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Archives for September, 2009

The rules of writing, or "why the classics suck"

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday where Australian writer Graham Storrs suggests that over-adherence to the common Rules of Writing is a bad idea. I think he’s wrong, but not for the reasons he cites.

This whole business of the Rules of Writing can be confusing for new writers, especially for those who aren’t quite sure what they’re doing yet and are still working to find their voice. Should they slavishly follow such prescriptions as “don’t use too many adverbs,” “avoid dialogue tags,” “avoid passive voice,” and the like?

In a word, yes.

I can certainly see Storrs’s point. The rules can be confining. They can certainly constrain your freedom to arrange words however you see fit. Mr. Storrs argues that Isaac Asimov, one of the true greats of twentieth century fiction, probably wouldn’t get published today because he breaks too many of the rules.

He’s probably right, but he misses a larger issue. Things were different in Asimov’s day.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Here’s the thing. The art of writing novels has evolved quite a lot since Asimov was writing. Even in his day, the art had already evolved considerably from the modern novel’s nineteenth century roots. Whenever you think the “modern novel” was really born, one can hardly dispute that today’s writers start with an incredible advantage over their historical peers: We have the collected experience of more than a century’s worth of what works and what doesn’t.

There just weren’t that many novels around in the 1800s. Not only was it damned hard to write one—the very idea meant a practically Sisyphean eternity of quill-and-ink work—but having written, there weren’t agents to help you get published, nor the vast plethora of publishing houses who might take your work. Today’s maxim that “good writers read a lot” just wasn’t possible a hundred and fifty years ago to the extent it is today.

Sure, the occasional Jane Austin came along and penned something really timeless and beautiful. But we can hardly blame most writers of that era for fumbling in the dark through unfamiliar territory, with nothing to guide them and no ready access to a community of other writers who could skillfully critique their work.

Because of this, most nineteenth century novelists are—rightly so, in my opinion—forgotten in the dustbin of history. Even some works that have survived to become “Classics” are unreadable to the modern eye. This is hardly surprising; writers back then weren’t less intelligent than us, they weren’t less creative, they just they hadn’t figured out the rules yet.

Dickens never learned how to use a period. Melville didn’t understand that you don’t have to tell the reader the same thing five times. I mean, I’ve tried more than once, but I still can’t get through Moby Dick; Ishmael just won’t get on with it in that first chapter. Classics? Sure. Good by modern standards? Hardly.

The rules exist because they work. As time has passed and novels have multiplied to fill all the shelves of all the libraries of the world, writers have had ever more access to the printed word. We have more exposure to what works and what doesn’t. In all those decades since Austin and Asimov, the tribe of writers has read a lot—and learned a lot. It never stops. I would argue that novels of today are even head-and-shoulders above most material published as recently as the 1970s.

Today, here in the twenty-first century, we have it easy. We really do stand on the shoulders of Giants like Austen, Hemmingway, Salinger, Leonard, and yes, Asimov. We have, collectively, distilled 150 years’ worth of literal “book learning” into a kind of tribal wisdom that we pass among ourselves. “Don’t use too many adverbs.” “Avoid the passive voice.” “Don’t use dialogue tags.” We repeat these pithy lessons like totems, we whisper them as shibboleths to see if our fellows stare blankly back or nod in agreement.

Ultimately, we have these Rules of Writing because they work. Time and experience has shown this body of lore to be effective guidance for creating a great reading experience. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? If your goal is to give your readers a great experience, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, those rules will help you get there.

When you know what you’re doing, you should break the rules. But then there’s that one other Rule of Writing: you can add “except when it works” to any of those other rules. Don’t use adverbs—except when it works. Avoid the passive voice—except when it works. The last bit of our tribal wisdom is “Know when to break the rules.”

