Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Photo by Earl53 at morguefile.com
First person point-of-view is way of narrating as if you were looking through someone else's eyeballs, wearing her skin, moving about the world in her body. It offers tremendous access to another person's psyche.

But only if you remember to let your reader get that close.

A common problem in writing first person POV is what I call "filtering," that is, when the character first labels an experience before experiencing it. While filtering is a staple of third person limited POV, it weakens first person narration.

Here are some examples, (both past and present tense):

  1. I feel a chill prickle up the back of my neck.
  2. I see eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. I hear the waves crash against the shore.
  4. I smell the pungent odor of old fish and gag.
  5. I wondered what my dad would do when he found out.
  6. I thought he had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. I turned my head and there to my right I noticed a patch of cheerful daffodils swaying in the breeze.

They don't sound like problem sentences at first blush, do they? But consider that we have access only to the sensations of the protagonist narrator. Is it really necessary to tell us first that he is feeling a sensation or thinking a thought? Of course not. Obviously only the protag/narrator could be having these sensations and opinions, since we are privy to no one else's inner world.

The filter clause further adds a redundant telling to something the rest of the sentence shows. And these filter clauses add a load more iterations of that pesky pronoun "I" that can make even the most selfless protagonist sound like a raging narcissist.

Now let's see those sentences "unfiltered":

  1. A chill prickles up the back of my neck.
  2. Eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. Waves crash against the shore.
  4. The pungent odor of old fish makes me gag.
  5. What would my dad do when he found out?
  6. He had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. To my right, a patch of cheerful daffodils swayed in the breeze.

Note how much more immediate and punchy these are. As a reader, you feel as if you are experiencing sensations with the protagonist, rather than being told about them across a table. You're looking through her eyeballs, not sitting on her shoulder.

The thoughts and opinions sound more natural, the way thoughts form inside your own head. You don't think to yourself "I think I want cake." No, that desire will be in your head as "I want cake" or simply "Cake! Must have cake!" (For some, the "I think" filter is a way of expressing uncertainty, so the unfiltered version would be "Should I have cake?" or "Is it bad that I want cake?")

Most of these filters are easy to find and trim away.With "I wondered" some rearranging will likely be necessary, because wondering is a way of contemplating questions.

Example 7 is a way of filtering using excessive "stage business"--narrating movement that could be inferred from context. Obviously a character turns her head to see something to her right. Trust the reader to get it.

A few caveats


When your character is relaying a story to someone else, these filters would be perfectly appropriate. His or her storytelling will not be deep POV, but limited.

Another instance where filtering might be necessary is when the reader knows the protagonist's senses have been interfered with or limited in some way. For example, "Through the blindfold I could see only dark blotches against a field of orange."

What special challenges do you have with writing particular points of view?
Wednesday, February 24, 2016 Laurel Garver
Photo by Earl53 at morguefile.com
First person point-of-view is way of narrating as if you were looking through someone else's eyeballs, wearing her skin, moving about the world in her body. It offers tremendous access to another person's psyche.

But only if you remember to let your reader get that close.

A common problem in writing first person POV is what I call "filtering," that is, when the character first labels an experience before experiencing it. While filtering is a staple of third person limited POV, it weakens first person narration.

Here are some examples, (both past and present tense):

  1. I feel a chill prickle up the back of my neck.
  2. I see eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. I hear the waves crash against the shore.
  4. I smell the pungent odor of old fish and gag.
  5. I wondered what my dad would do when he found out.
  6. I thought he had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. I turned my head and there to my right I noticed a patch of cheerful daffodils swaying in the breeze.

They don't sound like problem sentences at first blush, do they? But consider that we have access only to the sensations of the protagonist narrator. Is it really necessary to tell us first that he is feeling a sensation or thinking a thought? Of course not. Obviously only the protag/narrator could be having these sensations and opinions, since we are privy to no one else's inner world.

The filter clause further adds a redundant telling to something the rest of the sentence shows. And these filter clauses add a load more iterations of that pesky pronoun "I" that can make even the most selfless protagonist sound like a raging narcissist.

Now let's see those sentences "unfiltered":

  1. A chill prickles up the back of my neck.
  2. Eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. Waves crash against the shore.
  4. The pungent odor of old fish makes me gag.
  5. What would my dad do when he found out?
  6. He had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. To my right, a patch of cheerful daffodils swayed in the breeze.

