Showing Who’s On First

Sad to say, my comment moderating continues. The spammers may be bots, because they don’t seem to realize that their comments aren’t being published. As soon as the flow slows to a trickle, I’ll return the blog to normal. In the meanwhile, I’ll approve your posts as quickly as I can–and so sorry when there’s delay!

Way back in 2016, on August 7, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you show instead of tell in first person? I find it easy in third–in fact, sometimes I have to go back and add a telling sentence here or there. But whenever I try to write in first person and get into the character’s voice, they just seem to want to tell for pages and pages and never get into showing the story.

Emma replied, I agree that showing in first person is difficult. Here’s an example:

Telling: I took the sword in hand.
Showing: I slid my hand onto the grip of my blade, clenching my fist around it. I could feel my knuckles going white around the cold metal.

I, personally, don’t think telling in first person should be done all the time, because it makes a character sound a bit unrealistic or look like his thinking is very dramatic. The reason it may seem difficult to show in first person is because it sounds the most plausible and realistic for a character in first person to just tell what they’re doing. In third person, it sounds more plausible to show because it’s like the narrator is describing what’s going on. In first person, the narrator is the one doing the action, and therefore doesn’t have to describe what’s being done– he just does it. Does that make sense? So that’s my version of why it’s harder to show in first person. I’ve found that spending an hour of my afternoon describing to myself what I’m doing (i.e. I carefully selected the orange marker from the glass jar to my left. I combed the strand of hair out of my face, using the mirroring surface of the jar to see my reflection.) has been a good exercise to do to get both the showing and the first person juices flowing.

Great suggestion!

Before I start, if you don’t recognize the reference in this post’s title, it comes from an Abbot and Costello routine, which you can google with “Who’s on First skit.” It’s very funny.

I think of my first-person narrator as the every-person of my tale. She’s the reader’s window into my story: the action, setting, other characters, dialogue. Yes, she has a personality and a perspective, which the reader learns through her thoughts and feelings, but she reveals what’s going forward fairly. She’s a lot like a third-person narrator.

So one strategy might be to write a scene in third person and then translate it into first, making as few changes as we can. Then we can ask ourselves if we’ve put in enough of the inner life of our MC, especially her thoughts, feelings, physical responses–like cold hands and a scratchy throat, which, by the way, are showing. We can add those in, and, voila!, we have a believable first-person narration.

Naturally, the two POVs will feel different as we write them, and we’ll inevitably (and correctly) make some different choices as we write.

After doing this for a few scenes, we’ll likely have the knack and can start writing directly in first-person. But if the technique comes slowly, making the change isn’t that time-consuming. More than once, I’ve had person problems and have had to make this switch for an entire manuscript–300-plus pages. Doesn’t take that long, and when the task is over, the pain fades.

Our first-person MC may trap us into over explaining. (Of course, we’ve let her.) She may push us to tell the reader the lead-up to everything. If, for example, her friend Sam behaves badly at a party, she may justify his actions with a digression of telling in which she goes into his past and her reasons for putting up with him. If we start in third person, we may not even be tempted. If we start in first, we can cut the digression when we revise. His bad behavior can just be what it is. If there’s a plot reason for going into its backstory, we can work that in at an appropriate story moment. By then, with luck, our showing has told part of the story, and the reader has already seen why his friendship is worth it.

Some writers take on an unreliable narrator. If we do this, at some point we have to clue the reader in that all isn’t as it seems. In this case, the telling and the showing are very controlled, and in a way the reader becomes part of the story, teasing out truth and falsehood. The only times I’ve done this were at a couple of points in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie herself is confused. She becomes unreliable because she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

If I have a reason to, I’d like to write an unreliable narrator someday, but I expect it will be tricky. In a way, with an unreliable narrator, it’s all telling, because she’s selective about her revelations.

I also haven’t written a first-person narrator with a quirky voice. In my two mysteries, my MC Elodie often says and thinks her favorite exclamation–lambs and calves!–but beyond that, her voice is neutral. I don’t mean that a quirky voice can’t be fabulous. I admire writers who can pull it off, I’m just saying that it can get in the way when we want our story to simply unfold, when we want, mostly, to show. So there’s another strategy: keep our first-person voice straightforward and unembellished.

