Saturday, 28 August 2010

Writing Styles

Writing Styles and Tone of Voice

Your writing style is just like your fingerprint -  it’s unique. Some writers are blunt and to the point, others are prosaic, some are erudite and some are poetic. Each writer has his or her own ‘voice’ within writing, a way of expressing the story to the reader. How you do that is the subjective part, and sometimes it can take years to find that ‘voice’. The writing reflects your personality rather than someone else’s.

Writing style is all about the way you put together words and sentences. There is no right or wrong way, other than to be clear and concise and convey the message of the story, and that is precisely why some readers prefer one writer to another. It’s personal preference, their idea of good writing style. I personally like Stephen King’s writing and Dean Koontz – each has their own distinct style and yet they write similarly. I like to read Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy but I don’t like Frederick Forsythe’s style.

Some writers are straight to the point, gritty, while others have an elegant softness to their prose. Some like to write long-winded descriptions, others prefer the cinematic speed of jumping from one scene to the other to keep the pace. Some gush, others stand back.

Whichever the type, they’re all individual styles.

Contemporary genre v. Literary

Some obvious styles fuel many debates. Do you write contemporary (genre) style, or do you prefer literary?

Genre fiction is usually plot driven; fast paced with myriad characters and will usually have the reader hooked until the last page. There is a multitude of different genres and your story would fit neatly into one of them.

It’s assumed that most people like to read genre fiction because literary fiction belongs to the realm of fiction snobs, the literati, the intelligent writers whose works transcend normal fiction. Not so. The word ‘literary’ is an overused term which has come to mean cultural snobbery by default. Literary fiction is, however a distinctive style.

This type of fiction is normally character driven, the consensus being that these stories tend solely to concentrate on character and meander along at a gentle pace and don’t really do a lot, and because they’re character driven, the thrust of the whole story isn’t as strong as a plot driven piece.

The other difference is that literary novels can have long, beautifully written, flowery descriptions which don’t actually get to the point and don’t normally fit into a usual fiction genre. The mode allows the writer to be somewhat indulgent with style over substance and invoke the entire tone of the piece which rarely changes throughout.

Of course, being literary doesn’t mean it’s snobby. It’s simply another way to express your ideas more eloquently and elegantly. Literary novels are not written to sound intelligent or deliberately flowery, but it’s merely the style of the author. If you write this way, then you have a literary style.


The tone and style of writing is also an individual trait. It’s not what you say, but how you say it. The way you express your attitude, ideas and how intonation of the voice bears clarity to the meaning of what you write, is what makes the tone of writing important.

Think of the tone of voice we use when we speak to someone – is it warm, cold, sarcastic, dark or lighthearted? It works the same way in writing because how you write your scenes/chapters is the tone the reader picks up on. The tone you use will affect the way the reader views the story, the events and the characters. The tone represents the mood of the story.

If you are new to writing, it may take a while to find your style. It’s not an instant process and only emerges as you write more and learn about yourself as a writer. Slowly your style, your ‘voice’ will emerge. It will be different to other writers because it’s fashioned from your personality. Don’t make the mistake of copying your favourite authors because while this emulation might seem gratifying, the end result can be stilted and contrived – it’s not really you.

Once you find your style, you’ll have more control over how the reader reacts to the stories you write because of the way you write, the tone of your voice and the individuality that is your personality.

The style that emerges might have a sense of immediacy or gritty realism, or perhaps there’s a hint of poetic nuance in your prose. People often say they can spot my writing because I have a poetic sense of voice; it’s a definitive style, a signature recognisable by my readers. It’s not quite genre based and it’s not truly literary, it’s somewhere in between, but it’s me.

Writing style and tone of voice make writing an individual art form. It has the ability to make your writing stand out and be noticed. It has the ability to turn a good writer into a great writer. Above all, it’s about you.

Next time: The process of story writing.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

POV Continued...

POV and Tenses

Feeling tense?

Problems with POV tenses within fiction are common. We all slip up occasionally, shifting from tense to another in the narrative without realising. Even established authors do it, so don’t feel too bad.

Verb tense tells us when the action occurs - in the past, the present or the future. It also lets us whether the action was completed or is continuing.
Past tense is the narrator telling us what happened, since it happened in the past. Present tense is telling us the events as they happen, now. Future – well that’s self-explanatory, it’s what will happen in the future, from this moment.

First Person POV and Tenses
With first person point of view, you can have first person present tense or first person past tense. Most first person stories are past tense. This means the narrator looks back and tells his or her story:

I saw her there, she was lovely. “Hello,” I said.

First person present can be a difficult beast to master, and yet most new writers inexplicably choose this POV for their stories.

I see her there, she is lovely. “Hello,” I say.

The reason it’s difficult is because the narrator is dealing with the present only, and cannot possibly know the future, and therefore cannot indicate to the reader what may happen, nor describe past events. And because it’s present tense, it’s also very easy to slip into past tense in the middle of a paragraph or within dialogue. For example:

I know what I want to say to him, but I can’t find the words. (Present tense).