Break them, if you know what you’re doing. Break them, because you should do your part to advance the art of the novel. Break them, because you should strike out along a dark and previously unexplored path. Break them, because maybe you’ll discover something wonderful. More likely you’ll find yet another thing that doesn’t work, but either way you will have contributed to the lore of our tribe.

But when you’re still working to find your voice? When the wisdom behind using backstory wisely isn’t yet clear to you? Follow the lore. Respect the rules. They work. They’ll help you find your voice, if you have the good sense to let them.

September 29, 2009 21:37 UTC

Tags: writing, rules, Jane Austin, Isaac Asimov, adverbs, dialogue tags, passive voice

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Do you know the right way to use backstory?

Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters. I promised I’d follow that up with some how-to on using the great stuff you’ve invented in your novel.

It’s not always as simple as it seems. As I wrote last month, there are lots of rookie mistakes you can make with backstory, ones that undermine your story rather than support it. This does not mean that backstory is a waste of time. Here are three ways you can use backstory effectively:

Use it to raise questions. One of the problems I cited in my last article was that, when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time, backstory can answer too many questions about your characters. It can destroy the mystery. A much better strategy is to use backstory to raise questions, rather than answer them. For example, in my last article I suggested that a fun backstory element might be that a character makes her own cheese at home. You could use that to raise questions in the reader’s mind—that is, to create compelling mystery about the character—by showing that she does this, but neglecting to explain why. After all, why would someone make their own cheese? It’s difficult, time-consuming, takes a lot of work and some special equipment, et cetera. Why not just buy a slab of cheddar at the grocery store? Mysteries keep readers moving forward, so if you can create some with careful use of your backstory, you win.

Use it to create conflicts. So now that we’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine makes her own cheese, let’s heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this bit of backstory-driven behavior. Perhaps the heroine is a pediatrician. On her day off, she’s whipping up a fresh batch of curds, something that must be done with a fair amount of care and attention to detail: timing, temperature control, and so forth matter to how the cheese turns out. Right in the middle of all this, her cell phone rings. It’s a resident at her hospital, begging her to come in for a consult over something that is 95% likely to be nothing. Does the she tell the resident to make the diagnosis so she can get back to her cheese, or does she sigh and hop in the car knowing that when she gets home her curds will be ruined?

Look for ways to put your character’s backstory elements in conflict with your story’s outer plot elements. But note, this only works when it creates difficult choices for the character. In my last article, I suggested that the cheese making hobby is, in fact, very emotionally important to our hypothetical pediatrician. The situation is only dramatic because it forces her to choose between something that is personally important to her and something that is professionally important but that she knows is almost certainly a total waste of time. So look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them, or they’ll fall flat.

Support it early. I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Let us imagine that we would like an important plot point to hinge on our pediatrician’s familiarity with cheese making. Perhaps she uses her knowledge of cheese cultures (the particular bacteria and fungi involved) to make a difficult diagnosis, saving the life of an important politician’s child. That’s great. We’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and in doing so, give ourselves opportunities to connect the character’s inner journey with her outer journey.

This only works if we have spent the requisite effort ahead of time to demonstrate and support her cheese making skills. Imagine if we have not. Imagine that we have said not one word about cheese making prior to the diagnosis scene. It just wouldn’t work to have her swab a sample on a microscope slide, and immediately exclaim “My God! This child is infected with Penicillium Roqueforti, the mold that gives the rich taste of Roquefort cheese!” Not only is that horrible, infodump dialogue, but it’s a deus ex machina solution: we’ve given the reader no reason to believe that the good doctor should know this, and any trust the reader has in you to tell them a good story is wiped out.

However, if we have spent scenes and time earlier in the book establishing the cheese making hobby, connecting it emotionally to the character and putting it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to say “oh, yeah, she’d totally know what that mold is.” Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.

September 25, 2009 21:31 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, questions, mystery, conflict, deus ex machina, infodumps, inner journey, outer journey

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Six tips for using backstory to create compelling characters

One of my followers on Twitter, @kateblogs asked me for some tips on backstory. I’m not surprised. At writers’ conferences and anywhere published authors and book agents take questions from the audience, there are always questions about backstory: how much to create and how much of it to include in the book.

