Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

Setting the Scene with POV and Two Aliens in a Bar

Ah, the bane of writers everywhere—the joys of “setting the scene”. For the longest time, I admit, I had only the vaguest, unformed idea what that meant. I mean, I knew it was describing a setting or situation in which your characters are placed, but I kind of missed the important part. It’s the describing of a setting or situation where something is about to happen. It is a description that implies conflict and tension.

That critical bit about things getting ready to happen is the hard part, and in my opinion, viewpoint is probably one of the best tools for setting the scene when telling a story. Over and above word choice and setting and dialogue and all those other things we like to harp about when talking about technique and storytelling. Why’s that? Because, in my opinion, all those things come from your point of view.

It may be obvious, but point of view is one of the very first decisions on how to tell a story, so, for completeness sake, lets run down the differences real quick. We’ll keep to 1st and 3rd here as 2nd person is so little and specialized in use that it deserves it’s own post (which you’ll get from Tracy Hickman, so stick around for that!).

With 3rd person, we have the external narrator with varying levels of distance, from omniscient (furthest) to limited (closest) viewpoints. With omniscient, you get the “god” perspective. Objective is through an impartial observer, and limited traps us in the head of one character at a time.

With 1st person, we have an extremely close narration that allows the reader to take on the experiences and personality of the narrator.  The constant use of “I” reinforces this aspect, which makes empathy with the narrator an almost given.

Each has its uses and can be very effective in particular genres and situations.

To be honest, most of us will be doing 3rd person limited or 1st person these days. While omniscient viewpoint works for milieu tales, like Lord of the Rings or Dune where the setting and culture take precedence, it’s gone out of favor over the last few decades. Objective can work, too, but my favorites are when you’re in it with the person your supposed to sympathize with rather than hearing about it from someone else.

The real issue is: the further from the character’s personal viewpoint you get, the less the reader tends to care about them. If your story is about a the setting, like with Dune, distance works. Not so much for a character piece.

So, let’s take our prompt—two aliens walking into a bar.

With a 1st person narrative, obviously, we have to pick a character. For simplicity’s sake, lets pick the human guy sitting alone in the corner who sees our aliens come in together. Say, our human is a drifter with a snarky personality, who’s had dealings with this particular species and tells us right off, they don’t get along. Instant tension. Our drifter gets uncomfortable, keeps his eyes on the newcomers, pushes his glass away and asks for the bill right quick. All the while, we’re getting the narrator’s snarky version of what’s going on. The scene is being set just by having the narrator get antsy in his own personal way. With 1st person, personality is key, and we’ve only got our narrator to tell us how to interpret what’s happening.

Third person gives us a little more leeway. What if the first alien, Bob, is from a culture where public inebriation only happens when someone dies, and there’s a birthday party going on. When he gets into the bar, he starts thinking about the funerals he’s been to. Suddenly, you’ve got tension with what’s actually happening around him and the somber mood he’s now in. Bob gives us information about his people and their ways by how he handles the situation. Maybe he’s upset that he’s mood got soured by the joviality. Maybe he finds humans obscene for using alcohol to celebrate a life rather than a death. Maybe Bob picks our drifter in the corner because of his uncomfortableness, thinking this lone human might agree with him.

Depending on the distance with 3rd person, we could get as particular in limited perspective as with 1st person—Bob’s been dying for a certain beverage, but it’s too sweet for the somber mood he’s now in—or more generalized with Bob’s recount of how his friend accidentally picked a fight with the drifter, if you want go more of an objective viewpoint. Both of these, of course, keep us in Bob’s head, so we open the scene up a bit to things that our drifter might have missed while we were so focused on his pithy turns of phrase. At the same time, we’re not buried under exposition as to why Bob’s people think parties are for the dead, because we’re right with Bob as he experiences things.

With 3rd person omniscient, all bets are off. We can get information from Bob, his friend, the drifter, the bartender, the birthday party-goers. We can learn the history of Bob’s people, the trouble the drifter had with them, probably even a few facts about the bar even the owner didn’t know. We’re also often supplied with what it all means and why its important. We lose much of the detailed personal impressions that our characters might have for more of an overarching view of the point of the scene.

Setting the scene isn’t easy, but picking the right viewpoint from the start, can make it a lot easier in the end. Pick carefully, my friend.



Making the Fear Personal

Over the last month we’ve been looking on the darker side of things, and at the way love and terror go so very well together. And they should, really. They are the most basic and universal of human emotions. They are intertwined and hardwired into our psyches, a part of the survival instinct that keeps our species alive and multiplying. They transcend culture, class, and temperament.

