Manuscripts become littered with smiles, grins, smirks, and beams. Add a few clichés to spice things up and you’ll get winning smiles, knowing winks, wry grins, and my least favorite of all time, furrowed brows. If you think facial expressions may be one of your tics, see this post on how to improve your writing by getting to the emotion that underlies the facial expression.

A character who looks at his watch or a clock every time the writer wants to alert the reader to the time is another common tic. If the time is important, state the time and readers will assume the POV character knows what time it is. The writer doesn’t have to show the character looking at a watch in order to tell the readers what time it is.

ORIGINAL: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He looked at his watch: 7:45 p.m. He only had 15 minutes to make the meeting.

REVISE: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He only had 15 minutes to make the 8 p.m. meeting.

In the revise, the reader knows what time it is without having Fred stop to look at his watch. It’s assumed Fred knows what time it is.

An exception to this is if looking at a watch or clock is in itself the crucial action. A woman on a blind date agrees to meet a man at the restaurant at 7 p.m. She’s concerned about being late and missing him, so she arrives 15 minutes early. She constantly checks her watch whiles she waits. This shows she’s nervous and she’s worried she might get stood up. At 6:50, she’s wondering if she should have come a few minutes late so as not to appear too eager. At 7:05, she’s worried that everyone in the restaurant is watching her and feeling sorry her, if they all know she’s been stood up. By 7:18, she’s angry. When he shows up at 7:35 and sees her checking her watch, he knows what kind of reception he’s in for.

In a scene like this, checking her watch is an integral action. But if you only need to let readers know the time, it’s not necessary for a character to check her watch or look at his digital alarm clock or see the clock on the office wall. Double check to make sure it’s even important to tell readers what time it is. If the reader knows it’s morning, or afternoon, or late night, it’s not always necessary to know the precise time unless it’s an important detail. You don’t have to tell readers the temperature and complete weather report in order for them to know it’s a sunny, warm day.

Facial expressions, checking the time, words like ‘just’ or ‘that,’ and phrases such as ‘a couple of’ are only a handful of examples of writer tics.

What are your tics? If you think that you don’t have any, you probably have a couple of them and just don’t know.

Oh, it’s 9:20 a.m. I need to get this posted.