Note how much more immediate and punchy these are. As a reader, you feel as if you are experiencing sensations with the protagonist, rather than being told about them across a table. You're looking through her eyeballs, not sitting on her shoulder.

The thoughts and opinions sound more natural, the way thoughts form inside your own head. You don't think to yourself "I think I want cake." No, that desire will be in your head as "I want cake" or simply "Cake! Must have cake!" (For some, the "I think" filter is a way of expressing uncertainty, so the unfiltered version would be "Should I have cake?" or "Is it bad that I want cake?")

Most of these filters are easy to find and trim away.With "I wondered" some rearranging will likely be necessary, because wondering is a way of contemplating questions.

Example 7 is a way of filtering using excessive "stage business"--narrating movement that could be inferred from context. Obviously a character turns her head to see something to her right. Trust the reader to get it.

A few caveats


When your character is relaying a story to someone else, these filters would be perfectly appropriate. His or her storytelling will not be deep POV, but limited.

Another instance where filtering might be necessary is when the reader knows the protagonist's senses have been interfered with or limited in some way. For example, "Through the blindfold I could see only dark blotches against a field of orange."

What special challenges do you have with writing particular points of view?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

We're entering the Lenten season today, a time when some of us prepare for Easter by committing to putting off something--whether it be fasting from desserts or TV. or taking a break from a vice--in order to put on a new spiritual habit.
Image by Seeman, morguefile.com

There's something useful to be learned for character arcs in this.

Making changes in one's life doesn't happen by accident for the most part. There is almost always some volition involved. One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Lenten practices have built in rituals and community support, two key elements you also find in 12-step programs to break cycles of addiction.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one. If a positive behavior or habit isn't intentionally chosen, focused on, striven for, human nature is such that change won't happen--or a different bad habit will take the place of the one left behind.

The fact that change is so hard is why it is so appealing, so very necessary for us to see embodied in stories.

Behavioral science researchers have been hard at work to uncover some other helpful tidbits about what does and does not motivate change. As you create and refine those "inner arcs" in which a character grows toward change, keep in mind the following:

  • Giving someone information can make them defensive instead of receptive
  • A person entrenched in a habit needs to be invited to reexamine the stories they tell themselves about it. 
  • We can be blind to why we're stuck, often fixating on only one motivation without seeing the whole picture. 
  • Quick fixes--plowing ahead with a one-sided approach to change--tends to fail or simply not last
  • Change happens when multiple sources of help and motivation come into play:
  • Personal motivation -- the good for me needs to be powerfully appealing, moreso than other things
  • Social motivation -- other people give me positive attention or shame
  • Structural motivation -- there are powerful "carrots and sticks" (rewards and punishments) tied to this
  • Personal ability -- deliberate practice increases skill, just like learning an instrument
  • Social ability -- seeking help from mentors, teachers or friends adds encouragement and accountability
  • Structural ability -- create an environment that aids success, create "carrots and sticks"--especially carrots.

More on the behaviorist approach, which I parsed here, can be found in The 3 Most Powerful Ways to Change People Who Don't Want to Change.

If you're struggling to make a character's inner arc dynamic and believable, take into account these truths of change, and use them to balance forward movement with setbacks.

What aspects of character change do you find most tricky to portray, forward movement or setbacks?
Wednesday, February 10, 2016 Laurel Garver
We're entering the Lenten season today, a time when some of us prepare for Easter by committing to putting off something--whether it be fasting from desserts or TV. or taking a break from a vice--in order to put on a new spiritual habit.
Image by Seeman, morguefile.com

There's something useful to be learned for character arcs in this.

Making changes in one's life doesn't happen by accident for the most part. There is almost always some volition involved. One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Lenten practices have built in rituals and community support, two key elements you also find in 12-step programs to break cycles of addiction.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one. If a positive behavior or habit isn't intentionally chosen, focused on, striven for, human nature is such that change won't happen--or a different bad habit will take the place of the one left behind.

The fact that change is so hard is why it is so appealing, so very necessary for us to see embodied in stories.

