Monday, 29 August 2016

Perfecting Third Person POV – Part 1

The most common viewpoint for most writers is third person. That’s because it’s easy to work with, it’s easy for the reader to become involved with the story on many different levels and it is the best POV to use while learning the process of creative writing.
Third Person POV

Third person point of view is very adaptable and easy to work with. Why? Well, unlike first person POV, it’s not restrictive. The POV means you can explore different character’s viewpoints, emotions, actions and reactions, instead of being stuck with just one character. Third person gives a much deeper insight and perspective on both story and characters. A lot of writers like to work with third person because of this freedom. They can show much more for the reader.
There are two views with third person:  Third person past tense and third person present tense, for example:
Third person past tense: He stood on the doorstep and waited for her reaction to his intrusion.
Third person present tense: He stands on the doorstep and waits for her reaction.
Although not as complicated as working with tenses in first person, if writers are not careful they might slip tenses if trying to work with third person present, but that said, any tense errors really jar and stand out, and are much easier to spot than those in first person. For that reason, third person present is not very popular and so most writers avoid it and stick to third person past tense.
There are further sub-groups; third person multiple and third person limited. There is also third person omniscient. So what do these actually mean?
Third person multiple refers to the writer using many of the characters to tell the story. This is accomplished by switching character viewpoints at the beginning of new scenes or chapters in order for the reader to gain more information and perspective about the story, the kind of information not always privy to the main character. This is a useful way of adding deeper characterisation and allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story by wave of piecing together the hints and clues the writer gives them.
Third person limited differs because it is limited to the main character’s point of view only, and therefore other character’s perceptions and characterisations are not explored. The reader is only privy to what the main character thinks and feels, although it is not as limiting as first person POV.
Third person omniscient means that the narrator is all knowing or ‘God-like’ and can tell the reader what any character is feeling or thinking in any scene, for instance:
Who could have known that John would feel so betrayed by Diane’s actions? That she was attracted to him, but remained reluctant to tell? Who could say what his reaction might be...
Omniscient viewpoint is rare in modern writing, but was very popular in late 18th and early 19th century writing. To modern writing, it doesn’t seem as attractive and won’t engage the reader in the same way as third person multiple.
The most advantageous thing about third person is that it’s very easy to work with and creates consistency, especially for first time writers. It allows the writer more freedom to explore the story because it allows full characterisation of not only the main character, but also the secondary characters.
Well written third person can also create immediacy – a connection between the main character and the reader - though not on the intimate level of first person, obviously.
Third person POV suits all manner of stories, whether flash fiction, short stories or novellas, but it’s best when used for full length novels because of how easy it is for the writer to work with multiple characters and explore all perspectives and emotions – a writer can show the reader more information through other characters and show incidents and events that occur outside the main character’s perception.  
It’s almost a 360o view of the world, which the reader can share, so it’s an excellent way of creating tension, atmosphere, mood and tone. The writer can show the shadow creeping up the stairs towards the hero, or through description, show the noises from dark corners in the old abandoned house. It allows the reader to share the emotions and reactions, to hear those noises and see those shadows and become immersed in the whole story.
The other advantage is that action scenes or intimate scenes can be explored on detailed level, without restrictions normally associated with first person POV.
By far the best reason to use third person is the way it allows the writer to show rather than tell, so that descriptions can build tone, mood, atmosphere, tension and emotion, and of course, that all important conflict.
In Part 2 we’ll look at the disadvantages of using third person and why a writer needs to be selective about which POV is the best for the story.
Next week: Perfecting Third Person POV – Part 2

