Point of view and ‘head-hopping’

In this post I’ll take a tour through what constitutes ‘head-hopping’ and what doesn’t.

Many new writers are so eager to tell a story from all its angles that they hop happily from one person’s perspective to another’s. It’s the reading equivalent of watching a crowd whirl by while on a merry-go-round. Here’s a rough-built example:

Eloise got to Suzy’s house just as the clock struck eight. As she passed into the hall she decided to be direct. ‘Are we friends today?’

Suzy shrugged. She didn’t want Eloise to think she was automatically going to forgive her. ‘What do you want, Eloise?’

Eloise had known Suzy wasn’t going to be easy, but she’d thought her arrival at the house would at least bring a smile. It hadn’t, and this disappointed her. ‘I thought we could talk.’

‘We can sit in the conservatory,’ said Suzy, with a shrug. She didn’t like being visited without warning; she hadn’t had time to dress properly. She felt sloppy and unprepared. Grudgingly she added, ‘Don’t sit on the cat. His name is Edgar and he scratches.’

‘Oh, great,’ Eloise thought as she sat in the next chair. ‘Now I have to look out for two sets of claws.’

In the above example, there are too many changes of perspective to allow a reader to follow the scene. Worse, these shifts have no strong reason to occur where and when they do. Each only serves to provide information that couldn’t be told otherwise. The result is a clear case of head-hopping: that is, haphazard or over-frequent changes in perspective that interrupt reading.

Every time you shift perspective, you trouble reader immersion and cause some degree of disorientation. Each of these shifts asks for an effort on the reader’s part to become oriented again. When you interrupt reader immersion too frequently and/or fail to provide sufficient pleasures to make up for the interruption, guess what? The reader drops the story.

Of course, frequent point-of-view changes aren’t necessarily a problem. Sometimes reader surprise and suspense can be heightened by point-of-view intercutting. What keeps such sequences from being classed as head-hopping is the degree to which the author understands the effects of point-of-view switches and uses them judiciously.

Think of the opening to any of a number of famous crime-thrillers. A classic beginning involves the predator and prey in a series of short, staccato point-of-view sections that only finish when one is seized by the other (after this, we generally cut to the role of the detective). A similar use of frequent intercutting occurs when, after the early part of a novel has been used to set up differences in characterisation, a high energy conflict scene depicts two characters in battle. In the latter example, point-of-view switches are used to heighten suspense and increase the sense of chaotic conflict.

In all narratives in which point of view changes, the characters that have been given point-of-view roles remain connected at some level to questions of theme. In  the first example of intercut sequences above, the crime victim represents victimhood and a puzzle for the detective to solve while the predator, in revealing glimpses of his or her psychology, sets up the story’s chief antagonism.

If a seemingly irrelevant character is given a point-of-view role, the reader will expect that character to become important. If this doesn’t happen, the reader learns to distrust the writer. Never swap heads to an unimportant character just because you feel his or her point of view will be interesting—that will certainly break trust. When you shift perspective, a reader needs to believe you’re doing it for good reason.

Regardless of purpose, successful authors always cue the reader in as to whose head he or she inhabits. Whenever the switch is made, there should be hints in tone, voice, outlook, physicality and/or dialogue to enable a reader to understand whose perspective has been taken up. In large part, the success of books involving multiple point-of-view shifts hinges on a writer’s skill at embodying character within the writing.

As long as point-of-view shifts are made for good reason, there are endless permutations available for the writer to use. Some kinds of suspense story work by immersing a single character in a difficult and perplexing situation—many first person crime stories follow this pattern. Much modern romantic (and some dystopian) fiction relies on a single personal point of view running through the narrative, with no interruptions to this pattern. Longer works such as trilogies often use multiple points of view by turns: GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would be nowhere without its marvellous chapter-by-chapter changes in perspective (what keeps the material fresh in Martin’s work is that even if two point-of-view characters touch on the same circumstances they do so from such extraordinarily different perspectives that the circumstances are largely unrecognisable). At first glance, Graham Greene’s The Third Man uses a mixture of first person and third person storytelling. However in actual fact the third person material is being narrated (at one remove) by the first person main character: ‘I have reconstructed the affair as best I can,’ he informs us near the beginning, and what follows, though presenting itself as an omnisciently told third person story, is basically his account. There are many ways to fashion point of view, but all the above writers prove to have strong rationales behind their choices.

Some books use omniscient storytelling as a bracket around sections of more personal, close orientation. Omniscient storytelling suits works that are ironic or satirical. Jane Austen wrote under an umbrella of ironic social commentary in Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ This allowed her to dip into and out of close personal perspectives when she chose. Of course, the novel comes to favour Elizabeth’s point of view as it progresses—sensibly, since hers is the one most affected by its incidents—but the story occasionally offers Mr Darcy’s perspective as well: ‘To Mr Darcy it was welcome intelligence—Elizabeth had been at Netherfield long enough. She attracted him more than he liked…’ While robbing a reader of the suspense of not knowing Mr Darcy’s feelings, the intrusion of his point of view helps keep the work within Austen’s irony-rich sphere of intent.

A less time-worn example of close personal storyelling bracketed (and sometimes interrupted) by authorial omniscience is, of course, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Like Austen, his use of point of view revoles around pre-made creative decisions like overall voice, tone, themes and intent. Even his information-rich footnotes are not merely imparting information, but are fabulous rhetorical feints and jokes reminding the reader that there’s a writer speaking.