Behavioral science researchers have been hard at work to uncover some other helpful tidbits about what does and does not motivate change. As you create and refine those "inner arcs" in which a character grows toward change, keep in mind the following:

  • Giving someone information can make them defensive instead of receptive
  • A person entrenched in a habit needs to be invited to reexamine the stories they tell themselves about it. 
  • We can be blind to why we're stuck, often fixating on only one motivation without seeing the whole picture. 
  • Quick fixes--plowing ahead with a one-sided approach to change--tends to fail or simply not last
  • Change happens when multiple sources of help and motivation come into play:
  • Personal motivation -- the good for me needs to be powerfully appealing, moreso than other things
  • Social motivation -- other people give me positive attention or shame
  • Structural motivation -- there are powerful "carrots and sticks" (rewards and punishments) tied to this
  • Personal ability -- deliberate practice increases skill, just like learning an instrument
  • Social ability -- seeking help from mentors, teachers or friends adds encouragement and accountability
  • Structural ability -- create an environment that aids success, create "carrots and sticks"--especially carrots.

More on the behaviorist approach, which I parsed here, can be found in The 3 Most Powerful Ways to Change People Who Don't Want to Change.

If you're struggling to make a character's inner arc dynamic and believable, take into account these truths of change, and use them to balance forward movement with setbacks.

What aspects of character change do you find most tricky to portray, forward movement or setbacks?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
I admit, this title is partially ripped off a post one of my Millennial friends linked on Facebook from a site called "Thought Catalog," meant to help folks feel less like a lost cause because, hey, they do this "adulting" thing with at least minimum competence. And they aren't starving or being carpet-bombed. Win!

Since only a handful of you lovely readers leave comments, I don't know how far to go in making sweeping generalizations about those who read this blog. However, I think the following is likely true if you've decided to stop by here today.

1. You have some degree of fluency in English.

Native English speakers, do you have any idea how blessed you are? English is one of the world's most difficult languages to master. Its grammar is difficult, its spelling and pronunciation seems to follow almost no rules at all, and its vocabulary is mind-blowingly huge.

People the world over are shelling out a fortune to have what you have. And believe me, even people with PhDs in English for whom it is their second language often don't write as well as a native-speaking high schooler. So to my teen readers, go you! You can write far more fluidly than the university English department chairs in many developing countries.

And visitors learning English, you are my heroes! Keep adding vocabulary. Keep reading. Keep working hard at your writing. You are doing something phenomenal!

2. You read books.

In fact, if you read at least one book in the past year, you're doing better than one out of every five Americans. (You can read more stats at The Decline of the American Book Lover.) You've likely heard the maxim about putting in 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, but have you also heard the related reading one? That reading about your field for an hour a day will make you an expert in seven years? That should tell you that this one habit can be a powerful force in your life.

Books offer many benefits over other forms of entertainment. Every little bit you do grows your knowledge base and vocabulary. Reading fiction has been linked to increased empathy.

3. You're interested in something besides celebrity gossip.

I blame Facebook for this being on my radar as well. In this video, a reporter went to a college campus and asked basic history and civics questions, like "who won the Civil War?" and "who is our vice president?" The kids overwhelmingly couldn't answer correctly, unless the questions were about a celebrity, then bingo! correct answers every time.

Since you're on my humble page rather than stalking a Kardashian, you are doing a lot better than most at developing into a multi-dimensional person. Go, you!

4. You're seeking to improve yourself.

It's far easier to stick to what you know than to try new things. But you writers are real go-getters. Yes, even those of you who agonize over every word. Who are riddled with self-doubt. Who won't show anyone--not even your cat--what you've written. Because you aren't content to stick to what you know. You are moving toward change.

5. You care about creating something new.

Our world is so fast-paced, it can be overwhelming or conversely fill a person with ennui. But not you. You have stories that demand to be told and you care about them. You're not content to passively sit by and wait for some great tale to come out of Hollywood. No, you're out there in the trenches with your Bic pens and  your laptops and your voice-to-text software dreaming up new worlds, new adventures, new imaginary people that will change readers' lives forever.

6. You have goals.

You might not have a clear sense where this germ of an idea is going, but you are following it to some kind of conclusion. This manuscript has been on your hard drive for a while and more than anything you want to type "the end" on it. You think one more editing pass is probably a good idea for this quadruple-revised and beta-read manuscript. You sent ten more queries to agents about a manuscript you love.

