The Secret Weapon of Story Physics: Narrative Strategy

A story is always the sum of – the outcome of – a huge pile of author decisions: where to start, how long, how soon, how to end it, where to end it, what not to end, how much, how little, when to show this, when to say that…

… all of it, hopefully, arriving in context to some basis for the decision itself… for an informed notion of why.

The basis is often simply your gut instinct.  Good if you’ve got one.  Even better when driven by a grasp of storytelling principles and physics and a few tries under your creative belt.

Too often, though, as you stare down the barrel of a new story, the basis for these decisions is caught wandering somewhere between the first thing that comes to mind, comfort level and casual randomness.

No matter how you decide, or what you decide, there is always one other choice – a different kind of choice — that looms even more urgent than what-goes-where.

The most visible decision you will make is your narrative strategy.

Because you really can’t write a decent word, not a single paragraph with ambitions of being in its final form, until you decide upon narrative strategy.

What is narrative strategy?

It’s how you will narrate your story.  It is the voice of your story.

Pretty much everything else you need to decide upon defines the WHAT of your story.  The expositional content of it.

Narrative strategy, along with structure, leads you toward the HOW of it.

Structure is the sequence of your story’s unfolding.

Narrative strategy is the actual mode in which you tell it.

And, like a singer’s tone or a painter’s technique or a State of the Union address’s political context, it is critical to making it all work.

If you think of your story as a journey from point A to B, structure is the route taken.  The order in which information is delivered to the reader.

Narrative strategy is the vehicle in which the reader will ride.  The contextual means of the delivery itself.

Who is telling your story?  The hero?  The hero’s neighbor (think “The Great Gatsby”)?  A few folks?  God, or some omniscient, all-seeing voice?

And then… how are they/he/she framing it all?

Your story’s ultimate fate may rest on this one single decision more than any other.

The Default Narrative Strategy

The most common voice of a story, the one we were taught first back in the day, is third person omniscient narrative.  The “god-narrator” perspective.

Bob walked to the ledge and looked down, seeing nothing that would change his life, as he’d feared.

It allows you to look anywhere and notice anything, including what a character is thinking.  It even allows you, when handled correctly, to know what others are thinking in the exact same moment.

Because the god-narrative knows all, sees all, and may or may not tell all.

From there you can, within this constraint, narrowed the point of view to create intimacy, nuance and detail:

Bob walked to the ledge, conscious of a sea of eyes following him, his stomach churning at what he feared might be a moment that would change his life forever.

About the only hazard on this narrower road is point of view… like First Person narration, “tight” third person demands that you not mix multiple points of view within a given scene.

Third person, in all its common forms, is the one your high school creative writing teacher told you was the proper way to tell a story.  In some cases, the only way.

That particular piece of advice is in the running for the worst, if not the most out-dated, writing advice dispensed in the last one hundred years.   Tell that one to Holden Caulfield and Mike Hammer and a girl named Katniss, among a few hundred other literary iconic heroes.  If you’ve read a bestseller lately, you’ll know that conventional wisdom has long since been debunked.

First Person Narration

Perhaps as much as half of the novels being published today are in First Person.

I moved slowly to the ledge, locking a death grip on the railing before allowing myself to look down, wondering if this would be the moment my life changes forever.

In a given moment the reader is privy to what the character is seeing, feeling, perceiving and feeling, in a way that is less constrained by logic and colored by world view and backstory.  It is the quickest and clearest route into the mind of a character, often including humor, irony and some hidden darkness that only the reader sees.

In my view, First Person becomes the default choice for stories in which an interpretation of the unfolding exposition is the focus of the story.  First person marries nicely with another of the Six Realms of Story Physics – the delivery of a vicarious experience.

And yet, some writers remain wary.  Could be comfort level, could be lack of confidence.  My advice: try it out.  You may immediately realize you’ve found your default voice.  That you’ve arrived home.

That’s precisely what happened to me.  It was at that moment of decision that my writing career took a turn.

The First-Third Combo Meal

Point of view is a force of nature, it demands a singular scene focus without compromise.  And yet, the choice of First Person narrative as a strategy comes with a price – you cannot show what takes place (either in the past or present) from beyond the limits of the narrator’s scope of awareness.

And yet, many stories depend on such behind-the-curtain building of suspense and the means toward the confluence of story forces.

What to do?

Make your high school writing teacher roll over in her grave by combining the two within a story.  Actually writing scenes that come from one or the other voice – first or third – that show the first person narrators perspective, and the elsewhere perspective, as required… in the same story.

The only rule: never do this within a single scene.  Either create a new chapter, or skip lines to define a scene shift, whenever you switch from first to third, or third to first.

If this is your approach, make sure to give roughly equal time to both voices, and use the device strategically to build suspense and manage pace.  You’ll quickly find you have a lot to work with in those regards.

I first saw this done in Nelson Demille’s “The Lion’s Game” and then it’s sequel, “The Lion,” and it blew me away.   It impressed me to the extent that I did it in my own novel, “Bait and Switch,” and in every novel I’ve written since (my new novel, “Deadly Faux, “ out in October from Turner Publishing, employs this narrative strategy.

It’s out there everywhere.  Another arrow in the quiver of narrative strategy.

The goal is to find your best voice, rather than settle for default choice.

The Enhancement Choices

First versus Third Person isn’t the only choice on the writing table.  The writer must also elect either past tense or, in an emerging trend, present tense.

Third Person Present:  He walks  to the ledge and looks down, seeing nothing that will change his life, as he fears.

First Person Present: I move slowly to the ledge, locking a death grip on the railing before allowing myself to look down, wondering if this will be a moment my life changes forever.

Suzanne Collins used First Person present in “The Hunger Games” series, with great effect.  These stories read much like a screenplay (that’s no accident, all screenplays are written in present tense), adding to the sense of vicarious immersion and experience.

But notice how, in those books – unlike the films – you see nothing that Katniss cannot see.  It’s no accident the movie did it differently, creating added tension by allowing the viewer to understand the emerging danger before Katniss herself does.