As a last point, nothing is disallowed in experimental or literary fiction, so even a work that head-hops ludicrously might have its recognisable place. For instance, a writer might deliberately design a story in which two separate identities and perspectives come together at the finale in a completely head-hoppy sequence that draws into question a reader’s sense of subjectivity and ability to distinguish personalities at all. But that would be taking a slightly experimental, formalistic approach to narrative, and most readers aren’t looking to enjoy metafictional treatises. Most readers just want to stay in a story, and conscious, careful use of point of view (with or without shifts) will surely help manage that.

Dialogue: the basics

Dialogue

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters (real or imaginary). However it’s easy to confuse a reader by failing to establish who says what and where. This post will run through the many methods by which writers show who’s speaking. In a way it will also help you build a sense of character, though character-in-dialogue is easily worth a separate post.

Direct attribution

Direct attribution is the commonest way to illuminate who’s speaking. When you specify who says something, you’re using direct attribution.

However this can easily be overdone:

John and Judy sat on couches regarding each other. Judy spoke first.

‘So what do you think we should do about Martha?’ Judy said.

‘I don’t know,’ said John. ‘Is she becoming a problem?’

‘Only if you believe in privacy,’ said Judy.

As you can see, this partial scene is too heavily underscored with attributions (as character names) to make smooth reading.

However there’s no need to attribute so heavily. Readers can intuit who speaks once a pattern has been established. For instance, the above half-scene uses a back-and-forth style of conversation. When two speakers are involved, the reader naturally expects one to speak and then the other, taking turns. This means we can remove most attributions without confusing the reader:

John and Judy sat on couches regarding each other.

‘So what do you think we should do about Martha?’ said Judy.

‘I don’t know. Is she becoming a problem?’

‘Only if you believe in privacy.’

However to add emphasis to the last line of a scene, it’s quite acceptable to attribute it even though the reader knows who’s talking. That’s up to you. For me, reducing the number of attributions so they don’t dominate the work is one key to producing better dialogue.

When to attribute?

In most scenes you’d probably attribute the opening speaker. You’d attribute speech if a new speaker enters the dialogue. But once a back-and-forth pattern has been established, until that pattern is broken or interrupted, you can be sparing.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that direct attribution is only one way of indicating who says something. Attributions like ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, while so low-key as to seem almost invisible, can flounder if the writer hasn’t tried to distinguish speakers in other ways.

So what better way to make dialogue work than infuse it with character?

Character-in-speech

Consider the following:

‘Where were you on the night of the fifth?’

‘The fifth? When the hell was that?’

‘Don’t be cute. The night your business partner disappeared.’

‘Aw, let’s see. I was with my girlfriend.’

‘She says you weren’t. Not only that but she says you turned up on her doorstep next morning covered in blood. Going to tell me where you were the night before?’

‘You’re so smart, you tell it.’

Although there are no attributions to work with, it’s clear that the person who opens the scene above is a detective and the second speaker is a suspect. The first character speaks interrogatively, the second defiantly. There’s a strong back-and-forth pattern to the dialogue that makes it easy to keep track of who’s speaking and when.

While you may not write in the same way, all your characters’ dialogue should be rooted in who they are, what they believe or think, and their current state of knowing. Thus although it’s easy to overdo accent and phrasing, it’s also important to pay attention to how individuals speak. Setting two speakers apart in terms of how they talk can be highly effective at both strengthening characterisation and delineating the speaker.

Indirect attribution

Not all attributions have to be as direct as ‘she said’.

What film and theatre people call ‘stage directions’ include expressions, gestures, actions and other indirect cues. When applied in the same paragraph as the character’s speech, readers are left in no doubt as to speaker:

The sisters sat on couches.

Jill spoke first. ‘So what do you think we should do about Martha?’

‘I don’t know.’ Judy reached for a sugar cube and stirred it into her tea. ‘Is she becoming a problem?’

‘Only if you believe in privacy.’

‘I honestly can’t say I’ve noticed anything.’

With a sigh Jill pulled the note out of her skirt pocket and passed it across. ‘That’s because you haven’t seen this.’

The other woman put her teacup down and began reading. A finger went to her mouth and began to twist itself between her incisors. Finally she looked up from the note, her face ashen. ‘Did Martha really write this? But that’s so odd. It says—’

‘I know what it says,’ said Jill. ‘I just don’t know what we’re going to do about it.’

In the above example, indirect attribution is used more generously than direct attribution, but both are in balance. The result has a good deal more energy and flow than it otherwise might.

When crafting dialogue, the trick is to balance your work so ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ don’t become the only ways you indicate who speaks. Paying attention where possible to stage directions, character differentiation and conversational rhythm will go a long way toward providing clarity without over-telling. Into the bargain they’ll add depth and colour to your work.

Varying attibutions

Many writers try to vary the way they attribute dialogue to avoid repeating ‘said’. For instance they might use ‘she growled’ or ‘she muttered’ or ‘he volunteered’ or ‘he stated’.

However changing the verb to avoid repetition is usually a mistake. If repeating ‘John said’ and ‘Judy said’ wearies the reader, imagine how much more tiring it is to read constantly shifting verbs like ‘John uttered’, ‘Judy whispered’, ‘John sang,’ ‘Judy chortled’, and so forth.

Does this mean you can’t use ‘whispered’ or even ‘chortled’? Heck, no. Use them if they add important meaning to the dialogue (that is, if the way something is spoken matters). Just be sparing, or your work will seem overly burdened by attention-grabbing attributions. Bear in mind, too, that many editors detest any attempt to make the attribution verb more important than it should be.