Another first-person problem that can get in the way of showing is that our POV character may have an opinion about everything and want to share it. A royal wedding is announced, she starts opining about marriage, and the action grinds to nothing. We can let her rip and then trim when we revise.

As an aid to showing, we can remind ourselves that she’s in the scene that’s unfolding and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. We can simply record step-by-step what occurs as it happens, just as a third-person narrator does.

Finally, if third-person is more comfortable, it’s an honorable choice. We can use limited (as opposed to omniscient) third person interchangeably with first. We won’t have failed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take this from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and rewrite it in first person:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

∙ Our MC is going nuts. Pick a setting for the descent into madness. Write it entirely in third person, without any of his thoughts and feelings, but show what’s happening anyway.

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!

 

The Establishment

For any of you who can get to Long Island, New York, on Saturday, November 14th, I’ll be speaking and signing at 2:00 at the Longwood Public Library, 800 Middle Country Road in Middle Island. I’d love to meet you!

For those of you who: are eighteen or will be by next fall, are writing for children or young adults, and can get to New Jersey for a one-day conference, I want to mention the one at Rutgers University, where I mentor every year. You have to apply, I think by April. People who are accepted are paired with a mentor who is either an editor, agent, or published kids’ book writer. Most of the mentors are editors and agents. I’m one of the few writers. I met my agent at this conference many years ago. I encourage you to apply. The website is http://ruccl.org/about one-on-one plus.html, and information for next year will be posted soon. If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself to me.

On July 16, 2015, Mikayla wrote, I have a new idea that I want to work on, and I already know that two points of view are required for it. What I’m struggling with is knowing when to switch POVs (or, to begin, when to introduce the second character). How many chapters is a good average to have? And how many to establish the first character before switching?

There are exceptions to everything, and anything goes if it does go, but in general, it is best to start anything major early. For example, if we’re writing contemporary fantasy set in an ordinary place, say Trenton, New Jersey, but there’s going to be a dragon in our story, we should bring it in early or our reader may feel unprepared and may even refuse to accept our creature. In the case of a dragon I’d say the first page isn’t too soon and after the first chapter may be too late. The dragon doesn’t have to appear in person then, necessarily, but it should at least be hinted at.

In the case of a POV switch, I’d say Chapter One for the first POV and Chapter Two for the second. That’s what I did in Ever, and the two POV characters alternate chapters for the whole book although I don’t think we have to be as consistent as that. Once the reader knows that there will be more than one POV, we don’t need to stay regular, but we do have to make sure the reader knows whose head she’s in. In my mystery, Stolen Magic, which is written in limited third person, I shift POV among my three main characters, but the default character is the dragon detective’s assistant, Elodie. She has the POV whenever she’s around. The other characters take over only in her absence. The POV shifts aren’t regular, but I don’t think they shock the reader.

As for establishing an MC, I don’t think that happens quickly, so we don’t have to wait before introducing a second MC. They can even both be introduced at once. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is the narrator. The reader gets to know Holmes through Watson and to know Watson, to a large degree, through how Holmes reacts to him and what he says about his assistant. The two happen simultaneously.

Harking back to our outliner/pantser discussion, you outliners may invent your characters as part of the preparation process. You may work through your outlines and create character descriptions before you start the actual writing. But for this pantser, I discover my characters as I go along.

But regardless of which method we use, the reader develops an understanding of the MCs as the story moves along. Sometimes, most of a story can be over before the reader has a full understanding of an MC. I’m remembering Little Women and my astonishment when Jo falls for Professor Baer. I had no idea she could love such a settled and, to my thinking, unromantic man. And Amy and Laurie! But their preferences were part of their personalities that were revealed late in the story. I don’t think Louisa May Alcott changed them suddenly to make her plot work.

In my historical novel, Dave at Night, I, pantser that I am, didn’t find out that Dave is a budding artist until Dave did, in an art class. And, when I found out, I had no idea how his talent would play out in my story.

Of course our characters have to be distinctive, and of course we establish them from the first moment our reader meets them. How does that happen?