Unfortunately, those are the wrong questions. Effective use of backstory isn’t a matter of finding the ideal amount. The right question about backstory, is “How do I use backstory to create compelling characters?” So that’s what I’m going to answer.

I have six main suggestions. The first three are strategies you can use for painting a character’s broad strokes in a way that is effective for the story, compelling, and also something you’re going to enjoy writing. The last three are more detail-oriented techniques you can use to flesh out those broad strokes.

  1. Create what the story demands. You’re probably not starting from a totally blank slate. You probably have a premise in mind for your story. Is it a young-adult adventure? A heist caper? A murder mystery? That’s good, because your premise can guide you in constructing your backstory. For example: In 2007, I wrote a young adult adventure set on the Pony Express Trail. It’s a western. My YA audience suggests that the protagonist should be about 16 years old. Naturally, such a story has to take place in the American West. All together, this pointed very clearly towards a backstory about a boy whose parents were homesteaders. He was born back east, but moved west at a young age with his parents, and then grew up as a farm boy. It’s not an amazing stroke of creative genius, but it is what the story demands.

  2. What is the character’s wound? Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Manuscript Makeover, has the great advice that memorable, realistic, vivid characters always have some sort of emotional issue they’re dealing with. She calls it their underlying “wound.” Whatever it is, it’s the thing that drives the character arc that runs in parallel with your overall story arc. For my Pony Express novel, I needed a wound that would serve to create conflict and problems for the main character to overcome. Ideally, it would be one that also relates well to the underlying premise. The Pony Express famously employed a lot of orphans, so I made my main character an orphan. I killed his parents off in a fire when he was 12 years old. His wound is that he’s angry: angry at the world, at fate, at God for taking his parents away and destroying his life. He has quite a temper, which gets him in trouble frequently. Learning to rein in his temper over the course of the book’s adventure is his character arc.

  3. What do you love (or hate) in a character? I firmly believe that nobody can write a good novel if they don’t themselves like the story and the characters they’re working with. And why would you even want to? So while you’re thinking about backstory, think about the kinds of characters you love to read about in the genre you’re writing. For example, I’m sick to death of fantasy novels where the main character is a king or prince, or when they start out as a nobody but turn out to be the long-lost heir to the throne. It’s been done to death. So for one fantasy novel, I gave my main character a backstory that was as completely run-of-the-mill ordinary as I could. I made him an ordinary kid, apprentice to the village blacksmith, in a piddly little town out in the sticks. Lost kings and princes may be dramatic, but they’re a lot harder for readers to relate to, and I’ll take empathy over cliche drama any day. So ask yourself, in your genre, what kinds of characters do you love? What kinds do you hate? What kinds have been done to death? Let that guide you in creating your characters’ backstories.

  4. Conduct an interview. The first three questions gave you the broad outlines of your character. Now start to flesh her out with an interview. Write up a list of questions. Longer is probably better. The trick is to start with easy stuff, like “where were you born,” “how old are you.” Work up to more personal questions like “tell me about your first boy/girlfriend,” but keep the questions focused on things that aren’t likely to have any real bearing on your plot. Finally, start asking harder questions, the kind you’d find in a serious job interview: “How do you motivate yourself to do things you need to do, but don’t really want to?” “Tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience?” “Tell me about a serious disagreement you’ve had with someone, at work or in your personal life, and how you handled it.” After you’ve written the questions, answer them in the order you wrote them. What you’re doing is mentally sneaking up on the character. Answering the easy questions gives you time to train yourself to think like her and imagine what it’s like to be her. By the time you get to the serious questions, you should have a pretty good handle on who she is. Their answers serve you two-fold: on one level, the answer to “tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience” gives you some interesting backstory. But on another level, it gives you insight into the character’s deeper motivations and emotional issues that are critical in portraying a realistic, distinctive person on the page.