He looks at me. (Present tense). He frowned. (Past tense)

‘Look, John, it’s not working,’ I said. (Past tense)

See how easy it is to slip from one tense to another? Just a few words can change the whole thing. Readers won’t notice so much because they’re not out to pick tiny errors like this, but editors do look for them, and you should try to discipline yourself to watch out for them too.

I would advocate first person past tense to new writers, more so in short stories, to create a sense of immediacy, but remember that by using first person you can’t observe everything (as narrator) because the character can’t. (But you can in third person).

Third Person POV and Tenses

Third person POV can be limited and unlimited. Limited means you stick with one character throughout the story without changing to other characters. Unlimited means you can switch point of view from one character to another in new scene or chapter.

Third person past tense is the most common form of storytelling. The story has already happened and the narrator is telling us about it. This past tense offers a great deal of scope for description, narrative and dialogue in terms of depth and range (unlike the limited, distended first person POV), and by offering diversification, you’re able to explore inner thoughts of different characters, describe action from a subjective point of view (rather than the limited I did this, I saw her do that of first person). You can move around freely within the dimension of your novel/story, just like a movie.

Third person present tense is less common and makes for a stilted, awkward read. For instance, ‘Mike goes to the diner to meet Jenny. He crosses the road, aware of speed of the cars and thinks at the back of his mind...’

This reads more like a stage/movie script, which is fine, but doesn’t work so well for fiction. It has immediacy, but it leaves little room for scope to explore.

As with all writing, which POV you choose and how you write is entirely up to you, the writer, but it’s worth looking at the different viewpoints to see which one works best for you and, more importantly, which one works for the story.

Next week: Writing styles

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Point of View - Which one?

POV still confuses writers, and character viewpoint within the story causes no end of headaches, so we’ll look at both Point of View and character viewpoint as these two are easily confused.

You may have read in various articles and ‘How To’ guides that there are umpteen Point of View options available to you, however, there are only three base points of view within creative fiction:

First Person

Third Person


There are countless sub-categories for POV’s, such as Objective POV, Second Person POV, Limited, Omniscient, Subjective, Objective and so on. These are all expansions of the above three base elements and often present a confusing picture to new writers, but in truth, there are only three.

Point of view one is of fiction’s most useful tools. It can change the perspective of how your story is read because different POV’s give different results. Also, certain POV’s suit some stories better than others, so it’s up to you which one you feel is right for your story.

First Person

Short stories work really well with First Person POV. This creates immediacy, particularly if working to a word count of around 2000 – 4000 words and you don’t have the luxury of full characterisation like you would with a novel. It brings the reader closer to your character from the very first sentence because it allows you to explore what your character is feeling and thinking throughout the story.

Many full-length novels are written in First person, and most work, but very often writers slip tenses when writing in First Person. This can be irritating for a reader if they have to read 300 pages of a blockbuster that recklessly slips in and out tenses. It makes for a hard, clunky read.

There are some famous authors who’ve done this and first person tense slippage really annoys me, especially as established authors should know better! I use their work when teaching novice writers how NOT to do it. If you want to use first person POV in a novel, you must be proficient with tenses.

Third Person

Longer stories, usually action/thriller style, tend to work better in Third Person. This is the most common POV and allows you to employ more description, narrative and emotion within a scene. This works really well for action scenes, particularly when dealing with multiple characters. It is also the easiest POV when dealing with tenses.

Third person POV is very open in terms of the concentration of emotions and action and is not as limited as First Person POV. The majority of full-length novels opt for this, although it can work just as effectively in short stories too.


Omniscient (or all knowing) is the most impersonal and rarely used POV’s, simply because it makes the narrator god like, for instance: ‘Who could have known that Geoffrey would divorce Alanna the following year?’

It’s a strange one to work with because it forces the writer to dip in and out of tenses and can make the story somewhat heavy to read.

Choose a POV that works for you and your story. If you are comfortable writing in the first person, then do so. If you love third person, then write in the medium which puts you at ease.

Once you know which POV you want for your story or novel, you need to concentrate on keeping character viewpoint. This is a separate element to POV and means every scene should have only one POV character. You have to write everything through that character's perceptions.

Writing from your character’s point of view allows you and the reader to see things from their perspective and allows them and you to get into your main character's head. That’s not to say you can’t have multiple character viewpoints, because that’s a common strategy with most novels, but what it does mean is that you should stay with that character’s viewpoint until a change of scene or a new chapter. Never switch character viewpoints partway through a scene.

Understanding viewpoint makes it easier to write your novel/short story. Surprisingly, many writers start writing without having first formulated viewpoint. The result is a mishmash of scenes that fail to tell a story, and more importantly, fail to make it clear whose story we’re reading.


Whichever POV you choose for your story/novel, you must remember to keep the tenses correct. The narrative tense determines the grammatical tense of the entire story. In essence that means the story is told in the past, present, or future tense. This can be a minefield for new writers not familiar with the tenses because it’s very easy to confuse tenses.

Past tense

This is the most common tense used in fiction. The story is depicted as having occurred prior to the current moment, i.e. In the past. ‘They ran towards home...’ and ‘He drank as quickly as he could...’

Past tenses: Past simple, past present, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous (more on these in the next article).