For instance, people feel envy over different things and react to it in different ways. I may never sympathize with someone enraged by some slight or another, even though I may understand it on a logical level. But someone who is terrified?


The funny thing is that, many of us silly humans, seem to still feel that our emotions are unlike anyone else’s. “No one else can understand my heartache or my terror,” we tell ourselves. “They can’t know what I feel. Not really.”

Well, actually, yes, they can. That’s the basis for group therapy, after all, but we do like to feel like we are all the beautiful, unique snowflakes our mothers told us we were, don’t we?

From a writer’s perspective, the universality of these emotions and the vaulted position people like to place their own emotional experiences rather works in our favor. Love and fear are so ingrained in the human psyche that it’s hard to write compelling fiction without tripping over them both while gazing off into the clouds of our imaginations.

Fear is probably the first and most vital of emotions. The need to not get eaten by something big and bad, after all, is the primary instinct of most creatures on this planet. The fear of death, failure, disappointment, loneliness, and pain is prevalent across the fiction board. Fear is the root of tension and plants doubt in every protagonist in just about every book ever written. Small or large, incidental or monstrous, we all recognize the people we’re reading about when their fears are put on the page, and we all hope they overcome their fears somehow, even if (or especially because) we often cannot overcome our own.

At the same time humans are pack animals, and so it’s no surprise that we feel the need to include the binding emotion of love in our stories. The characters don’t necessarily have to be involved in the affair of the century. They simply have to care about something or someone. A character who cares for nothing, is…well…rather boring, to be honest. The anti-hero, Riddick, doesn’t care about anything or anyone when we first meet him in Pitch Black, but it is through his slow turn toward caring for the individuals around him that he becomes human to us, someone to sympathize with. I don’t think anyone could ever say that his caring strays to the romantic—the man is, after all, a psychopath—but his attachments motivate and drive him through multiple films. He changes from a monster himself, into one of us.

Or rather, I should say, his attachments mixed with the inevitable fear of losing those attachments, is what motivates him. It all comes back to the fear in fiction, doesn’t it?  Loving or needing something might be readily recognizable, but it’s the fear of losing those things or of them turning against us, that  really makes it worth reading.

Anytime love and fear end up on a page, we’re using the universal to make a moment personal. We give the readers something almost subconsciously familiar, made interesting by being seen through someone else’s eyes. We show a window into emotional lives that, at first blush, looks nothing like the reader’s, but in actuality uses their personal experiences to pull them further into the story.

We writers often struggle to write something compelling and moving. It’s nice to get a free-bee every so often.

Never Stop Learning

I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve heard people say that some aspect of writing couldn’t be taught. My personal favorite is that you can learn all the technique you want, but you’re either born with the ability to tell a good story, or you’re not. That you can’t learn how to tell a good story.

I personally think that the people who espouse these ideas have either spent entirely too much time dealing with writers who aren’t willing to put the work in, or we’re all a little confused on what, if any, difference there is between technique and telling a good story.

Writing is a craft, after all, and no one’s born a master of any craft.

Of course, we will probably never be utterly fantastic at every aspect of the writing craft. Some have fantastic world-building but a slow plot. Others great characters but not enough setting. Stephanie Meyer, for instance, has long been derided on her writing style, and has even admitted herself that she’s not the best writer, but she’s does a hell of a job weaving emotion into every scene and tugging the heart strings of her readers—which is exactly what her readers want.

The point being, just because you’re not the greatest at something doesn’t mean you’re not a good enough writer to be published. At the same time, ignoring your weaknesses because “it can’t be taught” is a total cop-out, in my opinion.

Like most everyone here, I dream for that day when I’m going about my usual day, doing something boring and what-not, only to happen upon someone reading a book with my name on it. I feel the despair that I’m not quite there yet and hear the clock ticking away the time that means there’s one more day I haven’t achieved my dream. And yes, I’m a realist. I know a good portion of that is fear of putting my work out there, but I also know I’ve still got some serious weaknesses that I need to address.

When I was a teenager, I had a choir instructor who explained that he taught people who were tone-deaf how to sing. It’s in understanding the real root of the problem that allows something like that to happen. With the tone-deaf people, they had to learn how the notes related to each other to be able to figure out how to go from one correct note to another correct note without wandering off, so to speak.

With writing, I think, it’s much the same. If you understand what the real problem is, you can fix it. You just might have to look a bit harder and be a little more creative to get the results you’re looking for.