  5. Write her eulogy or curriculum vitae Imagine the future, after your heroine has died. What would loving friends and family say at her funeral? How would they sum up her life, her accomplishments, and the essential elements of her personality? What funny little stories would they tell? Thinking backwards from a future perspective can be an effective way to generate backstory. If you want a less maudlin take on the technique, write their C.V. entry instead. Imagine that your heroine has been selected to be featured in the next edition of Who’s Who, and you’ve been tapped to write her entry. Imagine she has already succeeded or failed at whatever your premise suggests she’s going to try, and look back from that perspective.

  6. Get quirky This is the fun part. Brainstorm a bunch of random, weird stuff. Quirky hobbies, skills, or experiences your character might have. Maybe she used to be a skydiving instructor. Maybe she collects underground comic books from Soviet Russia. Maybe as a hobby she makes paper and binds it into handmade journals with beautiful deckled edges and dyed endpapers, which she sells at local street fairs. Maybe she makes her own cheese at home, and has built a special aging room in her garage. Think up a dozen or so downright oddball details. Then pick one or two to actually include for real in the character’s background. Now answer the question “how did she come to have those skills?” Write a little story or vignette explaining how she got hooked on Soviet-era comic books or whatever you end up choosing. The reason for doing this is because real people aren’t all-business. Yet too often, writers reveal nothing about their main characters that isn’t directly related to the plot. They miss out entirely on the character’s personal life. Everybody has a personal life, so spend some time figuring out what your character does with hers.

To sum up: Use whichever of these strategies and tips appeals to you. Don’t imagine that you have to do them in order, or even that you have to do them all. If anything, do the very opposite. Pick one, do it for a while, then switch to another. Skip around, jumping from one strategy or technique to the next as the material you discover about your character leads you. For instance, in stumbling upon a great quirk to include, you might realize that the quirk can be related to the character’s emotional wound. So spend some time interviewing or eulogizing until you discover a solid connection between the two. For example, maybe the character’s mother was from France and constantly bemoaned the lack of good cheese in America, so she took up the craft of cheese making in order to satisfy her mother’s yearning for a really good Roquefort; now that her mother has passed away, the cheese making remains as a way for her to hold on to that relationship.

You may or may not ever actually use any of this backstory in the book. But if my experience is any indicator, you will. In my next post, I’ll tackle in greater detail some techniques for using backstory material effectively in the actual implementation of your plot.

September 22, 2009 17:28 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, premise, emotional wound, empathy, motivation, emotion

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Pop quiz: what's the deadliest urge a writer can succumb to?

The worst thing we can do to the characters in our novels is be kind to them. Especially our main characters. The absolute worst thing we can do is make sure our characters never have to face any difficult problems or overcome any daunting obstacles.

Let me tell you about some unpublished books I’ve read lately. These are all books that I hope become published, because at their core each one has something really unique to offer. (For obvious reasons, you’ll understand that I can’t give you the titles or authors’ names.)

Book number one is a spy novel, a straight up cold-war era thriller. The main character has problems, sure, but they’re in his home life. His difficulties and challenges do not relate to the outer story goal of smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the good guys’ plan pretty much went off without a hitch. I wasn’t thrilled.

Book number two is a young adult adventure, with a fantastic premise and setting. It’s really creative and unique. But this book’s main character doesn’t really have any problems. He’s smart, has a materially-comfortable life with loving parents, supportive friends, and ready access to all the tools, materials, and money needed to get the job done. Nothing significant ever goes wrong, and the insignificant things that do go wrong, never get worse. The result is that nothing is challenging, and his ultimate victory feels foreordained.