In Kathryn Stockett’s mega-hit “The Help,” she went even further out on the strategic limb with this choice: she has three different First Person (past) narrators.  Each occupying the role of protagonist/hero, and each integrating with the others.  Many scenes have two or more of the characters involved, but always within a consistent narrative point of view for the scene itself.

These choices comprise a matrix of options for your consideration.  First or third?  Past or present?  Mixed person, or singular?  Multiple narrators with a consistent voice, or multiple narrators from both first and third?

You get to choose.  The question is… how?

The Challenge of Choice

This is a challenging proposition.  I’ve read many stories in my coaching and evaluation work that would work better in First Person, which is a tough piece of feedback when the writer has already written 400 pages in Third Person.

Much better to get this right before you begin the drafting process.

The key to the optimal decision is your understanding of the potential and limitations of each strategy, merged with your understanding of the dynamics of the story itself.

With a touch of comfort level thrown in.

How much exposition takes place outside of the scope of your hero’s awareness?

Whose story is it?  How many points of view are there?

How personal is the story?  How important is getting into the hero’s head and experiencing that chaos, emotion, elation, and the confusion of not knowing what things mean?

Does your story rely on wit?  Humor is much easier when it comes from the head, and the lips, of the narrator.

Where is the dramatic tension coming from?  How much does the hero know, or need to know, about that information?

I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of criteria that lead you to this particular Narrative Strategy choice.  I believe you need to trust your gut.  Which means you need to develop your gut instinct, whatever that takes.  And, perhaps do a little research to see how other novels with similar premises and qualities to yours (yes, they’re out there) have been handled.

At some point you’ll know.  Hopefully sooner rather than 400 pages later.  You’ll know because, from an informed context, it’ll just feel right.

That feeling with either lean toward random and uniformed, or take-it-to-the-bank supported by basis for your decisions.

And thus are made bestsellers and rejected manuscripts.  We live and die by our feel, our instincts, and the database of storytelling knowledge that informs them.

The more you know about your story, and the earlier you know it, the more optimal your choices will be.

******

Narrative Strategy is one of six key realms of Story Physics… as defined in my new book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling.”  Available now, online and in your local bookstore (after June 18).

*****

Have you ever wanted to kill your writing teacher?  Hmmm….

A few writer friends have just published a fun new mystery called, “Murder at Cape Foulweather (A Sun Slut Mystery)“… if that doesn’t foreshadow the tone, nothing will.  It’ s about a weekend workshop with a writing teacher from… wait, no, it couldn’t be… they swear it isn’t… anyhow, it’s a story full of secrets and sex and, I assume, a dead writing teacher.  Sounds like fun.  These women are really good, and really funny, so it’s worth a look.  Already have my copy, and I’m hooked.  Hoping you’ll check it out.

34 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

34 Responses to The Secret Weapon of Story Physics: Narrative Strategy

  1. Lara

    This is so ironic for my current WIP, Larry, because I’m in a similar position. I’ve got 408 pages of draft, and I’m thinking that first person might be better because I can see the story unfold about a foot before my eyes. It unravels like a film, superimposed over the reality of my surroundings.

    Hmm. Maybe that’s a hint, too.

  2. Dave H

    As mentioned, I’m noticing and enjoying the ‘first person present’ voice more often in my reading these days. I find it interesting how gracefully if can be blended with various past tense voices as well, to fill in bits of context and history.
    I’m still in bootcamp mode for story writing – so I’m trying to learn from both ends of the spectrum – ‘big picture’ story engineering and physics structure and dynamics and ‘ground level’ exposition, narration, etc. At that ground level I’m experimenting with a scene in various voices, so this post is very well timed and very helpful. Thanks.

  3. Awesome post, as always! I think the best way to decide which voice to use is to write a scene of your novel in each and see what suits that novel better and what you’re most comfortable with.

  4. Great post, Larry! I haven’t decided on the POV for my story, although I like the idea of First-Third. I might like the “idea” more than the reality, though, so won’t make that decision yet.

    While reading the “What is narrative strategy” section, I experienced a BIG ah-ha moment when I realized just how important the narrator REALLY is to a story. There are so many decisions to make before even starting to write a story. In the past, I’ve made decisions about character, etc., for unsound reasons. One of my blunders was deciding I wanted the protagonist in one of my stories to drive a Jetta. I didn’t give her a Jetta because it was the best thing to do for the story. I gave her a Jetta because I liked the snappy Jetta commercials that were on TV at that time (this was a few years ago). Great commecials! But having her drive a Jetta made no sense in the story.

    What I realized today about narrator voice and POV, is that the narrator’s POV really IS the story. I know, that sounds so simple–like that should have been apparent to me years ago. I think reading a lot of Third person POV stories may have delayed this realization. But something clicked today!

    It matters what kind of voice the narrator has (tone, pitch, pace) and how the narrator uses their voice to tell the story (their frame of mind, environmental circumstances, etc.). For example, if my narrator is a wizened old woman, who is aware that her 16-year-old grandson is suicidal, everything about the story will be different than if my narrator is a 16-year-old boy. These would be two completely different stories.

    Another reason I think it took me a long while to get to this realization is that I thought of the stories as something I was telling through the characters. Not so.

    So thank you VERY much for being the catalyst for this realization. Love your blog–even your occasional rants.

  5. Oh, and congratualtions on maintaining this blog and providing great content for 4 years. I noticed that June 1, 2009, is the first post.

  6. I’ve never considered POV a choice for the author, I always thought the book made the choice for me. But then, I used to drink a bit, so maybe the books WEREN’T talking to me like I thought.

    I tend strongly toward 1st, but one of my back-burnered works I’m looking forward to reviving only made sense to me in 3rd, even though it could easily have been a 1st person.

    Eagerly awaiting my copy of SP.

  7. Robert Jones

    I’ve spent a lot of time with POV and have come to the conclusion that 1st person is my favorite as well. Nothing wrong with 3rd, and I suppose we shouldn’t ignore the fact that most best-sellers throughout history have been written from this POV. Maybe because it is so familiar to folks.