You can, however, vary the noun whenever you wish. That is, instead of repeating ‘John said’, you can sometimes substitute a different two-word phrase that describes John. Is he Judy’s brother? In that case you could sometimes use ‘her brother said’. Or does he have a military rank? In that case it could be ‘the captain said’. Is he taller, shorter, leaner? Younger? Try ‘the younger man said.’ Varying the noun is a useful tactic when you have two characters of the same gender talking in the same scene, and don’t want to constantly repeat their names during attribution. Just be careful not to confuse readers by referring to one character as ‘the younger man’ only to use ‘the taller man’ later in the same scene. As with every detail you employ in scene-building, consistency matters.

Note that since gender is itself a useful distinction, once you’ve indicated that a room has two characters of opposite genders in it, ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are all that’s required. You’ll find that he-she scenes are seldom cluttered with names.

Minor matters: how to punctuate broken speech

Sometimes one speaker delivers a long-winded piece of dialogue that contains a paragraph break. The key to making sure the reader knows it’s still the same person talking is to punctuate and use line breaks correctly. Here’s an example:

Samuel stood and raised his glass. ‘And so we come to that part of the evening when gentlemen and ladies rise and take a toast,’ he said. ‘May I congratulate the father of the bride, the mother, the father’s mother, and all the rest of her family to the year dot; may I also offer to the groom himself the heartfelt wish that marriage satisfy all his dreams.

‘Oh, and one other thing: the wine is poisoned.’

The lack of a closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph tells a reader that the second paragraph is by the same speaker.

However when it comes to interruptions within speech, options differ. For instance if the interruption isn’t itself a section of speech, you can continue within the same paragraph, using dashes and a comma to set the interruption apart:

‘Wait a minute,’ said John hotly, ‘you said Martha was busy. Now you tell me she’s on her way here—’ he ignored Jake’s attempts to interject, ‘—and even worse, she’s bringing her boyfriend.’

Notice that the broken dialogue is set apart by dashes within the quote marks, while the interrupting part is set apart by a single comma.

Contrast the above to the proper way to punctuate and line break when the interruption is itself in the form of speech:

‘Wait a minute,’ said John hotly, ‘you said Martha was busy. Now you tell me she’s on her way here—’

‘I didn’t mean that,’ Jake cut in.

‘—and even worse, she’s bringing her boyfriend.’

In the above example a new line indicates that a new speaker is speaking. This avoids the confusion that might result from two sets of quotation marks running side-by-side.

Sometimes speech is broken up by the mid-placement of an attribution. Writers shouldn’t be nervous of changing their phrasing in this way. Actually it’s vital to alter the balance of short, long and interrupted sentences so readers don’t grow jaded. For instance:

‘We were going along very nicely,’ said Jason, ‘until your brother got here.’

Notice that, because the dialogue continues after the attribution (which isn’t considered an interruption as such), there’s a comma inside the end-quote mark to show that the sentence has paused, then there’s the attribution with a comma of its own, then the dialogue continues without a capital letter.

One last tip about dialogue and attributive verbs…

Very commonly, writers do things like this: ‘But I gave you everything!’ he exclaimed. The exclamation point says enough, so ‘he exclaimed’ adds nothing.

Always use attributions that are as natural as possible or that add essential nuance.

With all the above tips and tricks up your sleeve, now’s the time to go back to your dialogue-heavy scenes to see if they need tweaking.

Right editor? Sample and see…

Time to edit.Getting to the end of a manuscript is hard. But finding the right editor can be daunting in its own way. How do you know the person understands your work? How do you know you’ll be treated individually?

Easy: ask for a free sample edit. BookAnvil offers this service whether you want an editor, proofreader or mentor.

Simply approach me using the ‘contact’ form here, and I’ll give details so you can submit your work.

Note: If you don’t hear back within two days, please contact me a second time (in case a server problem has occurred).

Ultimately what matters is finding the right editor for your manuscript. A free editing sample means you can see exactly what’s on offer before you commit.

Free editing: send your first chapter* (limited offer—expired)

2ND UPDATE: turnaround times.

Hi writers! I just wanted to set a timetable for when you can expect a report about your manuscripts.

I’m currently reading a first chapter by Ellie and will have a report ready later tomorrow (Tuesday my time).

The order of applications after Ellie is: Julie; Angela; Candi; and Barbara (no last names, for privacy reasons).

Please allow a day-and-a-half between reports. Thus Barbara, I won’t finish with yours until probably mid-next-week. Candi, you’ll be a little earlier. I hope that makes sense! (I find the worst part of submission is waiting… I just wanted to alleviate that a little for those down the queue.)

Thank you all for submitting!


 

UPDATE:

Thanks for the applications! Unfortunately it looks like all places have been taken. I’ll email existing applicants as soon as I’ve checked for readability. Those who’ve missed out this time around, stay tuned: there will be future specials and giveaways.


 

As a December special, BookAnvil is giving away three professional first chapter appraisal-edits for the first three applicants whose work meets general readability criteria.

Your work can be at first draft stage or final, and you can specify whether there are particular issues you want looked at or whether you’re happy for a fully engaged critique. (Note that if you’re at an early stage or are not used to being edited, it may be helpful to ask the editor to take a more ‘mentoring’ approach.)

How to apply?*

Use the ‘contact’ page on the top menu bar in the first instance, and I’ll give you an email address you can use to send work. The first three chapters to arrive that fit the general readability criteria (see below) will end the free offer.

What to send?

Please send your first chapter (including book title and chapter number or name) in one of the following forms: .doc, .docx or .rtf versions. Scrivener entries are also acceptable.