My personal demon at the moment is plot structure. Something’s always escaped me about how to put one event before another and have it work to engage the reader, move the story forward, and still service the characters.

As a discovery writer, I lean toward minimal effort spent on deep planning before writing. Unfortunately, I’ve been struggling with a few stories that I have come to realize really need to be plotted before I start writing in earnest. So, recently I decided to dedicate a good portion of this year in workshops and classes specifically geared toward pre-writing. Currently, I’m doing David Farland’s online prewriting class at, and while it has done a fantastic job in helping me learn how to plan a novel before I write it, it incidentally  opened my eyes as why plot structure has always eluded me.

For me, there was one exercise in particular that helped me figure out what the real problem was. The idea was to establish circularity between characters in opposition to each other, by writing out how each character reacts to the actions of the other. This forced me to find the cause and effect of the conflict…and suddenly I know how my plot is supposed to work and how the sub-plots interact with it. Suddenly, I get it.

So, that’s my goal for this year, to focus on becoming a better writer by taking my weakness and working to learn how to get better at it.

I refuse to believe that there are things I can’t learn. The only thing I was born with was a love of stories. The writing portion is a work in progress.


How Writing Badly Can Help Your Career

Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? But as I’m sure everyone here knows, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for any aspiring author isn’t really how good their book is. It’s how finished their book is.

After all, you can’t have a business without a product, which is, in our cases, a completed story.

The key is to be productive and with just about everyone I know, one of the biggest obstacles to their productivity (right next to the two hour commute or the kids who can’t seem to do anything without parental help) is that voice in their head that keeps popping up to say, “What are you thinking? That comma’s ruining the emotional thread of this scene!” or “Jeez, this is crap. Let’s go play on the Playstation where it at least feels like I’m accomplishing something.”

A recurring session during the Superstars Writing Seminars is Kevin J. Anderson’s productivity tips (which he is currently covering on his website for NaNoWriMo). This is where I first heard his #3 tip: Dare to Be Bad (At First)…Then Fix It.

And the guy must be on to something because he makes prolific authors look lazy.

Now, I do spend some time prewriting to figure stuff out, for the most part I find my story as I’m writing it. For the longest time, I’d get stuck in that loop that made me want to re-read what I’d already written and tweek the text until I had to force myself to move on to the next scene. And then I gave myself permission to write badly. This was incredibly freeing. Now, when I’m doing a first draft, I can write upwards of 20-25k words a week, knowing that I’m going to edit it like crazy once the first draft is done. They aren’t great words, sometimes they’re downright horrendous, but they come together to form a completed work.

Now, your process might be different. But ask yourself, is your book stalled because you keep going back to that one or two scenes that seem so pivotal but your inner editor keeps telling you it’s just not right and if you don’t fix it now the whole book will fail utterly?

Stop that.

A house builder doesn’t sit there working on the same bathroom for years because they can’t get the shower to the perfect dimensions. They have a whole house to build and if someone isn’t living in it, it has no purpose. The same goes for you. Don’t let a desire to write perfection stop you from finishing the book, because if no one reads it, it also has no purpose.

Once the first draft is done, then you can let your inner editor run amuck…somewhat.

I usually have to step away for a bit before diving in the editing/revision process, otherwise, I’m just polishing the punctuation. Some people go ahead and send it out to alpha readers to get feeback. You’re process should be whatever works for you, but the real key to editing your own work, I think, is honesty.

Yes, that scene in your epic fantasy between the hero and his pet parakeet makes you cry every time, but does it move your story forward? Yes, you skipped that escape scene in your adventure to get to the emotional angst, but is the reader still engaged? Yes, you left out the detailed description of your cyborgs in your SF because it slowed the pacing, but can the reader really understand your world?

They may be you and your critique group’s favorite scenes. They might be hard to write. But if the story and the reader isn’t served, be honest. You’re going to have to fix it. The nice thing is that you’ll probably like the result better.

It’s actually kind of funny how often I tell someone that a scene isn’t working, or the story is missing something, and they say, “Yeah, I was kind of thinking that, too.” If something doesn’t ring true, or a scene doesn’t seem right, don’t wait for someone to remind you of something you already know. This instinct might take some time figuring out on your own, but the only way you’re going to learn how to tell what works and what doesn’t, is to keep writing and reading your genre.

It’s all so much work, I know. But that the difference between a hobbiest and a professional: get the work done, then make it the best you possibly can.

Dare to be bad. Fix it later.