Category Archives: POV

Showing through Point of View

peepIn my early writing I struggled with Point of View. I recently reread one of the first chapters I had written where I switched point of view seven times. I improved to the point where POV wasn’t my main fault, instead it was telling the story rather than showing it.

I’ve since learned that POV can be an extremely effective tool to help show the story. Allowing our characters to experience and react to the circumstances in which we place them, helps to endear the reader, reinforce the scene, and establish conflict.

Junic sat beside his friend facing the numerous rows of bottles and tins, the best the seven galaxies had to offer. His mouth watered. He hadn’t tasted liquor since the invasion of Gareth, four years earlier.

Hopefully in the few sentences above, the reader gets a glimpse at the premise of the story based on the prompt “two aliens walked into a bar.” 

In developing my main character, Junic, I assigned him a foreign sounding name to help with the suggestion that he isn’t from modern day USA. From his point of view we see that he is sitting next to a friend, and there are rows of bottles, perhaps in a cellar, maybe a bar, but then tins doesn’t quite work with that image so it adds to the foreignism of the scene.

Junic obviously knows what’s in the bottles and the scene isn’t foreign to him at all. I can use that to invite the reader to trust me as I create and show them a world.

The term seven galaxies might reinforces the alien setting, while adding an element to the world. I indicate here that there is a social structure, a system of which Junic is a part. I could let him react to that structure at some point, maybe identify his place in the caste system or have him react to authority. I can use adjectives to indicate his mood or elaborate on his thoughts. Such as the “blasted” seven galaxies or magnificent, or heathen, or doomed. Each could indicate more of the world and setting and any would give us further insight into our character.

“His mouth watered.” A human response, if Junic is human or humanlike, I really hadn’t thought that far ahead, however his response is relatable. Often with physical reactions like a tear, a yawn, a scratch of the head, and so on, a memory is provoked. The scene causes Junic’s mouth to water and he thinks of the last time he tasted what was in those bottles.

SecretIn the Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mary Lennox (a proper British name) is introduced in a scene given from her point of view.

‘“Why did you come?” she said to the strange woman. “I will not let you stay. Send my Ayah to me.”’

From this short dialogue we learn a bit about Mary and her world. Adjectives should be representative of the point of view. The woman was strange to Mary, unknown. She wanted to see her Ayah. At this point I’m not sure if that is a person or a position. Either way, Mary seems to want Ayah, and by her demanding response to this woman gives the sense that Mary is or at least thinks she is in charge.

Later it reads

“There was something mysterious in the air that morning. Nothing was done in its regular order and several of the native servants seemed missing, while those whom Mary saw slunk or hurried about with ashy and scared faces. But no one would tell her anything and her Ayah did not come.”

I get the sense that tragedy has occurred, though I’m not sure yet what it is. By now in the story I can tell that I’m seeing the world from the eyes of young girl, and discovering the tragedy with her. Another adjective, “scared” sticks out to me. Children can perceive fear. She’s observing them, trying to figure out what’s going on by gauging their reactions. I gain a sense that the young girl is spoiled and depends greatly on her Ayah, that I suspect as being some sort of nanny. My opinion of Mary develops and adds to the conflict. Her attitude is reflected in the point of view, in her dialogue and in her actions.

hungerThe following is a piece of dialogue from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

‘”You look beautiful,” says Prim in a hushed voice.

‘”And nothing like myself,” I say. I hug her, because I know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first reaping. She’s about as safe as you can get since she’s only entered once. I wouldn’t let her take out any tesserae. But she’s worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.’

In just a few sentences I’m introduced to two characters, I gain a sense of their feelings, I am shown a glimpse into their society, and am invited into a world, foreign to me, but known to them.

Being in first person, I’m drawn to the mind and feelings of Katniss the main character. Be careful in first person to not be too revealing and telling.

Through dialogue I gather that Katniss is beautiful, but is out of her element from being prettied up. Maybe she’s a tomboy. I also sense that there is apprehension in the scene. The adjective hushed suggests a somberness to the ambiance. And a hug for comfort suggests something bad is about to happen.

I’m curious about the reaping. I know what it means in english, but have never heard it referred to as a repeated event, so it must be a part of their culture, perhaps a rite of passage. Reading this I’m not sure what tesserae is, but Katniss does. I don’t need to know what it is right this minute. In my earlier writing I would feel the need to explain a new term (tell) rather than let it be discovered as its mentioned in certain contexts and reinforced (show). I assume that the reaping is some custom of their system with negative consequences. Using these terms helps show me Katniss’ world.