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2

Part 1 looked at the advantages and disadvantages of First Person POV, and how point of view choice plays an important role, so in Part 2 we’ll look at more common problems and how to master this difficult POV.
Common Problems
One of the most common problems with first person point of view is that writers forget that the narrator cannot possibly know what cannot be seen. Unlike third person, where the narrator can describe lots of things within the scene to create tension and atmosphere, first person doesn’t allow for this. In other words, the hero can’t possibly know that the bad guy is creeping down the hallway towards him because he can’t see him. Nor can he possibly know what is happening outside, or in the next room etc.
The other problem is that first person POV is that the writer falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. This is because first person doesn’t allow other character perspectives or any depth to the descriptions, for example:
I saw the knife glint beneath the light and picked it up.  I heard movement outside the door and I knew I could use it to defend myself from the intruder.
This example resorts to telling the reader, rather than showing them. Writers do this because it’s easier, instead of thinking about how they can structure certain scenes to show rather than tell. Everything that happens in the story happens through one person’s eyes, so writers have to make the effort to show the reader, rather than tell them. Compare it with this example, which shows the reader:
The knife glinted beneath the light and caught my eye, as though to lure. The floorboard creaked, and then the sound of ruffling crept through the dimness; so close to me.
Because first person relies on the present tense, it means all the verb tenses have to be correct in order for the narrative to make sense. But that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult to master even for established writers. It’s so easy to slip tenses, for example:
I looked around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I called out to him and heard his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I followed the sounds through the trees and saw him standing over a large bone and wagging his tail.
At first glance, the narrative looks fine, but on closer inspection, the tenses have actually become tangled. The first sentence is past tense, but the second sentence slips to present, then past again, within the same sentence. The third sentence remains past tense.
Tangled tenses are the most common error when writing first person POV and one of the reasons why a full length novel in first person is not recommended for new authors, simply because of the problems with tenses.
I look around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I call out to him and hear his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I follow the sounds through the trees and see him standing over a large bone and he wagged his tail.
With this example, the tenses slide from present to past in the first sentence. The second sentence starts as present tense and slips to past. The last sentence slips from present to past.
Writers should take the time to practice with first person POV by writing short stories, which are perfect for first person POV. The more familiar they become with it, the better able they are to spot tense errors. Writers need to be confident that they can write competently in first person POV. If not, the result will be a failure.
If in doubt, avoid using it.
So how should it be done? This past-tense example shows the correct tense and verb positions.
I took the bus home, as usual. The evening had gathered across the sky and accompanied my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestled on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light cast shadows across the footpath; I saw three in total.
This has the correct tenses; it shows rather than tells the reader. It has the correct structure to avoid too much use of ‘I’ and it uses other means to employ tension and atmosphere. The tenses in this example remain in the past tense and therefore the narrative stays consistent, even though it’s limited by the first person.
Now here’s the same description, told as present tense.
I take the bus home, as usual. The evening gathers across the sky and accompanies my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestles on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light casts shadows across the footpath; I see three in total.
This present tense remains consistent, if a little unwieldy. This is hard to maintain over a full length novel and it’s not that popular among readers or publishers.  
The best way to tackle first person is to be very aware of tenses. Check to make sure that the tense you use remains consistent. Pay close attention to the following:-

  • Early in the first chapter, let the reader know who your main character – your narrator – is. Writers tend to forget to introduce their main character from the outset, leaving readers wondering who the main character is.
    The reader will spend the entire novel in your main character’s head, so it’s important to have a character that is likeable and has a compelling voice and personality to create immediacy.
  • Make use of your protagonist’s inner thoughts to offer the reader a different perspective, but don’t overdo it. Readers don’t need to know the main character’s every thought. Use those thoughts to explore what the other characters might be feeling – use their expressions and actions to show the reader.
  • Structure sentences carefully to avoid excessive use of ‘I’.
  • Use the correct tenses – make sure present tense stays present. If using past tense, ensure it stays past tense. Don’t slip from one to another.
  • Use other characters during dialogue to help establish what the narrator looks like. Alternatively, use the narrator’s direct thoughts.
  • Where possible in your descriptions, show the reader, don’t tell them.
Ask most writers and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be maintaining perfect tense when writing first person, so practice until you get it right.

Next week: Perfecting 3rd Person POV

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 1

The point of view of your main character will depend on the kind of story you want to tell, and the style you want for it. It’s an important choice to make.

Most stories are told in first person or third person, the most commonly used types. There are other, lesser known types of POV, such as second person, but this one is unwieldy and not at all reader friendly.

Each type has its own merits and shortcomings; each one fits different styles and genres better than the other.  Each one may suit the writer better than the other. This is why choice of viewpoint is so important.

First person point of view is the viewpoint of the main character only; everything is seen through their eyes. It’s quite an intimate POV because everything is done as the main character, which is very different from a third person, which allows the writer to explore more than just the main character. But unlike third person POV, there is no skipping from character to character to gain more insight, perspective and emotions.