Last weekend when I was mentoring. I saw only five pages of my mentee’s book, but she did a splendid job of beginning her characterization. In the first half of the first page I found out that the MC is very attached to her father, because she’s distressed that he failed to wake her up before leaving on a business trip, which told me as well that she has strong feelings. Just like me, our reader will be eager for clues to each character and will start assembling a complex personality.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I begin with Addie’s fears. In Dave at Night, Dave begins by telling the reader what a trouble-maker he is. So if we start firmly in our MC’s head, he can introduce himself by narrating about what’s most important to him. Oh, the reader thinks, that’s what this character cares about.

That’s just one way. We can start with dialogue to give the reader a taste of our MC’s voice and his relationships. Or action, in which our MC reveals his response to a situation or demonstrates how he creates a situation.

For example, let’s take the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” We’re starting the story at night. A poor, drugged prince sleeps in an adjoining room, and the princesses are about to descend to the enchanted lake and their enchanted princes. Our MC is right in the middle, the fifth eldest princess. I’ll call her Maisie. How can we introduce her to the reader?

Through her thoughts. She can wonder if the prince next door is really out cold. The reader discovers that she’s careful, maybe a bit of a worrier.

Does she act on her worry? Maybe she does. The prince is asleep, but the casement window in his room is wide open. Worried again, she closes it, because April nights get cold. The reader understands that she’s kind. Or, she closes it because she doesn’t want an outside noise to wake him up. Not particularly kind, but very thorough.

Or, though she’s worried she doesn’t check on him because she knows delay will infuriate her oldest sister, and she’s scared of her sister’s rage. Failure to act is acting too. The reader learns something else, which is likely to be developed further.

So we have her think and act. We can have her say something too, to her sisters or to the sleeping prince, so the reader will discover how she expresses herself in dialogue.

The sisters descend the staircase. Maisie puts the prince-sleep worry out of her mind. Or, the sisters descend the staircase, and Maisie can’t get the prince out of her mind. Her enchanted prince will know something is troubling her. Whichever she does, the reader accumulates more data.

At this point, we probably haven’t written more than a page or two, but Maisie is taking shape. If our second POV character is her enchanted prince, we can certainly let him take over in the next chapter.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the scene I’ve described. Decide what Maisie does with the prince in the next room and reveal what she thinks and does.

∙ Write the next scene, narrated by Maisie’s enchanted prince or any other character you’d like to have take over.

∙ Aladdin, in his eponymous fairy tale, has always seemed a nonentity to me. Things are done to him and for him. If you know him just from Disney, reread the original fairy tale, and you will find that the only actions he takes involve telling a genie what to do. Write the beginning of the fairy tale and bring him to life as someone who wants something and acts to get it.

Have fun, and for those of you who are participating, good luck with NaNoWriMo. Save what you write!

P. U. S.

On February 15, 2015, Melissa Mead (formerly carpelibris on the old blog) wrote, I’m having trouble figuring out who the story I’m telling is really about. (Gail, it’s the version of “Sleeping Beauty” that I told you about at the book festival.) It’s not the title character. I thought it was the Eldest Fairy’s story, but then the Youngest Fairy started to come to the forefront. The usual “Who has the most to lose?” trick isn’t working, because there are different ways to “lose.”

Any suggestions for figuring out whose story this is?

Michelle Dyck responded with this: Whose story is the most interesting/exciting? (I guess that’s pretty similar to the “Who has the most to lose?” question.) Whose personality or voice grabs you the most?

Just a random thought: could you compromise and pick a few POV characters? Or do something like the movie HOODWINKED, in which the same story was told multiple times from multiple points of view, and each one fleshed out the tale a little more. That might be cumbersome in book form (or might be better suited to a series rather than a single book). But maybe that idea could be modified.

Melissa came back with: That’s the problem. It’s a tie!

This is just a short story, so I don’t think there’s room for the Hoodwinked treatment. (I did have fun trying to pick that movie apart, though!)

I had trouble choosing the POV in Fairest, and I tried out three–zhamM, Ijori, and an omniscient narrator–and wrote hundreds of pages I couldn’t use. Finally I figured out how I could write from the first-person POV of Aza, my Snow White character, even while she was out cold from the poisoned apple. The problem with zhamM and Ijori as narrators was that they weren’t present for a lot the story. The trouble I had with the omniscient voice was that I couldn’t resist dipping into the minds and hearts of everybody, and the story slowed to a slug’s pace.