    But 1st is by far the most intimate. Also, you can say things, even exaggerate more, when the voice (or thought) is coming from the POV of a character. An omniscient god is harder to make colorful in speech.

    Some of the best 1st person comes from author Sol Stein. In his novel “Other People,” he writes it using one character’s POV per chapter, but the really interesting thing he did was actually interrupt chapter–and even scenes if it strung out the tension–with another character’s 1st person POV. He simply wrote: Comment by so-and-so…and we would get the interruption from another character. Then skipping a line, if it was interrupting a scene, he would resume with the original character for that chapter. Simple, but kind’a brilliant.

    The book is out of print currently, but a little bird told me Stein’s novels will be available on Kindle soon. Well worth the read. Especially in terms of seeing how 1st person POV can be used for good effect.

  8. Sara Davies

    In one novel, written in first person/past, the narrator describes her abusive relationship with a heroin addict and his gang. Not until the last line of the last page do we realize that nowhere in the entire book does anyone call the main character by name (and we’ve never known either). The way it’s written, you don’t notice that you don’t know, so it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. But the decision to use POV in that book is significant because it’s integral to conveying the theme.

    Seems like every decision a writer makes should contribute to the overall effect of the final work and not be made at random, by default, or because it seems cool.

    As a reader, multiple POVs confuse me. I get lost. I want to be anchored in one perspective and go in depth. When writers jump around, I want to feel the decision makes sense in the context of my experience as a reader – to understand why they made that choice.

    Another book, which won a Pulitzer, jumps all over the map in time and space, from one character to the next. I was unable to finish it because half way in, I still had no idea what was going on, who it was about, or how the characters connected. But obviously someone thought it worked [shrug].

  9. Robert Jones

    When people get lost in 1st person multiple, I blame the author. If narritive strategy is the vehicle the plot travels in, you don’t want to give the reader a fleat to follow. Some people might enjoy keeping track of a fleet, but it’s work. And the majority of people read to escape their work. So unless your name is already a best selling brand on the book, to my way of thinking, you’re putting your novel at risk unless you plan carefully.

    For example, let’s say a book written in 3rd person has a cast of ten characters. That includes everyone from the main character to supporting cast, no matter how small the part.

    A 3rd person writer will get into all their heads at some point during the story. But much like a movie, a single camera view is going to follow the course of their lives. The focus is tighter. Or at least more refined because it seems like a single narrator is opening a window into the lives of each character as they appear on stage for their moment(s) in the spotlight.

    A 1st person POV with the same cast of characters needs to tell the same story, giving each character the same moments. The only difference is now we hear their thoughts put into their own words and personal views on whatever might be happening. It can be a lot more fun if you have eccentric characters. It can also be a little more work if you aren’t good at giving each character a slightly different voice and perspective on the events.

    Here’s the problem: Once a writer puts on that character’s skin in 1st person, they feel like they want to ride around in it, give this dude (maybe all ten of the dudes and dudesses) equal time at the wheel. So, much like The Stand, or Game of Thrones, your “vehicles” begin travelling far and wide. Those seconday roles turn into subplots, or fifth wheels on a plot that effect how it is steered. And consequently, it begins to roll all over God’s green tomatoes.

    You only have to look at the length of The Stand, or GOT, to see how those extra vehicles zipping all over the place added a huge amount of pages to get from point A to B. And you only need to look at the author’s involved to see they have big names with very good sales histories to back up these larger than life projects.

    For the rest of us, I would say we need to keep the size of a character’s part in perspective to their importance in our stories. And keep the POV as tight as if it were filmed through a single lens. Only the perspective changes when slipping from character to character, not the vehicle.

  10. K.C. May

    As a reader, I have a strong preference for third person narration, but done well, first person is tolerable (past tense only. cannot stomach present tense). I don’t think I’d like writing in the first person, but to be honest, it’s been many years since I’ve tried it. Maybe I should give it a go with a short story or novelette.

    Looking forward to Story Physics. Due to my failing eyesight, I can only buy Kindle books, so I’ll have to wait. Hopefully not too long. I’ve got a book coming out soon and I’d like to read Story Physics before I get started with my next project!

  11. @Larry. Easily the clearest and concise presentation of POV I have ever read. Printing it. Sliding it into plastic sleeves . Snapping it into the three ring binder. Thank you.

  12. MikeR

    Strangely enough, I sometimes find the “first-person narrator” style to be just a little bit wearisome, whether there’s one narrator for the entire story or different ones per-scene.

    A “talking head” has to be a really good talker, or at least, really good at talking to himself. He has to “tell himself” bits of exposition so that he can in so doing inform you, the reader. Sometimes you find yourself wishing that he or she would shut-up and just get on with the story! 🙂

    I happen to enjoy stories which, in each scene, adopt a point-of-view (POV) character, then use a cinematic “OTS = Over-The Shoulder shot” to tell the story in that scene from that POV. The narrator isn’t =the= POV character, but is standing just behind that character, and is telling and showing the scene and the story from that viewpoint. Sometimes, for expediency, the narrator dips into that one person’s head, but no other. This gives the sense of “viewpoint” without bequeathing upon you, the reader, that person’s eyes, ears and head-cold. 🙂 The narrator shows the scene from one “dominant camera angle,” or one at a time. The narrator himself never becomes “an invisible third person in the room.” The omniscient storyteller is definitely present in the book, but never present in the scene.

    Thus, we never witness a character “magically” reacting to something that he or she never would have been in a position to know at that point in time, or acting upon knowledge that he or she never would have had, or stumbling obediently into a situation that he or she should have plainly chosen to avoid (or, worse, “for no particular reason at all”). You find lots of published novels out there that are like this (Anne Rice, anyone??), and I slam them down with disgust.

  13. Robert Jones

    @K.C. May–You’ll have to let us know when your book comes out. My feelings are that if a community supports one another, a little word of mouth can do a whole lot of good.