There is only one insight, one perspective and one lot of emotions in first person POV.

The main thing you notice with first person is the use of tenses. There are specific tenses associated with first person POV:

First person present tense – e.g. I stand in the doorway and look at John.

First person past tense – e.g. I stood in the doorway and looked at John.

There isn’t much between these two, but writers mix these up constantly, slipping from present to past or vice versa without even realising, so the first thing every writer should understand about first person POV is that it’s not easy to execute, especially by first time writers. Maintaining such a consistency throughout a full length novel is difficult, and even established writers make errors when working in first person.


It’s a useful viewpoint if you want to create a sense of immediacy.  This allows the reader to easily connect with the main characters because the entire story is written from your main character’s viewpoint. It allows the reader to fully immerse in the main character’s world; it’s a unique and close viewpoint.

First person POV suits short stories and novellas better than full length novels, simply because of the difficulty in maintaining consistency with verb tenses over a full length novel.

I stand in the doorway and look at John. He saw me and nodded and I walk over to greet him.

See how easy it is to make this mistake? The above example skips tenses from first person present to first person past, then back to present again.


The main drawback is that it’s very limiting. You are completely stuck in your character’s head for the entirety of the story, so you can’t explore other character’s personal thoughts, emotions or actions in the same way you could with third person POV. And because it’s not possible to explore other characters as deeply as you would third person, characterisations tend to be slightly different and restricted. You are limited to the first person’s actions, thoughts and emotions only.

The other disadvantage is that for full length novels, first person can be grating with the constant ‘I did this, I did that, I went there, I looked at this’ and so on. It’s very limiting structurally, emotionally and descriptively. Writers have to find different ways of structuring the narrative to avoid this constant use.

The reader knows who is narrating, so the need to say ‘I’ can be dispensed most of the time. And of course, descriptive narrative is another way to get around it, for instance, instead of saying ‘I saw the door open to the darkness’, you could write it as: ‘The door opened to the darkness...’

Another disadvantage is that it’s difficult for your narrator to describe him/herself to the reader, without resorting to the ‘character in front of the mirror’ cliché. There are other ways to let the reader imagine what your main character looks and sounds like. Writers do this by using dialogue other characters, with one of them perhaps mentioning the main character’s hair or stubble or scar under the left eye. Hints like this help the reader build up a picture, all without you having to place your character in front that obligatory mirror.

There are other problems, other than the limiting reach of characterisation. Unlike third person, where suspense and tension is an integral part of the narrative build up, it’s not really possible in first person because the reader will only be privy to narrator’s thoughts. They won’t know how character B or C is feeling in tense scene because they are not privy to them. Any tension and atmosphere will only come through your narrator’s eyes. It loses a lot of impact.

The limitations come thick and fast – emotions, tension, perspective and atmosphere are all limited, as is the ability to describe settings without the narrative sounding awkward, for instance:

‘I walked up the stone steps to the ornate ballroom, full with golden chandeliers dripping crystals and an exquisite marble floor that reflected all around it like a beautifully polished mirror...’

This is just ungainly because it’s just too much telling. And the narrator isn’t narrating a documentary. But this is a common problem with first person, yet writers still make this mistake.

Writers have to be smart about how they write, so they have to weave those hints into the narrative or in dialogue, for example:

‘I walked up the steps to the ornate ballroom and saw the golden chandeliers. I made my way across the marble floor. I remember how much it reflected like a beautifully polished mirror...’

There is more to consider in first person in order to get the structure right. Next week we'll look at how this is achieved and how to perfect this POV.

