Saturday, September 19, 2020

Don't Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character!

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Want to write popular fiction that captivates your readers and sells well, with great reviews? It's all about fiction-writing techniques that will enthrall the reader, rather than turning them off.

Entice your readers, don’t bore them.

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!

In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and maybe even find something else to do instead.   

Don’t start with your character alone, musing or reminiscing.

Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.

Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!

Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.

If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.

Involve and engage the readers.

It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.

Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.

Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.

For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you, so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.

Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.

That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.

So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.   

Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.

And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!

Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, at her Amazon Author Page, and on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Concrete Tips & Examples for "Showing" Rather than "Telling"

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

 "SHOW, DON’T TELL" -- This phrase has been repeated to the point where you might feel it's hackneyed and you can dismiss it--NOT! No matter how many times you've heard it, this concept is still critical to creating fresh fiction that captivates readers and garners great reviews. It's also one of the most difficult concepts for new fiction writers to grasp, along with deep point of view. (The two concepts are inextricably entwined.) Understanding and mastering these two interrelated concepts will make a huge difference in the quality of your stories by engaging readers emotionally and keeping them turning the pages.

Showing instead of telling your story brings your characters and scenes to life. Using this technique will suck your reader into your story world and right inside your protagonist, experiencing her fear along with her, feeling the sweat on her brow and her adrenaline racing, pulse quickening right along with hers, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.

~ Don’t tell us what happened – show us what happened.

To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” think of it this way: Which would you rather do -- go see an exciting movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.

A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe or narrate (or worse, summarize) important events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing critical events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ actions, reactions, inner thoughts and feelings, and actual words (direct dialogue in quotations).

Bestselling author Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you’re trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.”

~ Cut back on narration, description, and exposition.

Effective, engaging storytelling is definitely not about relating the events after the fact or interpreting for the readers. Keep the story moving and the characters interacting. The author stepping in to describe or explain things to the readers jolts us away from the characters and their plight and can be distracting, boring, and irritating for readers.

~ Don’t get in the way or interpret for us.

We like to experience things for ourselves, not hear about them from someone else. Think about being subjected to photo after photo, or even videos, about your neighbors’ vacation. Yawn. In the same way, readers of popular fiction don’t want to be kept at arm’s length, to be told what’s happening by an intermediary narrator. They want to experience the events firsthand, to see, hear and feel what’s happening. They want to sense the character’s fears, hopes, joys, and worries and draw their own conclusions.

As the late, great Jack Bickham said, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike, it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – short-changed of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.”

It’s through characters interacting that a scene comes alive, so be sure to put us right there with the characters, in the middle of the tension and conflict, using “live” action, dialogue, sensory details, thoughts, and emotions.

~ Use deep point of view.

Avoid omniscient point of view, which is distracting and distancing. Use close third-person (or first-person) POV  to put us right into your protagonist’s or other main character’s head and skin. Show us her thoughts, reactions, and plans, his inner fears, hopes, resentments, anger, confusion, tenderness, relief, and joy. Don’t keep the reader at arm’s length by describing your hero or heroine from the outside, using omniscient or distant third-person point of view.

~ Evoke all five senses.

Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to feel what the character is feeling, experience their fear, joy, anger, determination, and pain, know their inner hopes and thoughts, and also see what’s happening, hear the different voices of the characters and other sounds, smell the smells, feel the tactile sensations, and taste the food and drink along with them. Telling, on the other hand, is summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the life-giving sensory information and just relates the basic actions and events that occurred.

~ Use powerful, evocative phrasing.

Instead of “the miner was tired” (telling), say “the miner trudged home, head bowed,” or “the miner plodded along, his boots like lead weights” or “the miner clomped over the gravel with heavy steps.” Or slogged or tramped or lumbered or dragged or shuffled (all showing).

Do a search for the word “was” – it’s often an indicator of telling instead of showing, as in “she was sad” or “he was angry.” Show their feelings instead by their thoughts, actions, words, tone, and body language.

~ Add in lots of tension and conflict.

Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. Tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward. As Jack M. Bickham said, the conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.” If you have a scene where everyone is getting along great, revise it to add more tension.

EXAMPLES OF SHOWING, RATHER THAN TELLING:

Telling: Jake’s words spooked me.

Showing: The hair on my arms rose when I thought about Jake’s words.

Telling: George was disgusted and angry.

Showing: George pounded his fist on the table and swore at her, his lips curling. “Don’t ever do that again.”

Telling: Janie was bored at her Grandma’s.

Showing: Janie wandered from room to room, trying to find something to do. She wished it wasn’t raining outside. She looked through Grandma’s old books but nothing interested her.

~ Also, no need to “tell” after you’ve “shown.”        

Don’t explain after the fact. The words and actions should convey what you're trying to show.