    @MikeR–You raise an interesting point about choosing POV. If a writer is aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses, POV could go a long way in either accentuating, or covering them up. Writers are supposed to show their stories, not tell. And blatantly obvious exposition is probably the most common way “telling” can creep into a story. But how many of us are objective enough to see our own flaws?

    You have to wonder if many times it’s a case of “Too much too soon.” If a writer has everything good happen to their work very early in their career, how many are going to keep pushing themselves to get good at craft when they’ve already arrived using whatever skills they’ve already accumulated?

    And so we circle back around to what Sara said about learning to do things correctly (for your own sake) before bounding out of the starting gate too soon. A fast start certainly didn’t allow for most self-published authors on Amazon get a jump on the rest of us. Some will no doubt try to get a bit more learning under their belts before trying again. Others–the get rich quick because so-and-so made a million types–just created a bunch of white noise the average consumer had to wade through before they found something worth reading. What people who all start diving into the market for selfish reasons don’t realize is that they could kill a viable outlet for creators just as quickly as it found it’s spotlight.

    The bigger the boom, the bigger the lull is that so often follows.

    Completing the circle, that’s exactly what happens in cases of overnight popularity on a personal level. Some people develop giant egos they can’t see past. Others get caught up on the corporate side that wants to use them for cranking out the next cash-cow.

    The lull there is complacency.

    Then those very popular authors have people like us wondering why they totally ignored something very simple (like the correct POV) that would have made their work really sing. Maybe they never knew all that much about it. Maybe they had a hellacious deadline and were simply doing the best they could. All any of can do is give it our best shot in the end. But the more you understand craft, the more you’ll do things automatically, without having to stop in the middle of a deadline to evaluate.

    It’s about developing those instincts Larry mentioned…which elevates your personal POV.

  14. Sara Davies

    There are times when a very close third person can feel like first person -showing what the character feels, bringing his memories and worldview into the foreground. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is like that. The story pulls into a more distant view only twice, each time in a separate chapter that follows a scene when the main character, a detective, goes to interview someone. We understand that the third person tale unfolding in those chapters encapsulates what he learns. Things the people would not say but might be inferred because of his life experiences (knowledge of their community and history.) But there are only two chapters like that, which stand out because they are different. The rest is looking over the main character’s shoulder. I’m not sure why the story was told in third person, although it’s a choice that seems to fit with the style of delivery. The language has texture (is not invisible, but is inseparable from the theme?). The style conveys at least as much personality than Catcher in the Rye. Yet the narrator is clearly not the main character. Looks like it was hard to do.

    Depressing to think you could work like a dog to write something that other people would later throw down in disgust, infuriated that you would waste their time, as if you were cavalier about your choices and had spun the whole thing off in as much time as it took them to read. Probably feels a lot like when someone looks at a painting by an accomplished artist and says, “My eight year old could do that!” And you want to explain that no, not only could their eight year old *not* do that, neither could they, even if they worked at it for ten years.

    A novel is a huge and unwieldy thing in which it’s hard to get all the pieces to work in tandem. Change one thing, everything else shifts right along with it. Anything that points toward high-level, big picture management is helpful. So it’s helpful to look at POV as one tool that contributes to making the final product what it is (that with a different choice, the end product would inherently convey a different message.)

  15. Olga Oliver

    @Sara & Robert – I mentioned John leCarre’s new book A Delicate Truth yesterday. Today I received a paper back after already receiving a hardback a week or so ago. Receipt of the paperback is a mystery. I would be happy to drop it in the mail to either of you had I your address. Whoever receives it could pass it on if you wish. My address is:
    olgaoliver@embarqmail.com.

  16. Mike Lawrence

    Is narrative strategy kind of like choosing how to shoot a scene in a movie? Determining what it will look like through the camera?

  17. @ Mike – I like this analogy. Shooting a scene, even shooting the entire story. Both are mission driven, once you know the “content” and the specific mission of each story beat, then you can make a fully informed choice on how BEST to show it, and in our case, tell it. Grainy film, black and white, quick cuts, even the music… they’re all the “voice” of the film, and we write all of those factors from the POV and tense choices we make among others. L.

  18. Lara

    Larry, I really like that analogy, too. Could you please expound on that? I think it would really make scene planning crystal clear for those of us who “see the scene” before it gets on paper.

    Thanks!

  19. MikeR

    @Larry – thanks!

    @Sara – what I meant by “in disgust” is, well, when an omniscient storyteller lets himself become “the third puppeteer in the room.” In other words, isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing. Characters somehow-know what they couldn’t have known, do things out-of-character (such character as they have …), and either make important decisions “for no particular reason” or (much too obviously …) because this is what they need to do in order to set-up the next plot pratfall. You feel like the author was making the whole thing up as he went along, and he probably was. Kind of “deus ex authorica.” Equals yuck.

    If you sit down with an idea in your head and “write hundreds of pages,” this being the very first thing that you do, it’s not a very efficient way to work. It’s like a film director who shoots miles of film in the hope that, somewhere along the way, the Muse will strike him and exonerate him in front of both the audience and the studio executives, who are looking at the fat bills coming in from Eastman Kodak. (Sigh… R.I.P.) Think, “Waterworld.” Then, finally, the film-editor gets locked into a room with all that celluloid and he’s told that he can’t come out until he’s transformed straw into gold. It might work … occasionally, it does … but a storyboard works better.

    In my ongoing story effort, the muse is hard at work but the reams-of-paper are still barely used. I’ve thought about many major-plot ideas, and visualized some really good scene ideas. If I decided to use one of them, I’ll write it. Meanwhile, my muse is taking lots and lots of mental pictures of real people. You might say that I’m noticing people more. Since some of the settings for my story are real places close to home, I visit them. When walking to a local music festival that’s going on this week, I took a route through the area where my story happens, and glanced up. Through a grimy window covered with a mesh screen, I saw a weary-looking man in a restaurant back-room, apparently cutting potatoes. For an instant, our eyes met, and in that moment I robbed the moment of a character and a setting that I’ll probably use. It was no more than a glance that meant nothing, but in a rush my mind was suddenly overflowing with ideas: of what sort of person he might have been; of why he was hard at work with a mound of vegetables and what he thought about his lot; of what sort of flash-of-insight realization a character might have (as I had), if I put =him= on that -very- street where I was … in 1957.