Next week: Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

How to Pace a Novel

When writers talk about the pace of a novel, they are referring not just the ‘speed’ of the story, but also the tempo, since both these factors vary greatly throughout a novel.
The pace of a novel is dictated by the story, so thriller or action stories; for instance, tend to have more pace than romance stories or literary stories. Therefore it stands to reason that action has the effect of speeding up the narrative, while a lack of it gives the effect of slowing it down.
In reality, however, the actual speed of the narrative stays the same, but rather it’s the perception you create that speeds up or slows down the pace.
Why Stories Need Pace
The simple answer to this is variation. By varying the pace of the story, you keep things interesting for the reader and therefore you keep them turning the page.
Normally we refer to how fast or slow the story is when we think about pace, but pacing has more than one function.  It also allows the writer to transition quickly between scenes, to show the elapse of time, to allow the narrative to breathe and to inject tension, emotion and drama in the appropriate places. It also moves the story forward.
Pace is also important to ease back on the intensity of the writing and allow the reader to take stock. They can’t be expected to ride a rollercoaster from chapter 1 to chapter 30 without even so much a pause. Regardless of genre, the story needs to ebb and flow at a different pace at different times. It needs to give the reader the illusion that the narrative is speeding up or slowing down, depending upon what’s happening in any given scene.
How Do You Achieve Pace?
Although the pace is dictated by the story, if you plan your novel with plot, sub plots and key scenes, you should have a fairly good idea of the likely action and dramatic scenes and the more contemplative, softer scenes.
Wherever there is tension, conflict, action, emotion and reflection, pace plays an important role, because it helps the writer express these and shows the reader what they need to see.
The use of shorter scenes and shorter chapters gives the impression that things are moving along, however, the way writers manipulate the illusion of pace is by word choice.
The use of short, sharp words tends to speed up the narrative, as does quick fire dialogue, for instance. Take a look at this example of a faster paced scene:
John kicked hard against Tom, desperate.
Tom stumbled back; stunned for a moment, but then he snapped his arm out and connected with John’s jaw.
John reeled. Senses stung. His muscles tautened against the attack, as though to stave off the pain.
Tom jabbed again, harder.
John slumped to the floor; crumpled.
This is a typical action scene. It’s short, concise and the choice of words pushes it along. Verbs such as kicked, stumbled and snapped seem to speed up the narrative. Of course, it’s not just short and staccato words that help. Short, fragmented sentences also give this illusion.
Now compare this example to a more reflective scene, where the pace is much slower. If your character or the scene itself is reflective, then the narrative will mirror this, as will the reader.
John peered at Tom and mused, as though to anticipate his next move, though he didn’t expect to break through Tom’s concrete defences.
The colour in Tom’s expression changed; the anger that had overwhelmed him minutes ago had gone and now he seemed subdued in the face of what he’d seen on the TV monitor.
Compared to the pace of action scenes, lengthier descriptions and longer words slow the pace of this scene. It’s completely different from the first example. That’s because the choice of words forces the narrative to slow down. And of course, descriptive scenes ‘show’ more rather than action scenes, which tend to ‘tell’ in places, simply because of their brief and concise structure.
There’s nothing like drama to build up the tension and action. Tension in fiction is just like stretching an elastic band tight, then letting it slacken before tightening again. This also means the pace alters accordingly. Tighten the tension and you increase the pace and quicken the action.
Dialogue is also very useful for quickening or slowing the pace of a novel. Often in novels you might see several lines of dialogue with absolutely no description at all. This quickens the pace, for example:
You expect me to believe you,’ Tom said.
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth.’
‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
‘Well, you should...'
Without superfluous narrative, this dialogue speeds along. Now if you compare the same text with slower dialogue, you’ll see that longer words, snippets of description and carefully placed pauses to capture character reactions and emotions enable to the pace to slow down.
Tom’s expression deepened. ‘You expect me to believe you.'
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth,’ John said, his voice pitched.
Tom’s eyes narrowed, clouded by suspicion. ‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
John straightened. ‘Yeah, well, you should...’
By comparison, the structure isn’t so quick fire and instead allows the reader to take in what is happening. The choice of words ensures an unhurried flow. The varying pace allows both narrative and dialogue to speed up and slow down depending on the action happening within the scene.
More descriptive detail within scenes gives the impression that the narrative is measured and doesn’t need to hurry. And longer scenes and chapters will also give the impression of slower narrative.
Pacing a novel is about making the most of your key scenes. Vary the length according to how active or reflective they are, so action  or dramatic scenes will quicken the pace, while more introspective scenes that slow things down for a momentary pause before cranking up the action again. Keep varying the narrative and dialogue until the story reaches its conclusion; the denouement.
No story is static. Therefore the pace of your novel will never be static. Always vary it to keep things moving, and interesting.

Next week: Mastering First Person POV