On top of the first chapter, or in a separate document, please include your name, your email address, and a brief (4-20 lines) synopsis of the work specifying its intended audience, storyline and themes.

What you’ll receive:

1. A returned copy of your manuscript with margin notes detailing structural or stylistic concerns as well as noting any obvious spelling or grammatical errors.

2. A detailed, annotated report expanding on issues raised in the manuscript, and covering a range of topics such as those listed under ‘appraisal-edit’ in ‘definitions’ below; OR

2.a. A less detailed report and fewer, looser margin comments aimed at helping to clarify what it is you’re trying to do and suggesting ways forward; and (if desired) a 15 minute consultation about the work.

Definitions:

‘General readability criteria’ doesn’t mean professional polish, however the work should read smoothly without too many spelling errors, typos or grammatical issues. Ideally this means no more than 3-4 obvious spelling or grammatical errors per page.

An ‘appraisal-edit’ is an advanced critique that looks at various issues including structure, opening, themes, phrasing, imagery, characterisation, voice, genre, tone, audience and generalised proofreading — in other words, the full gamut of editorial input. This can be more useful for mid-to-late drafts, however earlier drafts are perfectly welcome. Be aware that this is a thorough critique, but not a final one, nor does it provide print-stage proofreading.

‘Mentoring’ takes a softer, more appraising approach, and will aim to foster confidence in the work while making generalised comments about style. There will be no line editing or proofreading and the report you receive will be lighter and more open than a full appraisal-edit. While this means many writing faults may slip through, writers who aren’t yet comfortable with criticism, or are only feeling their way at an early draft stage, are welcome to start in this vein. Included with the ‘mentoring’ approach is a 15-minute consultation in person (phone, email or chat on BookAnvil’s chat page) to discuss ideas raised in the report.

What are you waiting for?

The ‘squeaky wheel’ of illogic: present tense with first person

Squeaky wheel of illogicWhen a writer wants to draw attention to language without seeming too ‘literary’, first person present tense (FPPT) can seem a handy tactic. It’s almost a mainstream device nowadays.

But what authors gain in casual literary kudos they can also lose in character and depth. Look at this popular effort:

 

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

We’re right in the narrator’s head from the start, with scant use of voice and wordplay to show persona. This is serviceable prose, and its pared-back tone suits the material, but I find such a stark entry into another person’s headspace alienating.

Of course, The Hunger Games sold fifty million copies at last count, so it didn’t alienate its target readership. After all, it’s been widely noted that teen readers want main characters who are like themselves; they want a close personal perspective without preamble; and they want serious tones and situations to reflect their angst, the more dystopian the better.

But does success mean Collins’ opening works as well as it could? Let’s consider what the opening is actually doing by examining first person and present tense together. What are these devices about, and are they well used?

Aside from its literary feel, the form is often used to invoke immediacy. While behind every past tense story there’s a teller who has pre-organised the telling, in present tense there’s no sense of organisation or premeditation; there’s just ‘now’. If you can’t sense a storyteller putting events into order and perspective, it’s harder to know what to expect of the tale.

However as a form of narration, first person present tense (FPPT) is always and demonstrably a big lie. It maintains that events occur at the same time as the writer writes and the reader reads. Even after long familiarity with the form, the reader is aware of its impossibility.

It’s this easily disproved lie that gives FPPT its silghtly edgy feel, and makes it so capable of ‘defamiliarising‘ storytelling. However when you make narration strange or unfamiliar, you also trouble immersion. Thus at openings and scene changes, FPPT narratives can push readers away, especially those readers who don’t already know and love the form.

For the above reasons it makes sense for writers to find ways to make beginnings to FPPT narratives more familiar, thus smoothing the way to immersion. When the narrative gets into full swing defamiliarising tactics are far less risky.

With that in mind, ask yourself whether Collins’ opening could have been more effective if written something like:

We seldom get up before dawn, in my house. A few times a year maybe, when ashes of harvest cloud the afternoon sky and we’ve all gone to bed at dusk. But this morning I wake in darkness. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress… etc.

I’m not pretending my wordcraft is essentially better than Collins’; only that I’ve paid attention to the form’s weakness and addressed it in a conscious way.

As you can see, this ‘conscious way’ means starting with a generalisation.

Generalisations are observations, and they intend to have future impact, so they always use present tense. ‘My cat is an exceptional hunter.’ ‘I like to wear orange.’ The familiarity of a generalisation helps the reader accept FPPT in the narrative proper, because its tense and perspective are the same. It’s FPPT without the defamiliarising.

Of course, generalisations don’t stand on their own. If you want the story to be interesting you need to subvert or add surprise. ‘All cats hunt, but mine hunts other cats.’ ‘I like to wear orange because it hides the burns.’ But that boils down to your own personal intent.

Here’s a published example of the style I mean (but using second person rather than first):

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

— Jay McInerney, Brights Lights, Big City

Can you see how McInerney’s intitial sentences add a comforting familiarity of form before he plunges into FPPT proper? Beginning with a natural use of this perspective encourages the reader to hang in there past the opening.

By borrowing a familiar use of FPPT during openings or significant scene changes, you can shepherd readers safely past points where immersion is most troubled. By the time readers hear the squeaky wheel of illogic, they’ll be gripped.

The ‘strange’ art of writing unforgettably

Orwell's clock.

Consider the opening: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (1984 by George Orwell.) What makes the sentence grip a reader is that most striking clocks (at least when the book was written) only went up to twelve. By twisting that one thought, this masterful writer twists the world, and gives us the assurance of a striking story to come.

