This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.
Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)
Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.
An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:
1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.
Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.
If you’ve been following these essays of mine on craft, there are some basic things about book-writing that you probably know by now:
Novels are about people. This is true even if all your characters are talking bunnies or lovelorn vampires.
99.99% of novels are going to have more than one character.
These individuals will have relationships, which will grow and change over the course of the book.
One of these individuals will stand out. They are the protagonist, or main character (henceforth, MC)
The action of your novel and the behavior of the other people in your story will all move, to some extent, in relation to the journey of your MC.
So far, so good, yes? I hope the above points are blindingly obvious to you all. Here’s a few more:
The long-running trend in fiction in Western fiction is to give MC a significant goal, need or desire: whether it is solving the mystery, battling with cancer, understanding themselves, connecting with an estranged loved one, finding true love, becoming a star, or finishing law school.
Whatever it is, it’s identifiable to readers and deeply important to them.
Whatever that need is, whether they will succeed in fulfilling ought to be in question. “I was looking for a job and then, no problem, I found a job,” isn’t a novel. (“I was looking for a job and then, holy @#$@! you wouldn’t believe what happened…” on the other hand…)
The MC has some good qualities and some bad ones. Not every MC is a saint, or even necessarily nice. However, they have some quality that makes the reader interested enough to stick with them for 500+ pages: they are, to reference a previous essay, funny, smart or nice.
The MC makes an appearance early in the book, in a way that makes it clear that they are the one.
Finally, there’s that dreaded character change thing: traditional Western novel structure tends to go thusly: the MC’s flaws get in the way of achieving their goal, and then when they overcome those flaws (if they do), they either get what they wanted or find they have grown beyond it.
How does a reader know when they’ve met the main character? If you aren’t sure, rewatch a few minutes of a favorite movie this week, one you know well. Keep the media remote in your hand and pause whenever an important character appears for the first time. Ask yourself: if I hadn’t already seen this, would I think they’re the protagonist? How do you know? Notice how they look, what they say, what they do. How are they lit? What’s the camera angle like? The music? At the end of each such scene, take a moment to think about what you learned about this character. What stuck, in other words?
(This is worth doing with all the major characters, even after you’ve met the protagonist.)
Then watch just a little more, briefly considering those characters who were too minor to rate this treatment. In general, they probably weren’t named, and didn’t draw much attention to themselves. If someone isn’t important to the flow of the story, a writer will probably ‘dial down’ their entries and exits from the narrative, to ensure that the reader’s consciousness doesn’t snag on them. We don’t want our audiences focused on Hill the maid when we’re reading about whether Miss Elizabeth Bennett will accept Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal.
Beginning writers sometimes throw their MC into a first scene with nothing but a first name, and perhaps a wisp of physical description. These poor ciphers then move into the plot without ever giving us much sense of themselves as individuals. Establishing who a character is-taking a second to give us some telling detail that makes them unique, memorable and worth knowing-doesn’t have to take thousands of words. It is, however, an entirely worthwhile effort.
How do you do it? Start by noticing what is distinctive about everyone in your lives. Is it a physical trait, an incident in their past, a situation they’re in? (A person with a South Carolina accent isn’t unique in South Carolina . . . but move them to Vancouver, B.C., and they suddenly become exotic.) Are they addicts? Achievers? Disabled? Sociopathic? Colorblind?
What ‘s the first thing you’d say about these individuals if you were talking to a third party? And hey–what would you say it if they weren’t present to defend themselves? What would you say at their eulogy?
Those are the details we desperately want whenever you’re introducing us to an important character, especially if they’re your MC. You aren’t making a film: you can’t cue the audience with music or other non-linguistic cues, but the idea is the same. Take some time. Shine some light on them. Show how they’re special.
But wait! What if the MC of your hyper-realistic novel is totally, completely, utterly, boringly normal?
First, I’d ask: Are they really? I believe everyone is unique, that they have some trait that makes them stand out from the crowd. See how many times you can complete the following sentence, drawing on the real-life people you’ve met:
S/he is completely ordinary, except for _______________________________.
