Today we’re going to re-cap the basic craft topics. Some of these you already know, and this just a reminder.
Some of these may be new ideas to you.
The final authority on craft is your favorite author. Look at these subjects and see how your favorite writers handle them. If you like the way they deal with this type of problem then copy them.
You don’t want to copy their actual words, but copying the style choices of the virtuosos is a long established tradition of learning to write––or learning just about anything.
Point of View, usually known as POV.
Let’s begin by conjugating the verb ‘to love.’
First person: amo. First person: amamus
Second Person: amas Second Person: amatis
Third Person: amat Third Person: amant.
Or in English
First person: I love. First person: We love
Second Person: You love Second Person: You Love
Third Person: He/She loves. Third Person: They love.
Hence the most frequently-used POVs:
First Person POV: I walked into a bar…
Very simple. This POV (usually) gives the effect that narrator is the main character in the story, and the illusion that the author and the narrator are the same person. This POV gives a straightforward, commanding and confident narrative. It’s as if the author is saying: “These things actually happened to me, so I know whereof I speak…”
Ironically First Person can be great for the unreliable narrator.
I never set foot inside that bar. Those who say I did are liars. Every single one of them!
Third Person Limited POV: She walked into a bar…
Similar to first person POV. The story is revealed through the thoughts of only one character. The narrator of the story is no longer a character in the story and, in fiction––as Elmore Leonard suggests––should strive to be invisible, or at least to make only minimal authorial intrusions.
At first sight this might seem to create distance between the reader and the main character, but in fact third person can be extremely intimate, and is sometimes even known as ‘third-person-intimate.
Caution: If you have several characters in your opening scene, make sure you establish which of these characters is the POV character. Usually you can do this with an inner observation.
Dick and Jane staggered into the bar. Jane didn’t want to go in, but what choice did she have…
Alternating Point of View:
The story is revealed through the thoughts of several characters in the story, with the point of view usually shifting with chapter breaks. A good example is Eleanor and Park in which the narrative is revealed in alternating chapters between the eponymous characters.
In spite of being called ‘alternating’ the technique can use multiple voices as in George RR Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire.’
Less frequently used these days:
Third Person Omniscient: He thought he was being reasonable. She thought otherwise…
In omniscient, the story is revealed through the thoughts of several characters in the story, with the point of view shifting within chapters, and even within paragraphs. Great for war stories, as the reader can be with the attacking army one moment, and the defenders the next…
Tolstoy was the master of omniscient (War and Peace), and used a kind of Grand Narrator who guides the reader from the thoughts of one character to the next. Tolstoy’s voice has been described as ‘almost like the voice of god himself.’
Grand narrators usually have a personality, such as Tolstoy’s which seems to have low expectations of humanity.
Or the dyspeptic narrators of the Lemony Snicket/ Series of Unfortunate Events.
Omniscient tends to make for long books.
Here’s a good example of omniscient from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings:
Just over the top of the hill they came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees…. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat round it for a while, until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree’s roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a Hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
Second Person or Epistolatory: This is really first person, but with the narrative directed towards a specific character who may or may not be in the story, hence the use of second person.
Often these narratives take the form of a letter, hence Epistolatory.
From Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInnerny:
You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.
You’re probably going to use present: “The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar…” or simple past: “The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar…”
Whether you choose present or past stick with it. Nothing spoils the effects you’re working so hard to achieve than slipping tenses.
You can shift tenses where it makes sense (When we were kids my brother was smaller than me, now he’s six inches taller…), but mostly try not to shift tenses unless you absolutely have to.
You’ll probably need past perfect now and again: the picture had been hanging above the bar, but now it was in the restroom.
Try to avoid progressive tenses: present progressive: I am walking into a bar…; past progressive: I was walking into a bar…; future progressive: I will be walking into a bar…:
Sometimes they sound right, but mostly they sound …kind of…tentative. If you need one then use it, otherwise tighten them up into simple present and past verbs.
Try to avoid using the participle (…ing verbs): “Walking into the bar Jane noticed John slumped over the counter…”
Sometimes nothing else sounds quite right…but not often.
Most of what you write creatively will be sense impressions, but sense verbs themselves can create a kind of barrier between the reader and the characters. This is authorial intrusion of the kind Elmore Leonard talks about.
If we have a narrative where Jane is the main character, and we get a line: Jane saw John walk into a bar…, then the words ‘Jane saw’ are are at best redundant, and at worst an authorial intrusion. If Jane is the main character then she is the only character in the book who can actually ‘see’ anything. Other characters can appear to ‘see’ John, or more likely they can watch him, but they can’t see him.
Finally it’s about active and passive writing. In ‘Jane saw John walk into a bar’ John is the active character.
It would be better to write: John walked into a bar.
‘Jane heard John order a beer’ becomes ‘John ordered a beer.’
‘Jane was afraid John would get drunk’ becomes ‘The slob was probably going to get drunk again…’
Just say no. You know they’re wrong.
It’s difficult to write without them, but try to avoid double adjectives, and especially avoid using more than one instance of a double adjective in one paragraph.
As Joyce Carrol Oates mentioned in her rules for writing:
“Be open to the possibilities of paragraphing.”
When writing for children and young adults the general rule is to use every opportunity for a paragraph break. Makes the page look more inviting to the reader––especially the reluctant reader.
This can even be a reasonable idea when writing for a general audience, but at the very least you should take your paragraphing just as seriously as you take line breaks in a poem.
Think of the effects paragraph breaks can achieve:
1: Emphasis. The last word of a paragraph tends to reverberate. Can you use it as an alternative to an exclamation point? A one-line paragraph can be very emphatic, but just like exclamation points don’t overuse this technique.
2: Change of ‘shot’: Imagine your POV character has a camera on her head. Start a new paragraph whenever the object of her focus changes. This can include characters, setting, and actions.
3: Change of subject.
4: Time jump.
5: In short, whenever you feel that sentence breaks is not enough of a break.
Indent your paragraphs, it really helps with clarity, especially in dialogue sequences.
Summary to scene.
Be aware of when you’re transitioning from summary to scene, and back again. Just as the omniscient author shouldn’t shift POV too often, so the 3rd and 1st person author shouldn’t shift back and forth between scene and summary too often.
As a general rule, if you need summary then begin with it, whether it’s a chapter or an entire short story. Once you transition from summary to scene, then stay in scene for as long as you can. Obviously this is not a cast iron rule, but too much scene-summary jumping can be as inelegant as head-hopping.
Just as we learned in memoir you can conflate 3 car-trips into one, in this case to avoid scene-hopping.
An embedded scene showing action that occurred at some point before the main action of the story. This is not to be confused with backstory.
A flashback is an entire scene––that may be embedded within a frame scene.
Backstory is summary, and is usually short.
Make sure the reader will know when you’re going into––and out of––flashbacks with the use of signal phrases:
Two months earlier…
During the Cretaceous age…
The previous week…
Meanwhile back in the Holocene…
Now as the colder weather was settling in…
You can also use tense shifts to signal flashbacks––present to past, or past to past-perfect––but this can be a subtle signal, so it’s often a good idea to combine tense shift with a signal phrase.