    Can you close your eyes right now and see that street at dusk, either as it was on Tuesday, or as it was when Chattanooga was the smoke-filled town it used to be? Did you notice the man on the opposite side of the street just ahead of you, slipping away silently into the shadows of a side alley? Do you see and hear the steam switcher, muscling a long string of loaded cars away from the nearby grain elevator? Well, I need for you to see that, and lots of things like that, because my story is really “about” the social ambiguities of that place-and-time, more than it is about the plot that drives the story forward to The End. My point-of-view character isn’t “the protagonist,” and he is neither a young nor a powerful man, although he will find that he is more powerful than he remembers.

  20. Kerry Boytzun

    Wow, lots of comments on this thread. Good deal.

    QUESTION:
    Have you ever told someone about something that happened to you in your past, either yesterday, last week or years ago?

    How did you tell it (specifically did you describe it emotionally, with an attitude)?

    As you describe what had happened to you (say an incident in a parking lot, where someone cut you off and took the parking spot you were waiting for), do you describe how you felt AS you describe your experience (give it meaning)?

    For me, I become my character and feel his attitude (or hers). That attitude is developed by the character’s history and I grab elements either out of my past or people I knew–anything that will make me FEEL that attitude.

    I look at writer voice as if I were an actor and I was playing that part. I would describe things and would have my attitude color and filter the description.

    Lots of characters are just plain BORING, like many people you meet in real life. Who wants to listen to those people tell you a story?

    I call this being “animated”. Full of life.

    ***But, I forget who above me in this thread had mentioned it–there can be a problem IF the First Person voice just “won’t shut up” in regards to its opinion –on everything.

    This is no different than someone who has an opinion on everything in life AND will tell you all about it–as you are walking through the mall and everywhere you turn, your buddy just won’t shut the @!#$#$ up in regards to “what’s wrong with that”.

    In other words, opinions convey our personal meaning of whatever is in our experience, or from a past experience, or in regards to other people’s experience.

    As in real life, the writer can’t have their POV narrator “take over” the scene with non-stop opinion of everything.

    As the comment in this thread said, something to the effect, “Shut up and tell the damn story already!”

    I have a pet peeve with writers who can’t shut up, as it’s pulling me out of the story and I have to sigh and wait (or skim ahead) for the actual STORY to start again.

    There’s a guy who writes a successful (money wise) series about a wizard who investigates stuff. It’s First Person with an attitude, and overall the narration is about 50-50. Half great, and half is just waiting for the wizard to shut up with yet another joke or digression about the time when he blah blah blah…

    I mean when the antagonist catches you by surprise and fires a shot at you with some neat weapon–and you (character) go, “Ya know, this reminds me of the time when I was younger and at my pappy’s place where he got drunk all the time and blah blah blah blah”.

    TIMING is everything.

    Lots of writers have their character’s thoughts like commercials on TV. “We interrupt this scene with a thought from our character”.

    Sometimes it works, and sometimes it breaks up the “momentum” and thus the panache–of the scene.

    All of the above is an art. It’s easy to see it not work, but when it works you’re laughing your ass off in regards to the smart ass wizard as he wise cracks every step of the way, pissing off every snob nosed bad guy in the room.

    Yeah, I know I won’t shut the hell up on this post, but here’s the bottom line for a POV that’s LIVE (present):
    If you were in a real life experience (scene) would you have the TIME to talk to yourself about the past, or let loose with a long, thoughtful opinion–about the bear that is running towards you as you are holding the meat for today’s BBQ, and you’re outside, twenty yards away from your cabin…and you left your gun in it?

    Or would you throw the meat at the bear, and RUN like hell for the cabin?

    Or would you start telling me about the time your pappy had a run-in with the law way back and blah blah blah blah?

    Now if you’re telling me the story in PAST tense, then yes, I suppose you could break up the bear story with your pappy–if it was relevant. I mean do you want to tell me about the bear–or your pappy?

    Make up your mind.

    And a final comment on “Past” tense narration: I KNOW that the narrator doesn’t die because he is alive to tell the story!

    Kind of takes the fun out of it (isn’t the hero supposed to have RISK?) for me.

    No risk, no fun. I don’t read Past tense stories–cause there ain’t no risk.

    Okay, I’ll shut up now.

    Good post Larry and everyone!

  21. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Great way to do research and get visuals. Plus the fact that you’re writing about a place that’s local really helps. As usual, I find myself anxious to see how all your planning takes shape.

    @Mike L–I really like the idea of a camera being used to shoot POV. That’s a really helpful idea. The only thing I can think to add to that off the top of my head is that whether written in 3rd, or 1st person, the lens of the camera is still going to change from scene to scene. No movie is filmed with a single lens. And for the writer, the filter used will be indicative of each character’s personal tastes and world views. Which is the interesting and great thing we get to explore. A hundred different people might see the same event a bit differently.

    Think about how at a crime scene, police officers separate the eye witnesses and take to each person separately. If left to talk among themselves, the loudest, or most dominant personality, will begin to influence the opinions of others.

    MikeR, since you have so many different ways planned for your murder, this might be useful to you. Psychology was much less defined during those days and consequently, the police and townsfolk would really be getting an earful of rumors and opinions that would be filtered through the various social strata of the time. Good way to use misdirection on the reader too, if your story calls for that sort of thing.