Past tense is most commonly used within Third Person POV.

Present tense

The events of the story are occurring at the current moment, i.e. Now. ‘They run towards home...’ and ‘He drinks as quickly as he can...’

Present tenses: Present simple and present continuous.

This tense is commonly used in First Person POV, and the only one which can prove difficult to master with the changes of present and continuous present tenses within scenes.

Future Tense

Rarely used in fiction, and it’s easy to see why, because you’re describing something that hasn’t yet happened, unless referring to something within dialogue. It makes use of auxiliary verbs shall and will.

They will run towards home...’ and ‘He will drink as quickly as he can...’

This isn’t very effective for description and narrative, and more often than not, the tense slips into present tense because in reality you can’t really describe something that hasn’t happened.

The aim of viewpoint is to make your story strong, effective and consistent so that there is cohesion from start to finish, particularly with character viewpoint. Remember, once you have started your story/novel, never change viewpoint part way through.

Writing Exercises

Exercise 1:

One of the best ways to learn about point of view is to write an emotional or an action scene between two characters, including dialogue:

1. Write the scene in the third person.

2. Write the same scene in the first person.

3. Write in the omniscient.

Which POV is more effective? How difficult or easy was it? Did you keep to the right tense or did you accidentally slip tenses? Which POV felt best for the scene?

Exercise 2:

Write a descriptive scene (no dialogue) using a main character. As with exercise 1, write it in the third person, then the second person and finally in omniscient and then see how effective each POV is.

Next time: Narrative tenses.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Characterisation Continued...

Characterisation & Body Language

Continuing the theme of characterisation, body language is often overlooked when dealing with characters, yet the nuances of body language can play an important role in conveying a real, believable character.

Gestures offer the reader a glimpse into your character’s thoughts without the need for interior dialogue. Watch someone talking, and it’s likely his or her hands and head will be moving as they speak. Their movements are reinforcing what they’re saying.

When we listen to someone talking, we give away what we’re thinking by body language; propped finger against the temple, leaning on elbows, leaning on the hands while supporting the head, or sitting bolt upright. All these subtle gestures can tell us more about the inner thoughts of our characters.

Hands and fingers, arms and legs.

If you point your finger at someone, this is generally seen as a threat. The finger acts like a weapon, usually a jabbing motion when people argue, and that’s a perceived act of aggression with some people, so a character that does that is either irritated or causing irritation to another character.

Open palms can be another useful way of conveying your character. This gesture is a sign of honesty and openness. So when someone talks with a gesture of open palms you know they are being honest or open with what they are saying. Clenched fists are the opposite – they’re a sign of irritation and aggression.

We all know that not looking into someone’s eyes when talking denotes someone who may not be telling the truth. Eye contact is very important in building trust. Do your characters do this? Subtle eye movements can say so much with your characters without them having to utter a word. Of course, it’s not just eyes. Nose scratching, ear pulling, playing with earrings and hair fiddling are all subtle body gestures which denote to the reader a sense of mood or occasion.

Arms and legs play an important role too. Crossed arms and legs act like barriers; they are defensive gestures, the body’s way of protecting itself from perceived threats. People do it without even realising. Sometimes it’s a way of stating a character’s assertion over another by the way they sit. A man who sits with legs open is a confident character, perhaps arrogant. Someone who sits with knees locked together is someone who is nervous or anxious.

Facial Gestures

The eyes tell quite a story. We read people by their eyes. Not being able to see someone’s eyes can make an innocent situation turn into an intimidating one. Think of someone wearing dark or reflective lens sunglasses and imagine trying to have a conversation with them. It’s hard because you can’t see their eyes and therefore part of the facial picture is missing when your brain tries to translate their facial movements. If a scarf covers part of the face, it’s hard to read facial movements – is that person smiling or grimacing? Frowning or angry?

Does your character frown a lot? If so, he or she will have deep frown lines. Do they purse their lips when they think? Again, tell tale lines will line their top lip. Head tilting and eyebrow raising are all subtle body language gestures that could have different connotations with your characters, but all give your characters that little bit extra.


Characters should be like real people when it comes to fiddling with things. Earrings, hair, moustaches/beards, glasses, cigarettes and so on. Again all these play an important part in helping the reader decipher your characters. Give them habits.

Maybe you have a character who constantly twirls her hair or one that has to keep pushing his glasses up from the end of his nose, or perhaps putting the frame in his mouth when he thinks. Moustache or beard rubbing is a gesture used when thinking deeply. Lighting a cigarette could be interpreted as a way of mulling things over, a way to kill nerves’s up to you how you make your characters act and react.

Characters can also use walking sticks or frames, umbrellas, bags etc, for defensive or offensive means or as a perceived shield.

Empty gestures

We all do this: flicking away imaginary crumbs, brushing down clothes with the hand, rubbing the leg if nervous, nail biting or gazing at nails as a sign of boredom, staring at the ceiling, foot tapping and pencil tapping...this list is endless, and you've probably observed more of these.

The way we move tends to tell people the way we actually feel, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t employ this psychology with your characters. Make them well developed and rounded, so try not to overlook the effectiveness of body language in characterisation.

Next week: POV