If you’ve got a book on the go, have a look at your MC, paying particular attention to their first entrance into your novel. Have you taken a moment or two to give us a sense of who they are? Do they get the spotlight, or are they passing through the story, all but invisibly? Are they talking heads, devoid of anything but voice?
If so, dress them up. Give them a little love. Get them dirty. Remember, if you are passionate about your characters, readers will be, too.
(Dessert – Katya’s non-profit marketing blog on telling details.)
Unless you have been living in seclusion up until now, actively avoiding all forms of writing advice and instruction, you should have encountered the phrase Show, don’t Tell. The question of writing in scenes, (rather than simply summarizing some character action) falls under this Show, don’t Tell umbrella.
(If you want the larger picture on this idea of Show, here are links to a couple excellent entry points:
http://fictionmatters.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-workshop-show-vs-tell.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell )
For the moment, though, I’m going to home in on the idea of scene writing for two reasons:
- In my reading of hundreds of student manuscripts, I have found that the most frequent beginner problem I encounter is writers who summarize the key moments of a story, rather than dramatizing them.
- It is my passionate belief that summaries are almost never stories: they do not succeed artistically or commercially. It may not feel entirely comfortable at first, but if you are serious about learning to write fiction, you must learn to write in scenes rather than just implying that they’re happening.
Let me start, first, by addressing a question that will inevitably arise in some of your minds: do I mean that you should never summarize–that every single word of your manuscript should be devoted to real-time action? Of course not. Quick mentions of certain types of story information can be revealed to readers if they meet a few criteria.
- They must be important enough to merit inclusion at all–in other words, they are not so trivial that they ought to be cut.
- They’re simple details, things that can be conveyed fast and elegantly.
Here are some examples of perfectly legitimate “tell” sentences:
- She wrestled with the question of clothing and settled for her most conservative suit. (This shows “she” has a meeting, but isn’t quite sure to expect.)
- Dithering about which route to take made him late. (The dithering doesn’t matter; the tardiness is what is important).
- Ma’s attitude when she saw him off was frosty; there would be a scene at dinner. (This is a promise to the reader that there will be some conflict, onstage, at suppertime.)
- They had spent six years competing for a promotion… (Obviously you aren’t gong to play out all six years of cut and thrust. Equally obvious, I hope, is that whatever is happening now is the key moment in that conflict.)
- He had bluffed his way through the last bounced chck, and sweet-talked that collections guy yesterday. (Here what’s established is past character action, setting up what is probably going to be a failed attempt to get away with it the third time.)
See how each of the above examples is setting up some action to come? The meeting, an event that some poor fellow is late arriving to, a parent-child fight in the evening, work conflict, and so on? Summaries of this sort can be used to get readers to the meat of the story–the important thing. And that important thing–to belabor the obvious–is the scene.
Contrast the above sentences with ones where the quickly-referenced action is obviously important:
- She wore her most conservative suit to the meeting. . . and everyone showed up naked, causing her considerable embarrassment.
- They had a relationship-shattering argument about which fork in the road to take.
- Everything he had fought for for six years came crashing down in flames when Ms. Jones brought the stolen Powerpoint presentation to the meeting. Nobody believed it was his work. She got the promotion and he got fired.
The above examples describe pivotal events within your conflict–events that should unfold as we read. We want to hear every word of that relationship-breaking fight, and be there in the room when ‘she’ is the only person there in clothes.
What are the characteristics of implied scenes?
- Generally, they are short.
- They reference character interaction but have little or no dialogue.
- They address important choices, character actions, or conflict in a few sentences.
- They may tell us what characters are doing or feeling, using s/he felt, s/he thought, or I verbed-type sentence structures.
- They have little in the way of sensory detail or setting description.
- In tone, they may sound a bit like a somewhat dull book written for younger readers.
Here’s a somewhat longer example based on a classic horror situation:
Halfway there, they argued about which fork in the road to take. Bob favored the shortcut; Jane wanted to stay on the road clearly marked on the map. Bob teased her for being scared of the short-cut, which was creepy looking. Feeling embarrassed and hurt, Jane let him have his way.