  22. Sara Davies

    @MikeR

    Wow. Awesome comment. I know what you mean. I also know from experience what it feels like to be both a frustrated consumer and a frustrated creator. The humbling experience of trying to write forces me to be less catty than I might otherwise be…but while I appreciate the effort that goes into a book, that still doesn’t mean I want to read a crappy one. 😉

    There’s plenty of stuff out there that has been published that probably shouldn’t have been. And it wasn’t even that it was bad, necessarily – it just wasn’t pushed far enough. It wasn’t finished. When I get to the point that I can’t tell if making changes is an improvement, and don’t have anyone around me who can tell me what’s not working – or more importantly, how to fix it – that’s where I stop whether I’m done or not.

    Based on what you just wrote, I can close my eyes and see that street at dusk. I can see that man cutting potatoes. I like your questions about what he might have been thinking. I can see the smoke-filled town, the man slipping into the alley, and even the steam switcher (despite the fact that I have no idea what a steam switcher IS.) So you just did it. There you go.

    What are the social ambiguities, and why is the story “about” that? What does that mean to you?

    Those elusive qualities – how to infuse atmosphere, location, plot, and characterization with theme…seems like that stuff often comes through not in the words, but in the silence between the words, what you didn’t say, the implied action that takes place off-camera and is not written…and how you string it all together.

    In a picture, you’ve got a range of lights to darks, color and spatial relationships, issues of depth and movement. Change one and the balance of everything shifts. The success of the work rests not on the parts but on how they interact.

    A book is the same way. I totally get that. But I don’t know how to SEE something that big, that linear. The outline is supposed to do that for me, but it’s limited, in that I still find, when writing a scene, things come up that I didn’t anticipate. I either didn’t think the logistics through the way I thought I had – or I’m going to have to do more research – but why can’t I see up front what the scene is actually going to require?

    My strategic goal is to find a way to break it all down into smaller and smaller parts. I can manage 1000 words – short enough to feel the progression as a whole. If I can break the book into 1000 word chunks, then it will be a matter of writing one piece at a time and putting them in order. All of the Part 2 chunks in one file, all of the Part 3 chunks in another file – enough to get a sense of how one scene builds on the next, but not so much that I get bogged down in navigation.

    Each scene is like a song, and each song goes into the concert that is each section, and I have to listen to it over and over to know if it works or not, meanwhile not just listening but also composing and conducting. There are so many variables. Can’t do it all at once, and don’t know what the steps should be.

  23. Robert Jones

    @Kerry–Insightful, as usual. Here’s my biggest peeve at those types of cut-away scenes that branch off into the past, or to another character. It’s not so much the cutaway at an intense moment that bothers me. Such things are designed to keep the reader in suspense, wondering what will happen. Will the guy getting charged by the bear get hurt, or killed? Hopefully the reader keeps reading to find out. But if it’s made to seem like a thought that the character is having right in the middle of an attack, that’s just bad by design. And a cut to another time or place that’s just for the sake of the cut is boring.

    I think if a writer is going to cut back and forth between past and present, or different characters/subplots to generate suspense, shouldn’t suspense be building in those other threads as well? Do they have to be boring? And if so, has the writer given proper time to the story as a whole?

    I’ve picked on “Game of Thrones” a couple of times in past posts. That’s not to defame George R. R. Martin, who is a terrific writer and does great suspense. And I enjoy an epic yarn now and then as much as the next guy. But I know people who follow that story religiously, recommending I continue with it for various reasons. Meantime, they all ask me questions like, did I suffer from chapter angst when I turned the page and saw the next chapter would be from the POV of a character called John the Bastard–because seeing a chapter from his POV would be boring.

    If that’s the general consensus, then that character’s subplot needed work. First of all, aside from a few scenes that were relevant to the whole “Winter is coming,” part of the story, most of that character’s story was most definitely a vehicle out of control. We see him introduced to a whole other cast of characters, young men in training, basic friendships and an apprenticeship being started. We understand that John will have to train, become a man, but since his story is not the core dramatic thread, why burden the reader with all those superfluous details?

    If his part of the story was cut down to a few scenes of importance, would it effect the story? Yes, by making it stronger. Did the writer know it would bore his readers when he wrote it? Probably not. When you’re working with a large cast, there’s always one who is going to get the lowest rung on the ladder with the fans.

    My point, however, is that if you’re going to make those sort of cuts, make sure what your cutting to is interesting and serves the story in a greater way than just leaving the reader dangling over the interesting part. Because as Larry so often points out, WE can’t emulate those popular authors and get away with it. And if it bores us as a reader, just maybe we should develop an aversion to it anyway in our own writing.

  24. MikeR

    @Robert:

    “Actually, the murder doesn’t have much to do with it … the story isn’t about solving the murder … the police don’t even investigate it … no one runs away in fear for their lives as a result of a run-of-the-mill ‘hit.’ ” … 😀 … (he said, mysteriously).

    @Sara:

    A “steam switcher” is a steam locomotive, which lives in a particular freight-yard as a “switcher,” which means that its purpose is to move cars around during the process of making-up trains, or for serving customers which are deliberately positioned right next to the yard, as is the case in this grain-elevator. (I must be careful not to use such “de-railing” terms in my prose!)

    “Social ambiguity” refers to the fact that, in those days particularly, there were several social castes at work in America … the “black yankees,” the German, the Irish, the “southern black,” the northern white industrialists, the southern white industrialists (many former “carpetbaggers”). All of this had existed in various forms, by that time, for about sixty to eighty years. These castes co-existed and worked together, each one knowing its “place.” Tremendous change was coming, in what would be called “the civil rights movement,” and it could already be felt here, although Chattanooga was never Selma or Memphis. When viewed through the lens our day and time, these inequities are regarded as a pariah; “politically incorrect” and only superficially understood. In those days, however, attitudes were very different, and it happens that many people on both sides didn’t want the changes all knew were coming.

    A very big thematic purpose for my story is to “put you there,” and yet, in so doing, never to judge it by a present-day candle. In fact, not to judge it at all. To our “modern” sensibilities, it might feel like an uncomfortable suit, but to the characters in the story, it is just the context of their lives. It’s not “what the story is about,” and yet, you can’t escape it. 🙂

  25. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Really interesting historical commentary. It’s great when you find a period so rich with contrast to our modern society. The very actions that were normal then can cause huge emotional reactions from readers who are unaware.