Whatever story you’re reading, take note how the author uses point of view to invite you into the world, develop the setting, and endear the reader. And for some practice, try your hand at the prompt, “two aliens walk into a bar.” Feel free to share it with us in the comments.

 

The Right Voice for a Dick

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 * * *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.

barchart

 

Q.

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.

 

 

There Are Ruts…

So the theme for September’s posts is supposed to be about getting out of the rut, or taking it to the next level. Well, there are ruts, and there are ruts.

There are the ruts where the well has run dry, and the words are not flowing. Judith Tarr talks about those times here. As it happens, I know exactly what she is talking about. I’ve been there, recently; I’ve felt those feelings; I’ve known the grief. I was very fortunate to come out of it after a year and a half, but even now I have not finished recovery to where I used to be. I’m not going to rehash Judith’s article. She does a much better job of discussing the issue than I ever would. But I will say this: if you are in that place, or if you ever find yourself in that place, know that there have been good writers—some of them very good writers, indeed—who have been in that same place, and eventually came out of it. You’re not alone. And it can be done. But it will take time; it will take perseverance; and you may have to change some things about you, about your surroundings, or about the company you keep to come out of it. Your true friends will support you, but only you can make those choices and walk that walk.

I could stop there, and have an article worth posting, I think.

But I actually want to talk about another kind of rut in which we as writers can sometimes find ourselves.

Do you ever feel that you’re growing stale? I mean, have you ever stopped in the middle of writing a story or a novel and realized that you’re not having fun; that you’re not excited about what you’re doing; that as B. B. King would sing, “The thrill is gone, baby…”?

Sometimes when that happens, it’s the normal and almost inevitable result of working in the middle of a long project where you’ve dug yourself into the hole but you’re not entirely sure yet that it’s going to turn into a tunnel. And the only solution for that is to simply keep putting out the words until you get through the middle and can see the progress that’s been made. Perseverance, in other words. That’s actually one of the most important tools in our writer’s toolkits; the ability to keep plugging away at a project until it’s completed, no matter how long it takes.

But other times that may be the back of your mind saying, “Dude, this is a whole lot like the last story you wrote. Can’t you write something different?”

Now formulas and templates for writing fiction have been around for generations. Most popular children’s series during the early and middle 20th Century were very rigidly formula based. And I can point you to a few series of fantasy and science fiction even within the last generation or so that have done that. And those series have their fans, who seem to like that each new story or each new novel seems to follow predictably the outline of the previous works.

But for writers, especially writers who want to grow in their craft and strive for art, I suspect that falling into the formula rut is absolutely one of the worst things we can do. It might make us money, but we won’t continue to grow or develop as writers as long as we’re in that rut.

Have I been there? Yep. Do I have some thoughts about how to get out of the rut? Yep, and here they are:

1. Make yourself use a different narrative style. If you’re consistently a third-person limited viewpoint writer, write something in first person. Or vice-versa, as the case may be. That may shake up the way you view characters and characterization.

2. Make yourself write something with a different story construction. If your previous works have all been single-thread-of-continuity stories, try writing a story with multiple story lines running in parallel. To really challenge yourself, you should make them non-interrelating until the end. Pull that one off, and you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment. This will also widen your thinking on plotting.

3. Make yourself write something in a different genre, or at least a different sub-genre. After writing several of what amounted to comedies of manners with romantic overtones, I actually had a friend challenge me to write something different. So after thinking about it, I started writing a series of police procedural stories. Wow, did that stretch me! Although I’m a moderate fan of mysteries and procedurals, learning to write them really taught me things about characterization and plotting that I had never considered before.

4. If you’re primarily a novelist, try writing shorter works. Challenge yourself to write something good under 5000 words. When you succeed at that, challenge yourself to write something good under 2000 words. Then try under 1000 words. That’s barebones storytelling. Every single word has to be weighed in the balance as to whether it’s really necessary to tell the story. You’ll learn discipline from that one. I have exactly one 2000 word story that I think works. I have yet to manage a 1000 word story that I think is good. I keep trying.

5. And if you’re primarily a short work author, try writing a novel. You may or may not like it, but it will force you to consider plotting and world-building issues that just don’t arise in a 7000 word story or a 12,000 word novelette.

I have a novel coming out from Baen Books on October 1, entitled 1636: The Devil’s Opera. It’s a collaboration with Eric Flint. And I’m convinced that I could never have written that story without having put myself through 2, 3, and 4 above.

You want to be a better writer? Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone, and write things you never imagined you’d write.