But for those of us suffering from POV Uncertainty Syndrome (PUS!), an omniscient narrator may be the way to go. If we do, we can delve into the thoughts and feelings of those characters who particularly fascinate us, in Melissa’s case, the youngest and oldest fairies. Of course, we have to avoid my failing of getting too interested in everybody and losing control of our story.

Another advantage of trying an omniscient narrator is that it can be diagnostic; we may naturally find ourselves dwelling more on one character than the others, and, voila!, without tearing out a single strand of hair, we’ve discovered our POV character. We can switch then and there to that POV and clean up the omniscient voice when we revise. In Fairest, the omniscient narrator came right before I figured out that Aza should be my POV character, so it worked for me.

Similar to an omniscient POV is the POV of a character who is not our MC. We could choose the median fairy, for example, the one halfway between youngest and oldest, to tell the story. She wouldn’t be as impartial as an out-of-the-tale narrator or as partial as the oldest or youngest, because she’d be on the periphery of the action. A magnificent example of this kind of narrator is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (high school and up). And if you want to read prose that’s marvelous enough to cause heart palpitations, this is the book for you.

My idea with zhamM as narrator was to have him be in love with Aza and have it be a doomed love, because he’s a gnome and she’s human. But I didn’t know how to work him into all the scenes I needed. If I had decided to keep him as my POV character, I would have had to make the story belong to him, with many of the “Snow White” events happening in the background.

Mostly, I’ve gone with the obvious choice of MC: Cinderella; Snow White; in my Princess Tales with Sleeping Beauty, the “Princess on the Pea” princess, the “Golden Goose” lad, and so on. But I didn’t in A Tale of Two Castles, which is sort of a retelling of “Puss In Boots.” The miller’s son is a character, and there are many cats, but Elodie, my MC, and the dragon detective Meenore don’t exist in the original fairy tale. Since Aza, Meenore, and the ogre are at the center of my plot, I had to invent a new story arc and many scenes.

As I think about “Sleeping Beauty,” I notice how full of feeling the story is. Sleeping Beauty is an infant, but her parents experience horror when they first hear she’s going to die young. After the terrible gift is ameliorated, they still have to wrap their minds around the hundred-year sleep.

The oldest fairy is mired in rage. She may have other emotions as well, like loneliness, jealousy, and hurt for being left out. The youngest fairy may be frightened, because she’s going against an elder. She may be worried, too, that she’s going to mess up the spell. She could be ambitious, a meddler, a very kind soul.

When we choose our POV character, we can decide which feelings we want to explore from the inside out. This is like Michelle Dyck’s wondering about which character is the most interesting, in this case most interesting from an emotional standpoint.

We can ask which character is most like us and which is most different. Then we can decide if we want the security of the familiar or the risk of the unknown. (Both choices are fine.)

Here’s another metric we can use: Which character is most likely to be talky inside her head? A character who isn’t introspective may be more challenging than one who is. Do we want that challenge?

Also, one of them, may lie to herself about herself. If we’re in her mind, we have to see past her self-deception. Do we want to always be on our guard?

We can try one way and then another. As I’ve said many times, writing isn’t efficient. Wasted pages are a small price to pay for the right POV.

I’ve never written from the POV of a non-human. Regardless of which POV is chosen, it’s fun to consider how a fairy might think. She has to think in words or we can’t write her, but can we introduce an element or two into her thought process that will reflect her alien-ness?

When Melissa Mead first posted her question, I wrote a note to myself that I still think is worth thinking about, and it was that maybe this should be a novel as Michelle Dyck suggested and not a short story. It’s possible that the idea is too complex for short story treatment. Or not.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write a scene from “Sleeping Beauty” in the voice of an omniscient narrator. Delve into the thoughts and feelings of everybody, even the baby.

∙ Write the story of “Aladdin” from the POV of the genie of the lamp.

∙ Using “Aladdin” as backdrop, tell the story of the genie and his imprisonment in the lamp. This means moving away from the original fairy tale and creating something new.

∙ Write the thoughts of any one of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairies when she first sees the baby princess. Give the thoughts an inhuman quality. Do this one way, then another, and another.

∙ Try “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of a minor fairy, who has opinions but is more observer than actor in the story. You can make her a busybody, so she insinuates herself into all the major moments.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Who’s telling?