Before:

“You’re late!” the general said. He didn’t like to be kept waiting.

After:

“You’re late!” The general glared at him, hands on hips.

Other no-no examples of telling after showing:

In each case below, take out the unnecessary sentence at the end:

She moped around the house and wouldn’t answer the phone. Even TV didn’t interest her. She was depressed.

“You crack me up,” she said, laughing hysterically. Joel could be so funny.

RECAP – TIPS FOR SHOWING INSTEAD OF TELLING:

~ Show the characters’ actions as they’re occurring, in real time.

~ Use deep point of view to get right into the skin, head, and heart of your character.

~ Show us your viewpoint character’s reactions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

~ Add in sensory information. What are they seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling?

~ Include lots of spirited, to-the-point dialogue. 

~ Look for “was” or “were” and rephrase the sentence, replacing the adjective with a compelling verb or verbal phrase.

~ Cut way back on narrative description, exposition, and lengthy explanations of the character’s past or motivations.


~ Keep flashbacks short, and show them in real time, with action and dialogue.

~ Throw in plenty of conflict and tension. 

~ Avoid telling after you’ve shown.

Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your readers out – or worse, end up boring them. You don’t want to show every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell,” to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail. 

The main thing to keep in mind is to never tell the reader, after the fact (or have a character telling another character), about a critical scene. Instead, dramatize it in the here and now, with dialogue, action, and lots of sensory details to bring it to life for the reader.

And check out these articles on Point of View on this blog:

POV 101 -- Get Into Your Protagonist's Head
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling FictionFIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLERas well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word UsageShe has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers  Website: www.JodieRenner.comFacebook. Amazon Author Page.

Friday, July 3, 2020

How to Create an Engaging Third-Person Voice in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

If you want to write fiction that engages readers and sells, it's critical to develop an authentic, compelling voice in your novel. The key to accomplishing this is to recognize that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and reactions of your main character (or other important character -- villain, love interest -- in their own scene).

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games

These novels are all written in the first person ("I"), so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person (he, she), too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view. 

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s. The same goes for any scenes shown from the viewpoint of the antagonist or other important characters, of course.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood. 

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately describe the scene or explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character? 

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity: 

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before: 

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

Jodie’s comments: 

We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either. 

After: 

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Here’s an example of a skewed, dark description through the thoughts and observations of the villain of a novel, a nasty character, a murderer with no conscience. This is from a thriller manuscript by talented writer Dara Carr, which I had the pleasure of editing several years ago.

The setting is a tourist destination on the Pacific Coast, Cannon Beach, Oregon, with its much-photographed Haystack Rock. The popular seaside resort is usually described in idyllic terms in travel and tourist brochures. Not so in this character’s viewpoint and voice.

    A gusty wind drove a spray of grit and salt at the van’s pitted old windshield. He ran the wipers to clear his sightline. The condos, once white, looked shell-shocked and gray. In another year, Marr figured the entire place would turn into driftwood.

    Expensive driftwood. The condos were beachfront property. Personally, he wouldn’t pay a dime to live there. The Oregon coastline, jagged and sharp like the edge of a serrated knife, was good for one thing only: boat crashes. And the famous Haystack Rock? Plastered with bird shit. Home to Dr. Death, who’d plot the end of the world from his roost on top of the rock.

Note how the choice of words and imagery (voice) in the excerpt above deepens the characterization of the villain and increases tension while setting the scene.

TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE POV CHARACTER'S VOICE: 

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved. 

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling. 

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes. 

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person. 

~ Stay in character. 

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their current mood, level of tension/anxiety, physical discomfort, and sensory feelings. 

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details on setting, characterization, and action through the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude! 

For more on this topic, click on this link to go to POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View and also Captivate Your Readers.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing Guides by Jodie Renner:

~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk 

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Quick Tips for Avoiding Viewpoint Gaffes in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

For an introduction to point of view in fiction and especially deep point of view or close third-person POV, see my articles 

POV 101 -- Get Into Your Protagonist's Head
POV 103 -- Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

POV = point of view = viewpoint – Who’s telling the story?  Whose story is it? or, for novels written in multiple viewpoints, Whose head and body are we in for that scene?

Here are some quick additional tips for avoiding POV gaffes in your fiction:

~ First, decide whose scene it is. Who has the most at stake? (If in doubt, show the from the viewpoint of your protagonist.)

~ Now, get into that character’s head and body and stay there for the whole scene or chapter. Don’t flit around to the thoughts of other characters or show anything that’s going on outside of your POV character’s range or perceptions.

~ Don’t show or describe things going on behind the character’s back, in another room, or anywhere out of their sight or hearing range. Only show us what the character can logically perceive at that time.