However it’s not only a story’s world that can be twisted and made surprising by a writer’s word-use. Think of how the best ideas cause the mind to linger, going over and over what was written, either because it was unexpected in its phrasing or because its ideas felt surprisingly new.

Your eyes can glaze over a cliché, but they definitely have to take time with this: ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here’ (Sylvia Plath: Tulips); or: ‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’ (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

While poetry and comedy don’t have to use sensible imagery, think how a perfectly familiar idea such as seasons passing can startle the reader simply by being unfamiliarly put within ordinary prose:

She looked out of her window and, in autumn, she saw a blazing hill of corn and orchards where the trees creaked with crimson apples; in spring, the fields unfurled like various flags, first brown, then green.

— Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains

With a single eloquent image — ‘unfurled like various flags’ — Carter makes us see the change in seasons freshly, and with startling clarity. Such imagery helps build the theme, because in her novel individuals as well as tribes are constantly warring under an empty symbology.

Of course the above are mainly literary works. Would thematically-drawn imagery written in a startling way feel right in a book about heroes fighting one another on a colossal battlefield? Or in a novel about divorce? Or in a children’s book? Hell, yes. I can’t think of a single kind of literature that couldn’t use startling imagery or surprising turns of phrase. And yet in terms of modern writing, the art of making us see things freshly is perhaps the least consciously applied technique of all.

The father of the notion of ‘defamiliarisation’ (making things seem strange) is Viktor Shklovsky, whose essay ‘Art as Technique’ suggested that familiar things are only perceived automatically, so the job of art is to interrupt this process by making the familiar seem strange. In artistic terms, such ‘defamiliarisation’ slows down sense-making and draws attention to meanings that might otherwise be overlooked. However if making us see things freshly is the mark of a great writer, it’s also a mainstay of general prose. Aren’t we all told to avoid cliché? In essence Shklovsky’s technique is about resisting the ‘dead’ feel of clichéd representation.

Another writer who provides striking (indeed at times bizarre) description is Mervyn Peake (the Gormenghast trilogy). Here’s Peake’s description of a man’s head: ‘His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet and his eyes behind the gleaming of his glasses were the twin miniatures of his head.’ Or firelight: ‘When Titus awoke the walls of the cave were leaping to and fro in a red light, their outcrops and shelves of stone flinging out their disproportionate shadows and withdrawing them with a concertina motion.’ In the case of the firelight Peake takes pains to slow the description down, only at the end of the long sentence showing that his comparison is to a concertina, by which time our brains are highly primed for recognition. Peake might well have been channelling Shklovsky in this slowing-down effect, because it certainly makes us dwell on the comparison involved.

Within the constraints of a novel’s style, defamiliarisation can be either overt and lavish or understated and subtle. Clearly Peake falls in the ‘overt’ class, particularly in his descriptions of elderly character Flay, whose arrival in a scene is often presaged by the present characters overhearing ricochet sounds (which are his old knees popping as he walks). But any time a phrase rings in mind, it’s worth asking yourself: ‘Why does this phrase work so well?’ You may find it’s not because the ideas are new or striking in themselves, but because the phrasing makes them seem sharper than expected.

We write and work in a world in which styles, characterisations and indeed entire storylines can quickly become gallingly clichéd. Whether you wish to attempt a feat of novel-length defamiliarisation or write a fantasy adventure novel, understanding how to twist an idea or concept just enough to make it seem new is in a very real way the art of all fiction. To that end, techniques like delaying meaning, increasing sentence length at an unfamiliar time (e.g. during a supposedly fast scene), or searching for fresher imagery at strategic points can help underscore a mood, tone or theme, and are always worth the effort if you want your work to rise above the morass of everyday writing.

Meanwhile one of the greatest pleasures in reading is surely the sense of discovery when a familiar meaning is newly and aptly put. It’s like a bolt of lightning that strikes the whole brain. If so, call me Frankenstein’s monster, but I want more!

Adding style with language and syntax

There are few better places to start when discussing language and syntax than William Gibson’s first line in Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Here the writer uses short, punchy syntax and flat — almost atonal — language. This is cool, deadpan, economical storytelling that tells in one line all you need to know about place, so the author can cut immediately to action. You could easily feel reminded of the way a detective might describe a crime scene.

At first glance there’s a similiar flatness to Angela Carter’s opening line in Heroes and Villains, using the ‘hook’ of contrasted emotional extremes:

Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful but her father loved her.

However the language and syntax swiftly become longer and more complex, with few pauses and strong reliance on metaphor:

Marianne sat at table, eating; she watched dispassionately as the hands of the clock went round but she never felt that time was passing for time was frozen around her in this secluded place where a pastoral quiet possessed everything and the busy clock carved the hours into sculptures of ice.

As you’ve probably realised, the lack of commas or pauses actively embodies the monontony being described. Time is apparently slowed down for the reader, just as it is for the character.

This altered syntax also, as it happens, draws attention to the constructedness of the narrative. For some readers this comes at the expense of immersion. However for Carter’s intended audience, there’s an extra pleasure in unpacking the levels at which the writing works.

While Angela Carter pays lurid attention to the workings of language as such, Gibson, no less aware of meaning, prefers to shock and move on. Rather than using extended description and underpunctuation to make single moments linger for a long time, Gibson delivers information like body blows. Yet in both cases each writer uses language and syntax extremely effectively to deliver setting and mood.

It goes without saying, questions of syntax and language are strongly tethered to audience; you’d hardly employ multisyllabic words and complicated syntax for a young readership. But you can certainly work magic within such boundaries, and it’s always a pleasure for any reader to know the writer has constructed meticulously.

