You Can’t Be In Two Heads At Once

* Continuing the “Do Not Do” list from January 10th *

The viewpoint (referred to as Point of View—through whose character’s eyes the story is told) is often the first decision made after the inspiration of the idea itself. I have found the use of first person or third person usually becomes readily apparent, though I have written identical scenes using both to ensure the most suitable for a certain piece of writing.

First person (the use of I, me, we) is the most intimate choice, though one fraught with restrictions: the reader sees and knows only what the viewpoint character understands and witnesses.

Third person is the most popular (he, she, they) and tends to be the natural and common choice for most novels and short stories.

And there’s the omniscient, god-like view, where the reader is randomly cast from one person’s thoughts to another, dipping into heads like one would test an assortment of fondues.

#

¬†“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” John said, but knew it was a dangerous idea, one that could get them both killed.

What a pansy-ass, Dave thought, but refrained from saying it. “Risky, but the take is worth it.”

Worth prison? Worth getting killed? No amount of money was worth that to John. “I don’t think so, not with just two of us.”

Dave kept the smile from his face; he had John right where he wanted him. “I know a guy that would be willing to help us.”

John cringed. He had seen Dave’s friends and didn’t want anything to do with them.

 #

Omniscient viewpoint has fallen out of favor, and for obvious reasons: jumping back and forth between two character’s heads (or more) is a tenuous and baffling circumstance for a reader, and quickly gets tedious. The tendency is to have the characters sound the same or so near the same that the reader gets confused, especially when the “tags” are left out— John said, Dave kept the smile from his face—and it’s never a good idea to “tag” every line of dialogue, whether the he said variety or a character’s movement.

Another reason omniscient viewpoint has lost popularity is that it is difficult to do well. In most cases, it shows a writer’s poor form and lack of skills.

The above example is an intentional use of the god-like viewpoint choice, but what happens most times is an unintentional misstep, something like this:

Bright sun, blue sky, and having company during the shopping trip added up to a great day for Kathy. Desiree stopped at the shop window, admiring the book display. Kathy pulled up and doubled back to be with her friend, and knew Desiree focused on the book about angels at the base of the display.

Kathy could not know her friend focused on the particular book about angels, nor could she know Desiree admired the display, but she could guess or surmise that was the case; it’s critical you let the reader know that Kathy is guessing (witnessing) Desiree’s interest rather than knowing.

A rewrite might be:

Bright sun, blue sky, and having company during the shopping trip added up to a great day for Kathy. Desiree stopped at the shop window to stare at the book display. Kathy pulled up and doubled back to be with her friend, and saw Desiree’s eyes riveted on the book about angels.

The rewrite shows what Kathy observes about Desiree’s behavior, using the verbs to stare and riveted to indicate Desiree’s attention to the display and the book about angels.

Should you decide you do need to be inside the head of more than one character, there is a remedy—the multi-third person viewpoint. In the multiple viewpoint, you are never in two people’s head at the same time, or during the same scene. Each character gets their own section (whether chapter or part of a chapter broken by the # sign), so that your “jumping” is identified and makes it easy for the reader to follow—clarity without confusion the requirement.

That being said, a short story is not normally a place for the multi-viewpoint, but can be accomplished if you identify for the reader when you are leaving one character’s head and delving into the next—again with the pound sign (#) to break the flow. A tip: make it clear in the first sentence of the new section or chapter that you now have another viewpoint because the break in text (#) can indicate a transition of another kind, such as time or location.

Volumes have been written on viewpoint; these are examples of common problems that pop up, often so subtle the creator misses the confusion despite a number of revisions. Have you ever typed “that” when it should have been “the,” and about the gazillionth time you’ve read it, you finally see it? How did I miss that? (A good reason to have a First Reader whose fresh eyes will pick up the unintentional errors that inevitably pop up in a manuscript).

Choosing viewpoint will dramatically change any piece of writing, altering the intimacy with which the reader will identify with the story. If unsure which would be best, experiment with different viewpoint forms—you will sense which feels right for the tale you weave.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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NO PROLOGUES, and Don’t Forget It

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The most troublesome “Do Not Do” item for me: NO prologues (especially within the fantasy genre).