The first thing to notice about this fork in the road tiff is that it is a plot point. Obviously, this choice is going to have consequences further into the story. (If it doesn’t, then the whole thing is a waste of a paragraph.)
Second, there’s character conflict going on in it, which is potentially interesting.
The third is how little we learn from the above passage. The fork is described as creepy. Jane is sensible but a bit wimpy, and Bob is, perhaps, a bit mean.
Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not bad. Anyone who’s seen a few crime dramas or suspense/horror films can easily fill in the blanks, right? This scene always plays out the same way.
But you aren’t writing, I hope, simply to encourage our audiences to cobble together a story out of remembered bits of their late night TV viewing. You want to put them in the car with the quarrelling couple. You want to raise the hairs on the backs of their neck when Jane peers down the shortcut. Maybe you even want to play against their expectations.
So how do you do that. . . especially if you are still trying to get comfortable with scene writing?
Step One: Talk it Out. This may seem awkward the first few times you try it, but the simplest, most mechanical approach for getting into scenewriting is to start with dialogue–write it like a script for a radio play.
Bob: Hey, there’s the shortcut I mentioned.
Jane: It’s not on the GPS.
Bob: Come on, I know where I’m going.
Jane: My experience with shortcuts is they take longer and the roads are worse.
Bob: Who was going 90 a minute ago? You said being late would be a disaster. Why are we late now? Because you hit the speed trap.
Jane: Exactly. Haste makes waste. Going off road now, down some. . . there aren’t any lights or signs.
Bob: Honey, it’s daytime.
Jane: For now. And look, up there . . .
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
Jane: Gopher? That carcass is huge! Whatever it is, it probably would show up on satellite.
Bob. And it stinks, granted, but if you’d just put it in the rear view…
Jane: Fine, have it your way!
My point with the above example isn’t that it has the depth and subtlety of Shakespeare. What the above does have going for it is conflict and immediacy–it is playing out as we read it, in other words. Even without description, dialogue tags or action, it is already more specific than the summary.
Left with the summary and informed by the tropes of television and cinema, a typical reader will put the man in the driver’s seat and set the stage at twilight or night. Instead, we have a brightly sunlit strip of road with a mangled corpse of some unknown, largish animal on it. What’s more, the woman arguing against the short cut is literally in the driver’s seat. If they take the ‘bad’ fork, the responsibility rests with Jane, not just Bob. For good or ill, just putting words in our characters’ mouths has moved at least a few paces away from standard Hollywood fare.
Step Two: Flesh it out. Writing just the dialogue for a scene puts the characters onstage and gives you the bones of the conflict; now fill in the rest. This isn’t a radio play, after all, it’s prose fiction. So start with those details that aren’t delivered elegantly in conversation.
Let’s tweak a couple lines.
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
“Gopher?” Jane said. “That carcass is huge! ”
She was right–in fact, whatever it was was probably big enough to pick up on satellite. A deer? Moose? Bear? Hair and hamburger, warming in the sun, and all of it obscured by a shifting murder of crows. . . Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s make up our minds one way or the other, okay? Whatever it is, the smell’s getting in the car.”
What have I done here?
I’ve added dialog tags, correct punctuation, a little description and some sensory details: namely fur, birds and stench. If I was to go through the entire scripted conversation, making the same changes, I’d have transformed this exchange from a summarized bit of action into the fully realized scene it obviously wants to be.
Make sense? Want to add your own two bits? You know what to do.
As of today, I still have two or three slots available in my upcoming UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, which has the unwieldy name of: Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way. The course description can be found here, and this is the syllabus, subject to last-minute tweaks.
The weekly discussion questions in the syllabus should give you a good idea of how we’ll go about the workshop: I want to put your book under a microscope in a directed fashion, so each week we focus on a specific aspect of your storytelling: the setting, the prose, the characters, the plotting. The idea is to ensure that all the likely points of writing success or failure get looked at, with each book.