On June 2, 2013, Emma wrote, I’m writing a trilogy with 3 main characters. It goes across three generations, so a new MC is introduced in each book, but the one(s) from the previous book(s) are still present and very active in the story. So here’s my question: I’ve been telling the story in first person from the POV of the first of the three women. I feel like this trilogy is very much her story, much more so than the story of the other two, but they’re essential to the plot. The problem is that during the second and third books there are major plot developments that happen when one of the other two characters are around, but this person isn’t. The voice I’ve been using isn’t really a “I’m telling this in my old age” voice, so would it be bad to have her tell the events in the order they happened and just later say “he told me all that had happened since our last meeting” or something to that effect? Or would it be better to have her talk to a person who was present and say “He began to explain what had happened” and then launch into telling the events normally? I don’t want to tell all the stuff that happens in dialogue, because there’s a ton that goes on, and it would just be confusing. Or do you think none of those really work and I should add another narrator in each book? Like, in the first book I’d have one narrator, in the second I’d have two, and in the third I’d have three? I’ve thought about telling the first book from the POV of the first of these characters, the second book from the POV of the second, and the third from the POV of the third, but I think that wouldn’t capture how it’s the also story of the first character’s life, and I’m not sure that my idea about adding another narrator with each story would really show that either, although it would be better than doing each book from a different POV. 

A little later she added this: Here’s a quick example of sort of what I’m thinking of doing: 


‘woke in the hospital with Eric by my side. ‘What happened?’ 


‘It’s complicated,’ Eric said. 


‘Ok, tell me.’ 


Eric sighed and began to explain everything that had happened. 


After I’d passed out, Lily had taken charge. ‘James, call an ambulance,’ she’d said. ‘Eric, come here.’ When he knelt by me she asked, ‘do you think she’ll be ok?’ 


…[more happens]


Eric finished telling his story. ‘Like I said, it was complicated.'”


But instead of a few lines in the story there would be pages and pages, or maybe a whole chapter. Do you think that would be weird, or could it work?

The trouble with telling a story in first-person, as we all discover, is that our POV character can relate only events that happen in her presence, unless she has super-powers and can see and hear at vast distances. But there are other workarounds besides super-powers that we can use now and then.

I like variety when I’m reading, so you might go from, “It’s complicated” to a section called Eric’s Account, which might have extra-wide margins to distinguish it from the rest of the story, and it could be told from Eric’s POV. When he’s finished the margins go back to normal and he says, “Like I said, it was complicated.”

We can repeat this techniques with the accounts of other characters, and after the first one, they won’t surprise the reader.

Or, Eric can write to your MC, let’s call her Jackie, and tell her about events that happened in her absence, and we can put the whole letter in our book. The fun is that the letter will be in Eric’s voice, from his perspective, and loaded with his opinions. We can interrupt here and there, if we like, with Jackie’s thoughts and then return to the letter.

We can intersperse newspaper or magazine articles that reveal events from a more neutral viewpoint. We can have Jackie sleuth things out and maybe interpret events incorrectly. She can discover physical evidence and interrogate the players, and we can use a playscript format for the interrogation to liven things up. Jackie can visit a psychic, one with real powers. The psychic and Jackie can look in a crystal ball and see happenings play out in pantomime. In Ella Enchanted, I gave Ella a magic book for just this purpose. If we’re writing fantasy, we can invent a tiny being, or more than one, who can be Jackie’s spies, or, if she doesn’t want spies, who can act on her behalf without consulting her first. Or whatever else we like, talking trees, magic seashells that allow people to hear at great distances, clouds that change shape to portray events. Anything our overheated imaginations can produce.

If this isn’t fantasy, we can use technology: phone bugs, surveillance cameras, YouTube.

Writing is weirdly light on rules. Whatever works is good, and often we don’t know if it’s worked until we’ve tried, and sometimes not until we’ve asked someone else’s opinion.

A more traditional option, the one I’m using in Stolen Magic, is to write in third person. In Stolen Magic, the chapters that Elodie is in are written from her perspective, even though the narrator is third person (meaning that Elodie’s thoughts, and only her thoughts, can be revealed). The chapters she isn’t in are from the perspective of either the dragon Masteress Meenore or the ogre Count Jonty Um. Since the overwhelming majority of chapters belong to Elodie, she’s clearly the MC. I chose to do it this way for a reason that’s similar to Emma’s. Both Meenore and Jonty Um have to leave Elodie, and what happens to them is crucial for the plot. In an earlier version I told everything in first person. Meenore’s, Jonty Um’s, and Elodie’s chapters were from their first-person POVs, but I couldn’t get the ogre’s voice. He’s smart but not a natural with words, and he came across as stupid in his chapters.The third-person voice is neutral and represents each of them accurately.