There are many ways to use syntax strategically. For instance, can you deliver a fight scene more powerfully if you use shorter words and cut more swiftly between moments or ideas? Or does such brevity itself become a sort of stylistic cliché?

Perhaps you could render something that happens quickly in a slowed-down, jellified way. What would this say about the situation, the characterisation and the narrative? For instance, it might hint at your character’s extremely methodical, planned way of fighting, in which we have time to see him or her measuring each action and reaction before the next blow. Alternatively, slowed-down description might hint at a character for whom fighting is utterly alien and therefore every moment seems preternaturally heightened.

Whatever you do, varying syntax is as vital to reader engagement as any other single device (even characterisation). If Carter’s underpunctuated floridity continued for page after page, even the most dedicated literary believer would start to drift away. If Gibson never departed from clipped, staccato language in favour of more intricate description he’d have driven readers away too. If you find a scene is flatter than it should be, consider how varying sentence length and structure (e.g. adding or deleting punctuation points) can help increase the writing’s energy.

In the end, writing that ignores the ways syntax and language affect mood, setting and reader engagment might as well be tuned to a ‘dead channel’. But when these devices are used consciously to create an effect — and especially when they draw links to ideas or themes — the writing can live both on and off the page.

Exposition and The Big Sleep

 

The Big Sleep
Penguin edition: The Big Sleep.

Exposition is a mode of rhetoric, and as Wikipedia notes, its purpose is to ‘explain, inform or even describe’. Since a novel without explanation, information or description would resemble a car crash, let’s talk about why exposition in fiction is such a no-no.

Firstly, consider Chandler’s Marlowe:

I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

At face value this passage simply imparts information. Marlowe tells us he’s a private detective; he tells us he’s clean and tidy and sober; he tells us he’s here to meet with wealth

Why, then, is it not exposition?

The answer is that it also tells a second story. Beneath the image of Marlowe in his washed, shaven sobriety lurks the image of the character as unwashed, unshaven and drunk. By the simple ruse of emphasising his clean sobriety, Marlowe reveals that this is not his usual state. Furthermore, since the reason for the change is four million dollars, we can deduce that the character has a keen eye for money.

In other words there’s more to the writing than what’s said. There’s also the manner of speaking: just note the clipped phrasing and dry, asentimental language. All these elements reveal character without resorting to lists of facts.

By not stating character traits directly, Chandler allows us the pleasure of interpreting for ourselves. Indeed interpretation becomes a motor for continued reading. We read to ‘find out’ the truth of the story, which after all is little more than a ’tissue of lies’.

Even the most plot-driven works find ways to deliver basic information without telling. Have you read any Stephen King? Think of the ways mood and tone are suggested through frequent depictions of minor perplexity or domestic incapacity, and how these foreshadow bigger crisis-stricken moments to come. On one page a character will be struggling to get the damned phone to work; down the track he’ll be fighting signal-warped zombies who used to be his neighbours and friends. King doesn’t need to say a character ‘felt terribly apprehensive’ because his story builds apprehension at every turn. You can bet that if he did feel the need to say his character felt terribly apprehensive, it would come across through a prickling of the nape hairs or something else the reader has to interpret — a physical response, sensory imagery, not an explanation.

The problem with exposition is that it only conveys one message: what the writer wants to the reader to know. Because fiction works by concealing its information behind devices like characterisation, imagery and voice, telling the reader what they’re meant to know instantly breaks the spell. Pop! All that lovely spellbound engagement falls away.

I’ve heard it said that a certain amount of exposition is necessary in fiction, but I’d rather argue that a certain amount of informationtelling is requisite. The trick is to couch it in a way that rewards interpretation rather than kills it.

Meanwhile, embodying characterisation in voice, telling by what’s left out, foreshadowing, setting mood through scenery, using sensory details the reader has to unpack, showing characters acting and reacting — these are just a few of the many ways you can avoid exposition to build better work. I’ll go into more detail on how to do those in a future article.

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And meanwhile, hammer those words — or lovingly coax them into place, whichever suits your process.

When is telling really showing?

An old adage of fiction writing, oft-quoted, is ‘show, don’t tell’. But what, then, to make of this novel opening:

I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.

I’m totally pissed at my old man who’s somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don’t know where. The check wasn’t in the mailbox today which means I can’t go to school Monday morning. I’m on the monthly program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything […]

It’s Story of my Life by Jay McInerney, and it’s pure telling. But notice how full it is of devices: figures of speech (‘this shit’, ‘totally pissed’); tone (aggrieved); rhythm (punchy, fast, with sentences lengthening and punctuation reducing to suggest increasing hostility)? Can’t you just see the character in her late 80s pre-slacker nightshirt and leggings, fiddling with the phone because her Dad’s secretary has put her on hold?

It channels Holden Caulfield, of course (‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’) and sounds like a conversation overheard on a bus, but isn’t that the point? The work is telling, but inside the telling is so much characterisation, it doesn’t just narrate the story, it embodies it.

Of course, the novel itself is full of incident and irony — it’s hardly a work that could be accused of using voice to paper over shortfalls in story. The narrator’s moods change, events affect her, she alters inflection and swaps anecdotes midstream; but underneath it all is a tale of urban self-destruction propped up by the nostalgic wish for myths of true love and happily-ever-after to prove real. This same thematic content could have been delivered in myriad other ways, such as through the arm’s-length third-person story of a young woman living at the edge of wealth with no real means to keep herself afloat and surrounded by a peer group bent on drug abuse and sexual uninhibition, something like:

Alison thought: ‘I don’t believe this shit.’ She studied the phone before pressing redial again and waiting, tapping a foot against the skirting board. One of her flatmate’s Givenchy heels stuck out under the bed next to a condom wrapper.