The other important thing to consider about me as an instructor is that I am friendly to all genres. Put in the simplest of terms: I don’t consider science fiction to be either superior to or inferior to something like literary fiction, or paranormal romance, or splatterpunk. I will read each book with care and respect, whether or not it’s something I’d buy for pleasure reading. I expect my students to learn to separate what they prefer–the stuff they like to read, in other words–from the issue of bad or good writing. This is more easily said than done. It takes practice… but I also think it’s important.
Someone always asks, so I’ll say up front: It is totally okay to register for Novel II without taking Novel I as long as you already have a good idea of what you’ll be writing. Novel I is essentially a book development class that takes you through the process of building the groundwork for a book: figuring out setting, choosing a protagonist, working through a basic outline of their journey. If you’ve done that and are ready to write fifty pages, or if you’ve written that much already and are ready to write fifty more, you can take this class.
I’m teaching Novel III next quarter… for that, you do need Novel II.
Needless to say, I’m not the only game in town at UCLA–there are dozens of great courses, dealing with the long form and the short, in prose, poetry and in screenwriting. If you’re looking for a course this winter, you can probably find something delightful and challenging in our catalog.
Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll be happy to answer them.
My Spring 2011 Novel III class starts up next Wednesday and it’s about a fifty/fifty mix of students I’ve had in earlier classes and people I’ve never met before. It’ll be interesting to see what that’s like: half the projects will be new to me, and the others will be novels I’ve looked at quite closely.
One of the things I do with these classes is sift useful links from the flow of the Twitternets and other places and post them as guest lectures. Some are so valuable that I post them pretty much every time . . . which means they’ll be reruns for the folks who’ve taken my fall class.
I thought, for the sake of interest, I’d look at the links I considered postworthy last quarter. There’s a lot of them, and some were things I looked up as discussions progressed, so if it feels like the context is lacking, that’s why. There’s some interesting stuff here, and you all know a lot came up in the past quarter that could have gone on the list too, but this is what ended up hitting my classroom. Feel free to propose your faves in comments.
Scott Edelman – fifteen minute video, “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing”
Juliette Wade – Character-driven approach to kissing and sex scenes
Jay Lake – Producing Story
Kay Kenyon – The Mush Factor
Jon Sprunk – The Journey from Seedling to Bookshelf
Jane Friedman – You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!
Sonya Chung – Writing Across Gender (This essay quotes the sex scene from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, so maybe don’t read it at work.)
Chuck Wendig – Storytelling and the Art of Sadness
Three from Cat Rambo – Three strategies for snaring the senses, Five things to do in your first three paragraphs, and Why Titles Matter.
Nicola Griffith – Narrative Grammar – An Exercise
Suzannah Windsor Freeman – Seven Tasks to Bridge your First and Second Drafts
Joe McKinney – Rules for Writing about Cops
Revision and editing
Jan Winburn – How to Edit Your Way to a Can’t-Miss Story (be sure to check out the slide show.)
June Casagrande – More Parsing Larsson
Marketing Books / The Publishing Industry:
Query Shark Blog –
Anna Kashina – Interview with editor Peter Stampfel
Charlie Stross – How Books are Made
Christina Thompson – How to Write a Book in Ten Easy… Years?
J.E. Fishman – Twelve Common Miscperceptions about Book Publishing
Stina Leicht – On Agents
YA Fantasy Guide – Interview with Agent Sarah Megibow
Colleen Lindsay – Word counts for fiction, all kinds of fiction
The ever-changing state of self and e-pubbing:
John Scalzi – ePubbing Bingo Card
James Maxey – Pouring Cold Water on Kindle-ing
Eli James – The Very Rich Indie Writer
Tonya Plank – Meet Amanda Hocking
Book View Cafe
Turning Research into Narrative
Steve Pinker – Ten minute video on Language as a window into human nature
Yasmine Galenorn – Research Notebook from Hell
Life as a Writer
Finally, two from John Scalzi – “Writers have as much (financial) sense as chimps on crack“, and a tough love link on work habits.