    I got caught up in all the craziness of the 19c doing research for my story. Amazing to think that kids back then of age 5-6 were forced to work twelve hours or more per day in textile factories (usually two extra hours of overtimes was mandatory each day on top of the 12 hour shift to keep their production schedules), or crawl on hands and knees through narrow mine shafts dragging metal carts behind them like animals. Then someone graciously passed the “Ten Hours Bill,” limiting the youngsters work days to ten hours.

    And it isn’t as though everyone agreed with this, or thought it all very civilized. Many had little choice, industry leaders didn’t care, it was cheap labor from human cattle (gee, that sounds kind’a like many corporations today). And extra income to parents who, in some cases drank away their meager wages while living in row houses provided by factory owners under very unsanitary conditions. 15-20 would sprawl out on the floor to sleep in a single room. I read an account where one man slept in a corner on a pile of ashes for a bed. The factory practically owned it’s workers, not allowing them to leave the premises during the lengthy work day.

    History shows us how far we’ve come, and yet it’s easy to call folks ignorant that lived a little over a hundred years ago while allowing people to starve and live on the streets today. So far, yet not quite far enough.

  26. Sara Davies

    @ Mike R –

    How is it possible to view another era through the eyes of those who were there? How do you avoid having what you know of the present color your interpretation of what you learn about the historical setting? How do you think like a person of that era in that culture? Sounds interesting, but also difficult.

    It’s hard enough getting everything to line up in a setting that doesn’t exist – one possible future. Doesn’t matter if I guess right, as it’s more of an oblique commentary on the present.

    @ Robert –

    Yup. People still live that way. But context shapes interpretation. Amazing how much people have – and have not – changed in 2500 years.

  27. MikeR

    @Sara –

    “With great difficulty,” I am sure, and exacerbated by the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. 😀

    I’m doing a lot of really fun research .. at the public library (that funny place with paper things, and microfilm) .. at “The Bessie” (bessiesmithcc.org) .. and at the University library that I haven’t entered in (never-mind) years.

    My thinking is this: I don’t want to write a banned book. Nor do I want to write one that would only get read if you are assigned to write a book-report about it. If the writing were to strike you as vulgar or offensive, you’re not going to buy it, simple as that … and I’d be offended to write it that way, anyhow.

    So, instead, I want to set the story in, shall we say, “an oddly-angled room.” It’s a misfit. It’s an attitude, and it’s already being turned topsy-turvy. It represents a social order that’s beginning to go into upheaval, but that hasn’t quite done so yet. The economic power of the city’s movers and shakers is just beginning to tarnish. Ought to be a perfect time and place … a real one. And =within= that space, I want to tell a riveting, page-turner story … from the point-of-view of someone who’s not the protagonist.

    I have no idea how it will “turn out.” 🙂 But, ahem, “that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.”

  28. Robert Jones

    @Sara–Indeed. People, of both the good and bad variety are the constant factor that never seems to change. Those who keep the system/humanity divided, never seem to learn. Their heroes seem to be those who tried and failed before them. But instead of seeing the plan as flawed, their egos push ahead, hoping to succeed, or do it more profitably than those who came before them.

    @MikeR–I think you have a story worth telling. It need not be a misfit, or come across like a cast of prejudistic jackasses. Yes, there were always people motivated by the times. Yes both sides of the argument feared change. The “haves” never want to lose what they’ve gained (or hope to gain). The “have nots” always feared they would be forced out of the proverbial frying pan into a worse case scenario. These feelings, no matter what the attitude of the day, are always prevailent–and has strong political parallels to modern times. When people see a slice of history, the differences are always interesting, even if they are appalling. Like a car wreck, people can’t seem to look away. On the other hand, the similarities are what links them, chains them to the rest and helps motivate that vicarious experience.

    It would become a failed experiment if you tried to make the people of your time totally different just to give a glimps of the differing POVs. It was the times themselves that inspired the attitudes. And a lot of people are sheep who will jump on any bandwagon represented by a strong, profitable, or authoratative argument. But let us not forget that there will also be people who disagreed with both sides. People who felt common decency. Some may have been brave enough to show it openly, even if they got ridiculed. That spelles conflict. Others (especially during the times you’re talking about) kept it to themselves. It wouldn’t be any more unheard of then to have a character who felt the entire social climate was wrong any more than it would be today.

    The setting may change, the arguments may have a slightly different, even more blatant face on certain levels…but the people are all bound by the same human emotions that we have today. And human emotion is the heart of any good story, written in any time. It’s a universal language. Unless you’re writing for Martians, that unchanging center will become the glue that holds your story together and makes it work.

  29. MikeR

    @Robert –

    Exactly. 🙂 “Misfit” does not mean “prejudicial jackass.” (Love that expression …)

    Every story ultimately isn’t (just) about plot: it’s about people. It is also, I think, about place. “Take me away from ‘here and now.’ ” If I can create the place, and a cross-section of attitudes held by different people in that place, and then contrive a plot line that will at-least seek to impose change on pretty much all of them, then things should on a great many levels get very interesting. All without any of them being or becoming “jackasses.” (Not to themselves, anyway.)

    One thing that I hope people will find very interesting is that, even though we call our times “modern” (as everyone did), they are in fact FAR more economically-stressed upon the middle class, who consider inconceivable what was once took for granted. In those days, not only did you never pump your own gas, your driver collected glassware at the gas station: “fill ‘er up with high test.” If you were well-to-do, then of course you had a maid. If you were of the servant-class and had a steady place (and a permanent room) at a fashionable hotel, you were “set.” All you had to do was to look straight ahead and “see nothing.” Mind your own P’s and Q’s.