Both books fall flat. Both authors seem reluctant to let their main characters have it. I mean, really screw ‘em over. They seem unwilling to throw the characters into the frying pan, and when the characters jump out, have them land in a fire that happens to be built inside an even larger frying pan. That would be interesting, but that’s not what they did.

I understand this. I’ve done it myself in earlier novels that I can now see I need to go back and make worse before I send them out to agents.

We authors grow to love our characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them, nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with anything one cares for we come to love them. It is only human not to want to hurt them or ever let anything bad happen to them.

This nurturing, parental urge, this above all we must resist. We have to let our characters get into trouble—real, serious trouble—so they can get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt, so they can overcome. We can’t coddle them as though they were toddlers. We can’t put gates across the stairs and padding on all the sharp coffee table corners. We can’t hover over them every second, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant danger looms.

Rather, we can, but if we do our characters won’t be interesting to anyone. What reader can really get behind a character that never struggles with his or her problems? What reader roots for a character who never encounters any problems to begin with? Not me, I’ll tell you that much.

So what about that third book? The protagonist in that one is a three year old girl, already someone an author is going to want to protect. But this toddler has not been coddled. No, the author has put her in a desperate and deeply destitute situation. She is so chronically malnourished she can’t walk, can’t even get out of her bed. Except her bed isn’t a regular bed, it’s just a wooden box with some filthy rags for padding. And the girl’s parents? They’re gone. They have abandoned her along with their homesteader’s log cabin, somewhere in the middle of the woods in 1865. The poor girl doesn’t even know her own name.

Problems? That girl’s got problems upon problems upon problems. Every one of them just breaks my heart. Every one of them is something that would make any lesser person give up.

But she doesn’t. She views her situation with every bit of naive optimism innate to any three-year-old child. She has a great attitude, an amazingly compelling voice, and she doesn’t give up. To see this utterly helpless little girl overcome her problems, that’s powerful stuff.

I root for her because it’s all I can do. What I want to do is reach into the book to help her. Of course, I can’t. I can only read her struggles, helplessly rooting for her to overcome. The very depth of her troubles makes me root for her as much, if not more, than I have for any character I’ve encountered in a New York Times bestselling book. And bear in mind, this is just in the book’s opening scene.

As a writer, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want our readers rooting for our main characters? Don’t we want them cheering when our heroes and heroines emerge victorious?

Of course we do. But that isn’t going to happen unless we make it hard. If we don’t make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our characters’ jobs too easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters themselves boring and lifeless.

Oh, and we also make our novels un-publishable. I’m just saying...

September 17, 2009 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, problems, obstacles

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How to amp-up your scenes with body language

I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago called Why Jane Smokes that showed some techniques for linking characters’ external actions to their internal growth across a whole story arc. Today’s article is a double-win technique for using body language to amp-up the characterization on a smaller scale, within individual scenes.

Whether they know it or not, everyone exhibits body language. And, much as with dialogue, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot.

This is just part of being human. We’re all students of each other, because we have to be. Body language gives us essential information about other people’s attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.

Tap into your readers’ expertise. Use body language both to advance your scenes and to portray your characters as believable, multi-dimensional people. There are two main ways adding body language helps a scene.

Moods First and foremost, body language is a wonderful tool showing characters’ moods. It is, frankly, an enormously useful writing tool for those situations where you have a vivid internal sense for a character’s particular, subtly nuanced feeling, but are having trouble giving a name to it. Stop looking for a name to give to it. Instead, convey the feeling through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show instead of tell. Don’t give us this:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.

Give us this, instead:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.

Setting The second useful aspect of body language is that it turns your characters physical bodies into an extension of the setting. Your scene takes place somewhere—be it a clandestine warehouse, a windy beach, a bedroom—but wherever it is, your characters bodies are there, too. They are an element of the setting. Just as you should look for key details of place—a greasy concrete floor in the warehouse, the salt-air tang of the wind blowing off the water, the 400 thread-count linen sheets on the king-sized bed—you should also look for details of body language to layer onto your characters.