So that’s another consideration when we switch first-person POVs: the voice has to shift, too. In Emma’s case each woman has to have her own voice. However, if that’s no problem, then this is a perfectly fine way to go, too. If Jackie gets most of the chapters, it’s still her story.

One more option is to switch from first person for the chapters Jackie is present in to third for the chapters she’s not. The reader will adapt. Again, Jackie needs to have a voice that’s distinct from the narrator’s. The reader may be confused for a paragraph or two, but he’ll catch on. We can clue him in by starting the first third-person chapter with a segue like, While Jackie slept fitfully in her hospital bed, across town in a perfectly appointed studio apartment, like the velvet interior of a jewel box, Lily paced.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s not waste that last sentence: While Jackie slept fitfully in her hospital bed, across town in a perfectly appointed studio apartment, like the velvet interior of a jewel box, Lily paced. Write what comes next, in third person, but from Lily’s POV.

• Next, write it in first person, again from Lily’s POV.

DO THESE FIRST TWO PROMPTS BEFORE YOU READ THE NEXT ONE!!! (If you want to.)

• Now let’s imagine that Lily is pacing because her attempt to kill Jackie failed. If you didn’t think of that too, rewrite Lily’s chapter in first or third person with that in mind. Then write a chapter that takes place in Jackie’s hospital room or that happens soon after her discharge. This chapter is from Jackie’s first-person or third-person POV. Follow this with a chapter starring Eric. Keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

POV Picking and Popping POVs

Copyright questions come up often on the blog, and I happened to hear this astonishing report on the radio. Click to listen and be amazed: http://www.onthemedia.org/2013/mar/08/happy-birthday/.

The title of this post is a tongue-twister. Try saying it ten times fast.

In November two questions came in about POV. In the first, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m writing a novel with a goal to get it published. It’s set in a fantasy land, and it’s in third person. However, each chapter (or half chapter or something–I don’t like writing in chapters until the end of the book) the POV switches. One chapter it will be told in one person’s point of view, the next minute another, while still in third person. How can I make each narration stand out? Both characters have very unique personalities. (Okay, okay, they’re not that unique, but they’re different from each other.) However, whenever I switched POVs, it seems like it could be narrated by the other.

I’m doing something similar in my revision of the book formerly known as Beloved Elodie now known as I-Don’t-Know-What. In my earlier drafts, I switched first-person POV back and forth from my human character Elodie to the dragon Meenore to the ogre Count Jonty Um. But I found that I wasn’t communicating the ogre clearly – he kept seeming unintelligent, which he isn’t. So I switched to third person, but not omniscient. If Elodie is in a scene, the POV belongs to her. Otherwise, it’s either Meenore or Jonty Um, all in third person, and the book is working better.

The narrative voice is the same from chapter to chapter, but the star of each is the POV character. For example, Meenore often challenges Elodie to solve the little puzzles that add up to the big one of the mystery. Usually doesn’t get the solution right away, and she feels under a lot of stress. Here’s an example:

“…Lodie, how did I conclude some calamity had befallen the Oase or the high brunka?”


Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. “Er… Masteress, you sang so that someone might hear us. Er… You knew brunkas have especially sharp ears. And a brunka came. Wasn’t that what you expected?” Her coming couldn’t mean anything! “Er… Um…”

Most of this is dialogue with only two sentences in narration. Take this one: Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. It’s a plain sentence, no particular personality coming from the narrator. But if the POV character weren’t Elodie, the narrator wouldn’t have said a word about what’s going on in her brain. I don’t mention Meenore’s feelings or the state of ITs brain when IT questions her, although I can guess what they are: pride in her abilities and mischievous pleasure in making her struggle.