…but it wouldn’t have had the same feel, immediacy or freshness as it did (at least in 1988), and probably wouldn’t have seemed as real back then, either.

McInerney’s work shows us the value of enhancing ‘voice’ in narration, particularly when delivering details of characterisation and situation that might have seemed over-told and static if delivered in any other way. It shows that you can reveal as much or more about character simply through the expressions they use. Meanwhile one of the drawbacks of first person narration (that it’s harder to plant irony) falls by the wayside: of course there are ironies when a character is so caught up in the vicissitudes of a subculture and in staying ahead of the moment that she doesn’t notice her own self-destruction.

Thus it’s true that, in this case, telling is showing. That is, we learn as much about the character’s life from the way she speaks as by the content of her narration. Can you employ any of these tactics without a first-person narrator? Are any of the above devices useful inside other forms of exposition? That’s something for another article.

But for now, when using first person narration, remember that voice can turn ordinary telling into unbeatable showing.

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setting the scene in an opening

Kage Baker’s excellent fantasy-of-manners, The Anvil of the World, begins: ‘Troon, the golden city, sat within high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. The plain was golden with barley.’ This is nice, clear writing with strong imagery we can ‘see’ in the mind. However as the description continues we learn that Troon inhabitants all suffer from emphysema from harvest dust, and that ‘the social event of the year’ is the Festival of Respiratory Masks.

Building droll humour into her description over several sentences allows Baker to make full use of setting to introduce the novel’s tone and themes (a certain blinkeredness of thinking depicted as the tendency here to celebrate one’s own disease). Meanwhile the sharpness of Baker’s imagery and the deftness of her language (short and sweet; nothing overwritten) makes her opening highly enjoyable to read, despite having no actual characters until far down the page.

The trick to building a novel’s opening out of description is to turn the place into a character in its own right. Just as you’d try to sum up a character as neatly, quickly and efficiently as possible the first time he or she is introduced — remember, you can even introduce a character via one single dominant feature, so there’s a lot of room to economise — the place should be expressed via its most crucial or toneworthy characteristics.

For instance, in a serious novel about murder, perhaps you’d start with a setting that can be characterised as lonely, unforgiving, toxic or otherwise suggestive of harm. It helps if you can pare your imagery back to one significant motif as your starting point.

‘The sun is always just about to rise.’ So begins 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since the reader has never lived in a place where the sun is always about to rise, the opening tells us we’re on a different world, with different rules regarding the observation of sunrises (in fact, we’re standing on something that perpetually moves, driven by Martian solar heat dynamics; but that’s beside the point).

The point is, Stanley Robinson’s opening works because it presents a single clear image that also opens a question in the mind (how can a sunrise always be about to begin?).

I don’t say it’s easy to draw a fast, complete picture in the mind that simultaneously tantalises and uses words economically. Certainly I’ll be talking more about both aspects (how to write with economy and powerful imagery) in other posts. The important thing for now, though, is that good imagery always works hand-in-hand with tone.

See for instance this opening to ‘A Stripe for Trooper Casey’ by Roderic Quinn, published in The Anthology of Colonial Australian Crime Fiction (Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver edited):

‘The magpies had said good-night to the setting sun, and already darkness was moving through the dead timber. The first notes of night-birds came from the ridges, and a curlew mourned in the reeds of a creek.’

Slightly convoluted, though fairly effective, yes? It certainly puts us in the place, expecting something to happen, in part helped by the animated sense of darkness prowling the hillside. In this sense the imagery largely suits the story.

However the writing creaks at the seams when looked at from a modern perspective. For instance, there’s an over-reliance on personification (magpies saying ‘good-night’ to the sun; a curlew ‘mourning’). Giving personlike attributes to animals or things was a far more popular literary device in the 1800s than now, and in the paragraph above it feels slightly intrusive (saying ‘good-night’ is hardly ominous conceptually).

Sharp and economical imagery with judicious use of personification or other metaphors is just one way you can build a strong opening when describing a setting.

 

openings

opening a book

How do you write a great novel opening? This post will explore both subversion and suspense as two linked methods that toy with reader expectation.

‘You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.’

So begins Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. And you can tell a whole lot about the book from that opening fraction.

Firstly, there’s an order being subverted in the text. Rather than storytellers creating important life-lessons out of events, events must be confined and shaped to suit important life-lessons, which prove useless anyway — so says the narrator.

Secondly, the imagery is funny and disturbing: just try to read the above without ‘seeing’ a chef looking under kitchen cupboards and sinks for his tongue.

Thirdly, by starting with the idea of stories about loss, Toltz gives the impression his narrator will lose something important — but what?

Openings give a lot away about a book; or they should. Toltz’s opening, despite being basically metaphysical (concerned with stories), uses shifted logic and comic imagery to subvert expectation, meanwhile building suspense around the notion of loss, so the result lives in the mind and tantalises the reader to read onward.

Well — it tantalised me. You  may prefer a different style of narrative:

‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

Do I need to say where that’s from? Of course it’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

There’s no twist in that opening — not an overt one, at any rate. But the book’s title tells us Harry Potter will be a core character, so in reading the first words we’re already left hanging: ‘Where’s Harry?’ Secondly, as readers we know that two self-described ‘normal’ characters living on a street named after a common hedging plant are highly unlikely to remain in the realm of ‘normal’. Since they don’t know this, we can enjoy a sense of irony.