In setting scenes, writers are encouraged to incorporate all five senses in order to make the place itself feel real. It’s good advice, but why stick with just five senses? Why not add the whole other realm of sensations—emotional ones—that body language conveys so effectively? Try it, and see how much more vivid your settings become.

September 14, 2009 23:51 UTC

Tags: character, body language, emotions, settings, dialogue, details, show don't tell, senses

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What have I been up to lately? Lessons in blog management.

As I haven’t updated the blog in more than a week, I thought I should say a quick something about what I’ve been doing. It has been a busy week in the life of yours-truly.

I’ve had the usual nibbles and inquries from new clients, which is great. And I’ve been working on client projects. No earth-shattering news there.

What I’ve been doing with my blog-time, though, is making some improvements to the blog code itself. Some of them are for your benefit, some are for the benefit of my fellow blogger friends, and some are back-end stuff that only I care about.

Features for you: I added an archive section to the sidebar, to give you easy month-by-month access to past articles. Along with that, I limited the main blog page to only show the past 10 articles, which means the page will load faster. Yes, there will be some overlap between the most-recent-ten posts and some of the archive links, but I don’t see how that’s actually a problem.

The other thing I did for my readers was to add a simple comment formatting system. The blog should do a pretty decent job, now, of properly rendering your comments as you wrote them. Blank lines signal the start of new paragraphs, and you can use asterisks and underscores around stuff you want to be bold and italic, respectively. I’ll probably add other features as time goes on.

Lesson learned—presentation matters. It’s hard to express oneself without at least basic facilities to dictate not just what you say but how it looks. This is necessary to enable readers to engage in real dialogue in the comments, which is the whole point of allowing comments in the first place.

Features for fellow bloggers: Well, just one feature. I added a blog roll to the sidebar, containing some of the other good writing blogs I follow. If you have suggestions for blogs that ought to be on that list, by all means add them in the comments. I am going to try to keep the blog roll to a reasonable size, though, so probably only the top ten blogs I follow will make this list.

Lesson learned—reciprocity matters. You have to publicly recognize the good work of others before it’s at all fair to hope others will recognize your own good work.

Features for me: I’m using the same auto-formatting code for blog articles themselves as for the comments, which will make it faster and easier for me to write the articles. That’s a good thing. Also, I revamped my comment moderation feature, so it will be easier for me to deal with spammers and trolls (not that any of you would do that, surely, but it pays to be prepared). Along with that, I added a Terms of Use link way down at the bottom of the sidebar.

Lesson learned—efficiency matters. The easier I make it for myself to update the blog, delete spam comments, et cetera, the more likely I am to actually do it.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to this past week. I haven’t been blogging, but I have been busy. I’m hoping to return to the regular schedule of twice-weekly articles, but we’ll see what fun surprises life can throw at me to mess up that plan...

Features for fellow bloggers:

September 13, 2009 22:50 UTC

Tags: meta, blog

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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How to pick the right point of view for your novel

In this article I’m going to give you some practical, hands-on guidelines for choosing the right point of view (POV) for your novel, a task which is not always as straightforward as it sounds. While I can’t tell you what’s right for your novel—only you can decide that—I can explain the ramifications of each, so you can weigh the pros and cons yourself.

Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. The POV choice is such a deep, fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write.

This isn’t a grammar lesson, so I’m going to assume you know the technical difference between first-person and a third-person POVs. Instead, we’re going to look at the options each one gives for how you present your plot and characters, what kinds of mysteries you can create and preserve, and how well you can establish a connection between the reader and your characters.

Third-person omniscient. This is the classic “God’s eye” view of the world. You are allowed to show the reader anything at any time: thoughts, actions, dialogue, even events where your characters aren’t present. The story is told with no explicit narrator.

Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who all follow their own story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.