~ To describe the setting, use the perceptions, words, goal, attitude, and mood of the POV character for that scene. Don’t describe a scene as a neutral observer or as the author talking to the readers.

~ Color your descriptions of other characters with the attitude and feelings of your POV character toward them. Avoid neutral descriptions.

~ Don’t describe other characters in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. For example, don’t give a detailed description from head to toe of a character the POV character is looking at and already knows very well, like a family member.

~ Don’t get into the inner thoughts or feelings of any other characters in that scene. Show their thoughts, emotions, attitudes and intentions by their facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, words, and actions – anything the POV character can perceive.

~ When starting a new scene or chapter, use the name of the viewpoint character right away, in the first sentence, to establish immediately for the reader whose head we’re in now.

~ After introducing the POV character, refer to him or her in an informal way, as they would think of themselves. Don't use "Mr." or "Dr." or "The director," for example.

~ Use the POV character’s name at the beginning of scenes, then use mainly “he” or “she” except when their name is needed for clarity. (The “he” or “she” is like “I” and draws us in closer.)

~ Refer to other characters by the name the POV character normally uses for them.

~ Avoid lengthy "info dumps." Don’t butt in as the author to explain things to the readers, outside of the character’s viewpoint. Instead, reveal the info from the character’s POV or as a question-and-answer dialogue, with some attitude and tension to spice things up.

~ Don’t show the POV character’s facial expression or body language (unless they’re looking in a mirror). They don’t know what’s going on with their face. Or indicate it somehow through their thoughts or fears. For example, you could say “She felt her face flush” to indicate that she’s blushing.

~ Show the POV character’s inner thoughts, emotions, and reactions constantly to increase reader engagement.  

~ Sprinkle in brief direct thought-reactions in italics, like What? to reveal the character’s true feelings and increase intimacy with the readers.

~ Constantly show the POV character’s sensory reactions to their environment, other characters, and what’s happening. Use as many of the five senses as is appropriate to get us into the skin of the character. Also show fatigue, fear, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc. That way, readers are drawn in and feel they "are" the character.

~ Keep the narration in the POV character’s voice. Not only should the dialogue be in the character’s voice and style, but the narration should too, as that’s really the character’s thoughts and observations.

~ Avoid lengthy backstory dumps, the author telling the readers about the character and their background. Introduce only the essential info, through the characters. Or use brief flashbacks, in scenes in real time, with action and dialogue.

~ Don’t have characters magically knowing the names of other characters they’ve never met or heard of, just because we, as the readers, have met those other characters. This is an easy gaffe to make inadvertently.

For more tips on using deep point of view to engage your readers and bring your characters and story 
to life, see Jodie’s writers’ guides in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, including her latest, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

As I discussed in POV 101, in order to draw the readers in and grab them emotionally, every story needs to have a clearly dominant viewpoint character the readers can immediately identify with

We should meet that protagonist right away, preferably in the first paragraph, and the first chapter should be entirely from her (or his) point of view, so the reader knows whose story it is and can start bonding with her and rooting for her. When we see the story through her eyes, reacting as she does to her problems, it sucks us into the story and we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her.

In POV 102, I gave some tips for avoiding “head-hopping.” If we stick mainly with our main character, in his head and heart, with a bare minimum or no stepping back to describe things from the author’s stance (omniscient POV), we’re using deep point of view. Also called close third-person POV, this intimate viewpoint is a lot like first-person point of view, with the added freedom of switching to the villain’s or some other character’s POV when it suits our purpose. 

Deep POV is a powerful way of drawing your readers into your story quickly and making them worry about your hero right away, and keep worrying – which is exactly what you want!

But how do you go about this? 

Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about a macho, hero-type guy named Kurt, who defeats the villain, restores justice, and even gets the girl. It’s Kurt’s story so he’s your main viewpoint character. How do you make sure your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by
Kurt, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Kurt. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Kurt walks into a bar, for example, you do not imagine how the bar looks from some god-like authorial stance high above, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Kurt sees it, walking in purposefully and looking around.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the bar. Show Kurt’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying, “The bar was noisy, dark and smoky,” say something like, “The cigarette smoke in the air stung Kurt’s eyes and, in the dim light, he couldn’t make out if his target was there. As he looked around, the room started to quieten down. Heads turned, and eyes took him in, some curious, some hostile.” This way, the reader is seeing the scene through Kurt’s head and identifying with him, starting to worry about him. This from-the-inside-out approach is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get truly engaged in your story.