As readers we know there’s a big change coming. And it might just shake them to the core. But Rowling doesn’t let us in on the secret for quite a while. Indeed it’s not until the third paragraph that she lets us know these two ‘normal’ characters have a secret of their own, the nature of which won’t be revealed for a few more paragraphs.

As unremarkable as the story’s first line is, it also sets up the brilliance of a writer who knows how to delay ‘the reveal’. This is the moment when the hat is removed, and we see the white rabbit underneath. Or, as it happens, the owl.

These two very different openings to two very different books show some ways in which expectation can be subverted.

With Toltz it’s the nature of universal ‘truths’ pertaining to story, and also the expectation that outcomes will supply grand meaning a reader can take away and apply elsewhere.

With Rowling it’s the moment of ‘reveal’, being twofold: the nature of this world’s ‘abnormality’ (witchcraft); and the anticipated change in the Dursleys’ demeanour when they finally understand what’s happening.

But in both openings, it’s the subversion of expectation that keeps us wanting to read.

explore & write real spaces

This is a simple exercise in paying attention to details when you’re going about your daily life. If you commute by train it’s easy; it you don’t, it’s worth finding somewhere similar to explore.

EXERCISE

Head down concrete stairs into a railway underpass (or under-bridge; or other heavy, dimly-lit structure). Feel the grit underfoot and the jolt of each impact on the steps. Try to imagine you had to do this blindfolded. How would the feel of the space change as you entered the underpass and left the outdoor air?

Pause to inhale deeply. What do you smell?

See if you can think of a visual image that represents that smell. If it’s bus exhaust, you might see a tailpipe. If it’s rotting garbage, you might see a withered apple core.

Stop just long enough to jot these mental images down.

Touch the interior wall or concrete — how does it feel? If it’s rough and cool, try to pinpoint in your mind exactly how it feels. Is there powder residue? Is it damp? Do you feel ‘weighed down’ by the concrete mass overhead, or are your impressions different?

See if you can recall an emotional experience that connects in your mind to the physical sensations of touching the underpass wall and the hard ground underfoot.

Stop just long enough to jot down one significant early memory that you can associate with these sensations — for instance, schoolyard asphalt or the area between two hulking school buildings.

Next, pause in the middle of the underpass to listen to the sounds. Is there a noise of traffic? Or is it quiet? Can you hear water trickling? Are there pedestrian noises? Trains roaring invisibly somewhere? If you move on through the underpass, do these sounds change?

Stop just long enough to jot down these sound-impressions. Try to capture each noise as exactly as possible — that is, try to spell out each sound you hear. If you hear traffic it could be a ‘hum’ or ‘brrr’ or ‘whoosh’, or it could just as easily be nothing resembling a word. Disregard ‘proper’ language. Just try to be as exact as possible when writing the sound.

Lastly, stand at any point in the tunnel (or other structure) and use your eyes in ‘snapshot’ mode to take instantaneous impressions. That is, simply put, blink. Are there any larger impressions or shapes that take your fancy (between eye-shuttings) or remind you of something else? If you do feel reminded of a powerful image (dinosaur? island? cavern? warhorse?), jot down your idea, no matter how little sense it might make to someone else.

The point out of all this isn’t to look or feel silly to other communters. It isn’t even to find useful ways of describing an underground rail passage. It’s to develop the ability to write with feeling, from immersion inside an environment.

And of course it’s to stop and study a place you might not usually pay attention to, in order to gather useful information you could use when writing something similar (such as a cavern, smuggler’s lair, dungeon or bunker).

EXTENDED EXERCISE: In two or three paragraphs, imagine and describe being lost (and perhaps pursued) in an underground structure using the sensory information you gathered.

Point of view for this exercise can either be yourself, or a character you invent for the purpose.

character in setting

In an exercise on sensory writing I spoke of entering a roundhouse and imagining the textures, smells and visual imagery. However the exercise could easily be extended to show some of the ways in which character can be used as a ‘filter’ through which to visualise — with greater depth and mood — a given environment.

In fact, if you’re using character at all, you need to think about the way they see and feel their surroundings. This exercise is aimed to help extend your ability to portray this.

EXERCISE

Take one of your own existing characters and plant him or her inside an ancient village roundhouse. Concentrate not on why the character is there, but on the pure perceptions of place. Is this character tall? In that case your character would see from a particular vantage, and might be able to discern swallow nests and so forth in the rafters, or failing that, perhaps they’d find themselves having to stoop to avoid inhaling the dense cloud of upper-level smoke.

If your character is short or a child, think differently. What do they see? What do they nearly step on? Who appears dominant to them? Is your character likely to feel nervous? Might they be disdainful of ruder ways of living? Are they used to luxury? Do they have a rat phobia? All these things will affect how they see, feel and experience the roundhouse, and therefore how you’ll describe it.

Write a single paragraph that expresses most fleetingly and exactly the significant ‘feel’ of the space according to that character. Stick to broadbrush things: smell; light; impression. When you write sensorily you often use impressions because they stick in the mind better. The easiest and most succinct description is often a metaphor, so don’t necessarily try to be exact or literal.

For instance, here is a basic description from a neutral point of view:

A wide hearth lay in the centre of the room, surrounded by a circle of stones. On its fiery core bubbled clay pots, while above hung strands of drying meat.

But now imagine how you could use description :

A red maw opened in the floor, stone teeth gripping an array of clay pots and strung meat.

What would the latter kind of description say about the character doing the observing?