However, third-person omniscient is also the emotionally coldest point of view. It is the most distant from your characters. Because third-person can (and often does) skip around from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, it is difficult for readers to form any close emotional ties with the characters.

For books where the plot is the central attraction for readers, third-person omniscient is often the best choice. If your novel doesn’t have much in the way of character arc—if your characters don’t particularly grow or change over the course of the story—then this could well be the way to go.

Third-person limited. Grammatically, this is exactly like third-person omniscient. The only difference is that in third-person limited POV, you channel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show the POV character’s inner thoughts and opinions, you can show what the character sees, hears, and feels. But, you may only show those things. Showing other characters’ thoughts or events the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.

Third-person limited gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between reader and character and is very effective at giving the reader the same experience of the story as the POV character.

Third-person limited is a great choice when you have an essentially linear plot with minimal diversions or side journeys, and a single main character who experiences all the important plot events. Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. This is a good choice for stories where the outer events of your plot matter (that is, you couldn’t get the same effect by switching a plane crash into a train crash, for example), yet those events are closely tied to the character’s inner growth.

First-person. This is when you present one character as the narrator of your story. The character literally relays the story to the reader in present tense as it unfolds, or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.

First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. But, it is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.

Note, harder does not mean better. There are distinct differences between first-person and third-person limited, and each has its place. Because first-person writing involves the main character narrating the story for the reader, it’s not the same presentation of information as in third-person limited.

In either POV, the writer is always in control, but that’s not what a reader perceives. In a first-person story, the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: in first-person writing the narrator can lie to the reader, either by commission or omission. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer conveying the information, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.

A so-called “unreliable narrator” can create very powerful mysteries, especially if in lying to the reader the narrator is really attempting to lie to him or herself. If your story demands a large, surprising reversal somewhere along the line, an unreliable first-person narrator is an effective way to do it.

Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:

First-person plural This is when the book’s narrator is a group, rather than a character, and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Not many books do this, and it’s easy to see why: very few have a premise which permits it. But when done well, it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were part of the collective “we” that’s relating the story.

Second-person. This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.”

Second-person stories are very rare, and I think for good reason. It is far too easy for this to feel like a gimmick than a good writing choice. In fact, the only examples of this style that I can think of offhand are those entirely gimmicky Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. (However, if you know of a literary novel that does this and does it well, please share it down in the comments. I’d like to see it.) In theory, I suppose, this POV would eliminate the emotional distance between the reader and the main character entirely.

Multiple POVs. This is simply when you use the techniques of first-person or third-person limited writing, but apply them to multiple characters in the same book. If you try this at all, make sure you know what you’re doing, and think carefully before violating the guideline that you should only switch between POV characters at a scene break or a chapter break.

Multiple third-person limited would not be much different than good third-person omniscient writing. But multiple first-person writing can be incredibly compelling, because it gives a double-dose of the pure character driven experience that only good first-person writing can do. At present, my favorite example of this is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This should be a case study for anyone who wants to try multiple first-person POVs.

In a nutshell, here’s how to choose the right POV for your story. First, answer these four questions:

  1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?

  2. Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?

  3. How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?

  4. Do you need a large, surprising reversal that an unreliable narrator could create?

Next, evaluate your answers against the criteria I’ve given above. A complex plot forces most novels into third-person omniscient. Other plot structures have more leeway with POV. Plot-driven stories tend towards third-person, while character driven stories tend towards first-person. Close emotional distance argues for third-person limited or first-person. If you want your characters to be more opaque and enigmatic, third-person omniscient is the way to go. If your novel is more experimental, you might want one of the rare, oddball POVs instead.

Choosing the right POV is important, even critical, to the success of your novel. But with the right guidelines in mind, and by asking yourself the right questions, the right answer is usually easy to find.

September 01, 2009 18:22 UTC

Tags: character, emotional distance, first-person, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, multiple first-person, point of view, POV, unreliable narrator, Audrey Niffenegger, Frank Gilbreth, voice

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