At writer’s conferences, on writer-help sites, from agents, “NO PROLOGUES” is decried loud and often, especially for fantasy novels; I generally disagree, especially for fantasy novels.

The word prologue is of Greek origin, from pro, “before” and logos, “word,” and is attributed to Euripides, an early playwright circa 400 BC—it has been around for awhile.

You cannot read a list of great fantasies without noticing many include prologues (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Jim Butcher’s Alera series, the Swords Trilogy—Moorcock calls it an Introduction, but it provides the classic function of a prologue—Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, Robert Jordan’s Wheels of Time series, and many more).

Granted, each of the writers mentioned already had a following and were professional, living-making writers when those books were accepted. Agents, publishers, and readers tend to offer favorite writers more latitude, but I believe that view misses the point when it comes to fantasy novels.

Within the fantasy genre, prologues have a special and unique purpose: introduce a new world before launching into the story. Done well, a prologue can set the tone of the novel, giving the reader a special glimpse at the world and specific characters (usually) as they embark on a wondrous journey. Done poorly, a prologue can be a list of people, places, even the gods of the world dished out in cumbersome backfill—a litany of information that boggles the reader’s mind, confuses and causes the book to be returned to the shelf, unread.

A prologue is a double-edged sword that, when wielded inefficiently, slices and separates the reader from the make-believe into an attempt to memorize thirty of forty names (many of them hard to pronounce in the first place, another flaw of a poorly executed prologue) that are too much to grasp in the few pages offered. In that case, I would say drop the prologue and get into the story; still, within the story, don’t overload the reader with a dozen hard-to-pronounce names—no matter how good the prose, the effect will not be the one desired.

What are we to do?

When working on my novel, The Returning, I battled using a prologue, vacillating back and forth during long conversations with myself. At times, I felt like I was talking to an idiot.

I concluded the story proved a better tale with the prologue, and for a very specific reason: the prologue introduces the “speaker” who tells the story, done in first person while the novel itself is third person.

The prologue begins like this:

My name is Joldar, the chronicler. Some refer to me as the scribe, which is accurate enough, and some say prophet, which is not.

I introduce the world, Joldar’s friend and King, a bit of history about the land done in story form without much backfill during the 500-word prologue. That’s another thing: a prologue should be succinct and certainly not rambling, filled with only pertinent information, items giving the reader a sense of the world and the people there, problems to be faced and (hopefully) overcome. The idea is to use the prologue as a spring-board to catapult the reader to Chapter 1, page 1.

Dozens of people have read The Returning’s prologue and 1st two chapters, and offered feedback. The split came in at about 60/40 for the prologue, and most of the positive reviews were from fantasy readers; many of the “get rid of the prologue” camp had little or no experience with heroic fantasy. This confirmed my suspicions that fantasy readers are more tolerant of prologues than other genre readers.

So why aren’t agents more tolerant of fantasy prologues? I believe agents have seen so many poorly executed prologues their gut reaction is to disregard them entirely. I believe they have had their fill of “The world Targon fell to ruin after the five gods of Collyn decided each of the others were wrong. Delph and Sentaurian, along with Flecto’levi shifted into the fifth realm, away from their brother, Decoman, and their sister, Euphorious, to the land of . . . .” You get the idea . . . Blah, Blah, and more Blah.

If you wish to study prologues done well, read George R. R. Martin’s beginning of The Game of Thrones, the first book of the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Not only is it a story-within-a-story that highlights a thread weaving throughout the developing series, but it is done with showing rather than telling style.

As always, study how successful writers handle individual situations to enhance your own skills.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sympathetic Characters Fuel Interest

Continuing the “Do Not Do” list of January 10th, number 6 says, “Develop a sympathetic character readers can identify with,” which implies Do Not create horrid lead characters. Why? Because creating a nasty lead character that keeps a reader’s interest is extremely difficult to accomplish.