    I’ve picked a time “just before it all began to unravel.” Just before. The former downtown department stores still today have marble facings, ebony furnishings, stone tiles. (The insurance company just moved out; it’s owned, I think, by Koreans now.) One of the most tony women’s retailers, is today a pawn-shop. Another is a bingo-hall. A local hospital, paid-for by an industrialist, recently closed because no one can afford to go in. But they don’t know what’s coming, and, at the end of the story, by and large they still won’t. But a strange new wind is blowing in from out of the west …

  30. Sara Davies

    I’m aware enough to know that even if I have a great idea for a legal thriller, I can’t write one, because I’m not a lawyer. I won’t try to write a story about medicine because I’m not a doctor. I won’t try to write historical fiction because I’m not an historian.

    It seemed reasonable to think that instead of writing “what I know” I could write a story about a world that doesn’t exist yet – just make it all up and everything would be fine. Right? No. Because even within that world, I don’t know enough about the fake careers of the fake people to pull it off. For the second time, I’ve written a complete Part One for a POV where, in terms of the facts and logistics of characters’ circumstances, it’s too much to wade through. Outline or not. Knowing how it ends or not. The story could be a good story, but I haven’t found the perspective from which to tell it that can actually work for me – work with my strengths and avoid the areas where I’m weak. Character arc? No problem. Figuring out how to use a can opener? Priceless.

    The advice “write what you know” or even “write what you can imagine” – in my case should be amended to “write what you do or have done.” It’s hard enough just to get the thing constructed without adding to it a need for huge amounts of information. My current theory is that “literary” novels getting written by people like me who spend a lot of time staring out the window – because we know what’s involved.

  31. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Sounds like you’ve got a pretty fair idea where things are going. Learning craft and putting it all together does take time. But you have a worthy mission before you.

    @Sara–What are the current difficulties? The scientific stuff? I’m going to ask a question or two based on your last post. It may, or may not be the answer, but I’ll toss it out there anyway.

    It would seem to me that you, on several levels, are your main character. You have all right sort of passions and character traits to do pretty much what she is trying to do…if you happened to be in an alternate reality and got caught up in similar circumstances. By that token, let us pursue an avenue of “alternate” possibilities.

    If you worked for the company in your story, is there a way you could end up in a position working with the slaves? Even if it were on some type of consulting, or humanitarian level, something where the science part didn’t have to make personal sense to you? That part of the story could still be happening, but your main POV character wouldn’t have to be directly involved in lab work.

    Would it change too much of the story to make your main character a psychologist, social worker, or even a menial employee who once developed a rapport with one of the slaves? She may even be surprised, feel under-qualified to do the job…at least until her compassion (and possibly curiosity) tells her there may be a larger reason for her present position…that genetic something within that she is as yet unaware of. She’s still essentially used and abused by her company and would feel quite motivated to turn the tables, free the slaves, etc….

    Again, I’m just tossing this out there off the cuff, but if it were possible, it might give you the POV you’ve been searching for–your own 🙂

  32. Sara Davies

    @ Mike R:

    There are many layers to the social and political forces that shape people, so I think your understanding of that will give depth to the story.

    @ Robert….

    Thanks for playing, as usual. That is exactly what I’m getting at. To do that would require changing everything and starting over, changing where the story begins, and the location. Again.

    Partly the science. Partly that I don’t know how to do what the characters need to do.

    Does the narrator have to be the protagonist?

    If not, and if the narrator were, say, the ghost of the main character’s mother, who could observe the main character becoming a hero, and in the process be liberated herself, I might be able to retain a lot of what I have.

    The mother, who commits suicide at the beginning, is not “me” but she’s at or below my level of knowledge, and there are enough parallels between my life and her back story that I can get into her head and understand who she is.

    Not sure what the difference is between “voice” and POV.

    It would be nice to be able to succeed at creating what I want to create – at least well enough to keep writing from becoming completely demoralizing. And of course it sucks to give up on an idea that I think has merit, is relevant to the times, and could be good if I were able to make it work. The world of this story has become such a huge part of my mental landscape.

    Today I wrote a story about a tiny person who fights his way out of a paper lunch bag. And felt better. 😉

    There is an author who’s been publishing for at least thirty years, who cranks out a new book every two or three. It is the one obviously research-heavy book she has written. Does it surprise you to learn that it’s her most recent?

    I appreciate your suggestions because you seem to think in a similar way and are close enough to the details of process (and understand what I mean when I say “process”) and have struggled enough with these issues yourself that you recognize what I’m asking and have good ideas about the answers. I also appreciate your willingness to share the journey.

  33. Thanks for the great advice on narrative strategy!

    To the one “rule,” I would add a second one: Once you’ve chosen a narrative strategy, be consistent. For example, if the book is written in first person, don’t change to third person only in Chapters 13 and 42. Suddenly changing a pattern is jarring to readers and makes it appear that the author is not in control of his material.

    A great example of narrative strategy is the 1962 movie, MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION. I know, this movie is old and silly, but it makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. The writer used two narrative strategies that make it work –

    1. He used a framing device — Mr. Hobbs dictating to his secretary the story of his vacation. In the beginning, he says he has to “get it off his chest.” At the end, he says to destroy the document because he has gotten it off his chest, and they’re going to book the same vacation house next year.

    2. During the action, Mr. Hobbs makes wry, humorous comments about what is happening. His comments are funny because they’re exaggerations and sometimes the opposite of what is going on:

    While carrying everybody’s heavy suitcases: “To his few remaining friends, Hobbs became known as ‘Red Cap.’

    While sailing with his son through a fog: “The News Service later reported it was then that the wind changed direction and blew steadily out to sea.”

    After getting into a fist fight with his son-in-law’s employer: “Mr. Hobbs began putting his affairs in order.”

    I highly recommend this movie for a delightful study in the use of narrative strategy.

  34. Daniel

    Well this post has screwed with my head.

    So I have the whole book in 3rd person, mainly from point of view of the two main characters, and now I am wondering if the main-est of the main men should be in 1st person.

    Ho hum.

    Great post as usual. This whole site contains more digestible writing goodness than any other. And it’s free!

    Cheers Larry.