But you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a rancher or a drifter or a hard-boiled P.I, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms, or tell about things he probably wouldn’t notice, like the color coordination of the d├ęcor, the chandeliers, or the arrangement of dried flowers in an urn on the floor.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip
, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Kurt, or telling about something that’s happening out in the street or even in a hidden corner of the bar, while Kurt is still at the entrance of the bar. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Kurt, not by going into their heads at this point, but by what Kurt perceives—he sees their disapproving, admiring, angry, curious, or intense looks, picks up on their body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

Then, in a later scene or chapter, you can go into the bad guy’s point of view and find out what he thinks of Kurt. Or, once he meets the girl, write a scene or chapter in her viewpoint so the reader finds out more about her and what she thinks of our hero Kurt.

This technique, properly used, will suck your readers effectively into your story world, where they really want to be, engaged, involved, and connected. 

For more techniques to draw readers in emotionally, see my book, Captivate Your Readers, available on all Amazon sites. 

And click here for some quick tips for avoiding POV gaffes.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

POV 102 -- How to Avoid Head-Hopping

by Jodie Renner, editor and author, JodieRenner.com   

In "POV 101 – Get into your protagonist’s head and stay there," I discussed the effectiveness of starting out your story in your protagonist’s point of view and staying there for most of the novel.

But what if you want to show how other people are feeling? If they’re important characters, like the villain, a romantic interest, or a close friend or family member, you can and should give them their own POV scenes, where you get into their heads and we see their thoughts, emotions, goals, aspirations and fears. This way we, the readers, find out things the main character doesn't know. Great for adding suspense and intrigue!

If another character is in the same scene as your main character, you show their thoughts, feelings and attitude only through what your protagonist can perceive—their attitude, words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and actions. 

Say you’re writing a romantic suspense or mystery, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, showing her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. The hero, whom she’s just met under unfortunate circumstances, is angry. You’ll show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him at that point (What the hell is going on here? he thought. What’s she trying to pull off, anyway?), but by what the heroine is seeing and hearing—his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.



The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Don't go back and forth within a paragraph or go into another character's thoughts for only a sentence or two. At the minimum, give the other person a paragraph or two. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action, since we’re still in the same scene. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time -- in other words, a new scene.

So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?

First of all, in order to become emotionally engaged in a story, readers want to identify with and bond with one main character -- your protagonist or hero/heroine. They want to follow that character vicariously, know their thoughts and hopes and fears, almost be that character for most of the novel. So it's natural to be privy to that character's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. But if the author suddenly jolts them out of that character and into the thoughts of another character, it feels unnatural and reminds us that we're reading a book. It's like the author is too heavy-handed, too intrusive. It can be subliminally confusing and annoying. Do that often enough and readers might put the book down and find another or write a less-than-satisfactory review. 

Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to go into another character's viewpoint. And most scenes should be in the POV of your protagonist.

Here’s an example of a viewpoint gaffe, which I made up:

Our heroine, Carole, is stirring the spaghetti sauce on the stove and talking to her husband on the phone. They’re discussing the fact that their son, Colton, is grounded. Suddenly, the author jumps into her son’s head and tells us about Colton sneaking by behind her back (his rap music is playing loudly in his room), and out the front door, then jumping on his bike and racing off. Back to Carole, who continues to stir the spaghetti and talk on the phone.

What’s wrong here? We were in Carole’s POV, and she had her back turned so she wouldn’t know Colton was sneaking past, especially with all that noise coming from his room. And how would she know he’s riding away on his bike? Another jarring POV shift in the same scene would be if we suddenly started seeing her husband waving his secretary away because he’s in an important conversation. We’re in Carole’s POV in this scene, and she can’t see what her husband is doing at his office.

Here’s another example of ping-ponging point of view, where we the readers jump back and forth over miles, within seconds.

We start out in Steve’s point of view, who’s in trouble and has just picked up the phone and called his wife, Grace:

“Grace, thank god you’re home. This is all too much for me. My life is crumbling around me and I can’t seem to do anything about it,” Steve said, closing his eyes and rubbing his face.

The sadness and despair in his voice brought tears to Grace’s eyes.

“I have to think.” There was long pause before Steve continued. “Luckily, George is right here. I’ll ask if he knows a good attorney who can help with this.”   

“That sounds good.” She felt some relief.   

“I’ll call you later,” Steve said, then hung up and slumped back in his chair.

“I’ll be waiting,” she said softly. The call ended before she could say I love you.

What’s wrong with how this scene is written? It's disjointed and confusing. Also unnatural. In reality, we would be one of those people and would have to infer how the other one is feeling or what they're doing by what they say, their inflection, background noises, etc.

Choose either Steve or Grace and play the scene from his or her POV. Show us only what he or she can see, hear, and perceive.

A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.”

By the way, my third book, Captivate Your Readers, gets into a lot of detail on engaging your readers and bringing your story and characters to life by using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, and stepping back as the author to let the characters tell the story in their own voice.

 
And click here for some quick tips on avoiding viewpoint gaffes. 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.