Here’s another example, this one from Count Jonty Um’s POV:

A winter hare hopped across the snow to the right of the brunka’s cottage. Master Canute would warn the humans, who would flee the mountain if they could, and they’d drive their herds and flocks along with them. His Lordship clasped his hands and squeezed until they hurt. The wild beasts wouldn’t hear the warning or understand it if they heard. They’d stay here and die in pain and terror.

Again, the language of the narration is straightforward. It’s not the way he would tell it himself, because the ogre mind is different from the human mind. But the narration does reflect his concerns. The other character in this scene, whose thoughts I can’t reveal since I’m not writing from his POV, wouldn’t be thinking about the fate of the animals on this mountain.

So, sounds like you’re doing it right, unsocialized homeschooler. If you’re working in third person, the narrator’s voice should be the same throughout. If you want the voices to change, first person is the way to do it, and you might want to reread my posts on voice.

If you stick with third person, then I suggest you focus on the thoughts and feelings of the POV character in each scene, and be scrupulously careful not to stray in narration into the thoughts and feelings of anyone else. These non-POV guys can say what they’re thinking and feeling in dialogue and they can show it in action, but the narrator should never reveal their inner workings. The narrator who isn’t omniscient is allowed into only one head and heart at a time. Or possibly two heads, if you’re doing it that way, for example if you have a duo working together.

If your characters’ specialness isn’t showing through, you may not be shining your authorial spotlight on their unique ways of reacting to situations, whether or not it’s their POV turn. Meenore, for example, is always clever, and always reveals ITs cleverness in dialogue. Count Jonty Um is always shy and says little and is aloof and dignified. If I keep these traits in mind, each of them will stand out on the page, and Elodie will too by contrast.

So I’d suggest thinking about your characters’ distinguishing characteristics in every scene. If the moment belongs to your POV character, look for ways to bring the other guys in, doing what they do most, reacting as they do.

In the second question, Michelle Dyck wrote, How do you choose which character’s POV to use in a scene when more than one choice could work? I know that a good way to choose the POV is by evaluating which character’s experience in the scene would be the most crucial or interesting, but what if two characters’ POVs are that way? In the scene I’m working on right now, my two MC’s are faced with the same big decision, and although their thought patterns and emotions vary, both of their experiences are quite similar. I’m not sure which to choose.

It’s nice when you can just pick to please yourself!

That’s one option: Which will be the most fun to write? Which interests you the most?

There are other questions, too. Who has the most unexplored corners, which you can most easily investigate in his or her POV? Simply, whose turn is it? Have you been in Jack’s head a lot lately and you need to shift because the reader is getting too accustomed to being in there? Can you tip the balance in the scene so it isn’t quite so equal, and the choice will then become obvious? Can you split the scene? The first part goes to one character; then there’s some kind of natural break, and you shift to the other.

Here are two prompts:

• Your story moves from the home of one of your three characters to a museum to a row boat in the middle of a lake. The three have a common enemy, which can be anything, a former friend, a wizard, an assassin, Frankenstein, a virus, whatever you choose. And the three have different strengths and different weaknesses – different personalities. Write a scene in each location. Try it two ways, in third person alternating POVs and in first person alternating POVs. If you like you can add a fourth scene, from the POV of the antagonist if it’s a character, which you would also write in third person and in first.

• Return to the rowboat scene. One of your three characters has drowned. The remaining characters have to decide what to do next. Try it from the first-person POV of one and then the other. Then switch to third person. You are allowed to row them to dry land if the row boat is too confining.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Brain Jumping

On April 25, 2010, Mya wrote,

...how do you change viewpoints in a story without making it confusing? I know you did it in Ever, and I have a story that goes the same way, but it’s not working out.

In Writing Magic I define the various points of view (POV), and there are many other sources as well.  Also, my post of October 21st, 2009, is related to this one.

When I wrote the first draft of Ever I wrote it in third-person omniscient.  The effect, alas, was that the reader couldn’t feel close to anyone.  Third-person omniscient doesn’t have to work out that way; I just couldn’t get it right in this case.  Then I tried first person from Kezi’s POV, put she isn’t present for many plot developments.  If I’d stuck with just her, the reader would have been unaware of them either, which led me to the alternating narration.

If you and I enter the same party or walk into the same store or even examine the same pair of slacks, our attention will be drawn to different things.  With the slacks, you may be looking for quality; I may be a complete sucker for black-and-white checks (actually, I am) and not care about anything else.