I can think of a few despicable protagonists though I am sure many others exist: Scrooge, Stephen R. Donaldson’s protagonist in the “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” series, Doro in “The Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler.

First and foremost, characters make a story. Without a protagonist the reader can relate to, a well-plotted and otherwise amazing tale can fall flat. Think of the novels you have read and the “people” populating those stories; likely, the characters are what you remember most.

Pip in Great Expectations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (and thousands more) are sympathetic characters readers are drawn to because of their human frailties. The fact they live in a time and place unfamiliar to us is part of the joy that comes from reading, but it’s the people, their flaws and their difficulties that draw us to re-read stories told so well.

What, exactly, do readers relate to? Emotions, pain, struggles. Emotions drive a character toward action, and those emotions fuel reader interest. Although our lives may be quite pedestrian compared to the characters in novels, each of us has felt ridicule, witnessed injustices, doubted our abilities, and been overwhelmed with desperation.

If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the father of action.

A desperate, sympathetic protagonist gains support and causes readers to become nervous for the character’s future, which catapults them toward the climax—exactly what we want.

Simply, it is easier to care about someone we like, and that is true for story characters as well. Of course, it is too simplistic to write a character that does not surprise the reader, who does not on occasion act or behave a bit off-kilter. Whether a character is thoughtful and resigned does not mean he or she cannot respond passionately or angrily in certain situations; in the same vein, an impulsive character—one who has no filter on what they say and seems uncaring about anything other than themselves—can and should show compassion outside their own myopia.

To be a whole and three-dimensional character, characters must act in a way that is consistent with humanity, and that means occasionally doing something surprising or different than their norm.

When you begin to create a character, think of those little things, the traits that make them an individual, and weave them into their interactions with others populating your story. Sometimes it can be a gesture—a young girl brushing at her hair when nervous, or an old woman petting an imaginary cat on her lap—or an attitude, or a prejudice, or any number of things that make them unique. Give us a reason to care for them, and just as important, an understanding of who they are. All people are different, an amalgamation of experiences, thoughts, and actions; the sympathetic character is no different.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Stop The Exclamation!

Another¬† “Do Not Do” item from January 10th.

At a Writing Conference and Workshop last year, an agent declared there should be “no more than one exclamation point (!) per 50 pages.” Mmm. Does she count them, and should the poor ignorant writer go beyond the quota, will the book immediately get scrubbed from consideration? Elmore Leonard is quoted as saying, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Strict adherence, or tongue-in-cheek? You decide.

Although overuse of the exclamation point detracts from otherwise well-written prose, they have their places, just not many. Specifically, the exclamation point is used at the end of a word, phrase, or sentence to indicate a strong emotion or statement, and in dialogue to show a rising voice. The problem, I believe, is the misuse of the punctuation mark, as in,

“Stop!” he yelled.

The he yelled makes the exclamation mark unnecessary, and in fact, redundant. The “tag,” he yelled (screamed, shouted, hollered) is often a better way for the character to “exclaim,” though I dislike the “Stop,” he exclaimed choice.

The exclamation point can be a powerful tool, and its usage needs to be saved for those perfect times; they jump off the page, but too many will flag the writing as amateurish and deter from the intended impact.

Bonnie whirled and fled.
“Stop!”
She did not look back.

Bonnie whirled and fled.
“Stop,” he yelled, but she ignored him.

Bonnie whirled and fled. He called for her to stop; she increased her pace.

Returning to an example used on last week’s post (when discussing comma usage) from my novel, The Returning, below is the continuation of the scene:

“You know I would have given my life to protect your goods but there was no opportunity to stand and face them like a man and—”

“Silence!” King Theldron stood and turned from the sniveling merchant. “Leave me,” he said.

It is true I can cast the sentence in a variety of ways; I chose the exclamation point in order to 1) show the King’s impatience, and 2) to indicate the rising of his voice.

Like all language tools, exclamation points fulfill a purpose, a specific purpose whose power is lost when they dot a page. One last thing: NEVER use more than one at a time—leave that for Facebook.

See you on the next page,

Rick