Same with characters.  When you switch from one first-person POV to another, you take on the world view of each character.  If Willis is a cynic examining slacks, he may be looking for quality, but he’ll be expecting to find a flaw.  When you switch over to Allie, who’s easily pleased, she falls in love with seven pairs of slacks in seven seconds.  In writing the scene, you need to reflect their different thoughts and feelings in their separate narrations.

Their voices on the page need to differ too.  In Ever, the male character, Olus, is educated, and Kezi doesn’t know how to read.  The vocabulary in his chapters is harder, because he knows more words.

In the example of Willis and Allie, here’s Willis:  I turn the pants inside out, frowning, then erase the frown because Allie is watching and she likes to tease me, but it’s an effort to keep my forehead flat.  No lining, naturally.  What do you expect for eighty-nine dollars?  Especially when the sweat-shop laborer probably earned eighty-nine cents, if she was lucky.

This could be Allie: Wow!  I love this store.  Listen to the music!  Great beat.  Slacks, slacks, slacks.  OMG.  It’s Slacks City in here.  The buyer must be a genius.

You have vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional reactions, and thought content as your tools for creating distinctive voices.  And maybe more elements I haven’t thought of.  Please weigh in with comments.

An interesting example of multiple POVs is Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is about a girl’s baseball team, and there are twenty-one – count them! – first-person POV characters.  It’s a fascinating book that can be read by middle-grade readers and up.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a tour de force of multiple POVs.  I read enough to know what an accomplishment it is, but I didn’t stick with it.  This one would be for high school and above.

If you read these books, notice the devices the authors use to create unique voices.  I remember from The Poisonwood Bible that one of the main characters is a master of palindromes.  How original!

Shifting POV makes storytelling more complicated.  Possibly my biggest problem as a writer is that I tend to over-complicate.  I’m always spinning ideas on top of other ideas, and the task of getting through a book becomes much harder.  Of course, layered, complex stories are good.  So can be simple, direct ones.  I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, both for high-school level and above.  The point is that you should consider your reasons for multiple viewpoints. 

Here are some occasions when it may be worth the work.  These are just what I can think of.  I’d welcome more ideas.

1.    It’s fine and brave to try something new.  If you’ve never written from more than one point of view and you want to see how it goes, that’s an excellent reason all by itself.

2.    You can’t tell your story in the first person because your main character isn’t present for extended events that the reader needs to know about.  I say extended because short events can be communicated by phone, email, text messages, even a magic book, as I used in Ella Enchanted.

3.    Your story belongs to two or more characters more or less equally, and you don’t want to jump within a scene from one character’s head to another, which is what you’d have to do if you wrote in omniscient third person.

4.    Your main characters are distant from one another in time or place or culture.

5.    Your main character is an unreliable narrator, and you want another voice for balance and objectivity.

6.    Truth is elusive in your story.  You want the reader to piece it together by combining points of view.  This approach is probably too sophisticated for any but young adult (and adult) readers.

7.    Again, truth is elusive.  You are going to go over the same events repeatedly from multiple points of view.  Your reader will figure out what really happened.  This also may be only for older readers.  The classic Japanese movie Rashomon (high school and above again) is a mystery told this way.

In numbers two through four above, you might also write in omniscient third person, a perspective I love and find difficult to pull off.  An omniscient narrator provides a consistent voice, but this POV can distance you and the reader from your main characters, since the narrator is on the outside.  Or a cacophony of thoughts and feelings can slow your story down to a glacial pace.

Here are two prompts:

•    Dream up five characters on an urban commuter train.  Write a page from the POV of each of them.  Reveal why they’re on the train, what’s awaiting them at the end, the issue that’s uppermost in their minds.  Some calamity happens: the train hits a tree or runs somebody over or a passenger becomes ill – whatever.  Write what ensues from the POV of each of them, a page for each.  You can either advance the story with each shift of POV or retell the same events.  If you need to, go back and revise any of your first pages to fit what follows.

•    Tell a story from the points of view of the pets in a household, more than one species.  How would a dog think?  A cat?  A fish?  Turtle?  Parrot?  There is a long tradition of storytelling through animal voices.  One of my favorites when I was little was Black Beauty, which I reread not too long ago and still enjoyed.

Have fun, and save what you write!