Wherever you are in the process, that you're IN process with a writing project is amazing. Did you know "write a book" is one of the most common "bucket list" items? If you've so much as dreamed an idea for one, you're on your way to something most people hope to accomplish at least once in their lifetime.

7. You have doubts.

Only those with serious psychological problems never have doubts. Doubts are a sign that you take yourself and your creative drive seriously, and that you are taking risks in what you try to write. Doubts make you dig deeper to find the true heart of every story, rather than settle on the first idea that popped into your head at 2 a.m. Doubt is a tool of a craftsman who seeks to continually improve.

8. You're seeking support among like-minded people.

Mentoring has been shown to be a vital ingredient to success. Even if you don't have face-to-face contact with writer-mentors, visiting blogs like mine can be a powerful way to connect to other writers, gain support and advice, and be an encourager to others as well.

Study after study of what makes people happy name "positive social connections" at the very top of their lists. So by networking on social media with people who care about the same things you do, you are also doing a great deal to become a happier person. How cool is that?

Any others that you would add? 
Wednesday, February 03, 2016 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
I admit, this title is partially ripped off a post one of my Millennial friends linked on Facebook from a site called "Thought Catalog," meant to help folks feel less like a lost cause because, hey, they do this "adulting" thing with at least minimum competence. And they aren't starving or being carpet-bombed. Win!

Since only a handful of you lovely readers leave comments, I don't know how far to go in making sweeping generalizations about those who read this blog. However, I think the following is likely true if you've decided to stop by here today.

1. You have some degree of fluency in English.

Native English speakers, do you have any idea how blessed you are? English is one of the world's most difficult languages to master. Its grammar is difficult, its spelling and pronunciation seems to follow almost no rules at all, and its vocabulary is mind-blowingly huge.

People the world over are shelling out a fortune to have what you have. And believe me, even people with PhDs in English for whom it is their second language often don't write as well as a native-speaking high schooler. So to my teen readers, go you! You can write far more fluidly than the university English department chairs in many developing countries.

And visitors learning English, you are my heroes! Keep adding vocabulary. Keep reading. Keep working hard at your writing. You are doing something phenomenal!

2. You read books.

In fact, if you read at least one book in the past year, you're doing better than one out of every five Americans. (You can read more stats at The Decline of the American Book Lover.) You've likely heard the maxim about putting in 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, but have you also heard the related reading one? That reading about your field for an hour a day will make you an expert in seven years? That should tell you that this one habit can be a powerful force in your life.

Books offer many benefits over other forms of entertainment. Every little bit you do grows your knowledge base and vocabulary. Reading fiction has been linked to increased empathy.

3. You're interested in something besides celebrity gossip.

I blame Facebook for this being on my radar as well. In this video, a reporter went to a college campus and asked basic history and civics questions, like "who won the Civil War?" and "who is our vice president?" The kids overwhelmingly couldn't answer correctly, unless the questions were about a celebrity, then bingo! correct answers every time.

Since you're on my humble page rather than stalking a Kardashian, you are doing a lot better than most at developing into a multi-dimensional person. Go, you!

4. You're seeking to improve yourself.

It's far easier to stick to what you know than to try new things. But you writers are real go-getters. Yes, even those of you who agonize over every word. Who are riddled with self-doubt. Who won't show anyone--not even your cat--what you've written. Because you aren't content to stick to what you know. You are moving toward change.

5. You care about creating something new.

Our world is so fast-paced, it can be overwhelming or conversely fill a person with ennui. But not you. You have stories that demand to be told and you care about them. You're not content to passively sit by and wait for some great tale to come out of Hollywood. No, you're out there in the trenches with your Bic pens and  your laptops and your voice-to-text software dreaming up new worlds, new adventures, new imaginary people that will change readers' lives forever.

6. You have goals.

You might not have a clear sense where this germ of an idea is going, but you are following it to some kind of conclusion. This manuscript has been on your hard drive for a while and more than anything you want to type "the end" on it. You think one more editing pass is probably a good idea for this quadruple-revised and beta-read manuscript. You sent ten more queries to agents about a manuscript you love.

Wherever you are in the process, that you're IN process with a writing project is amazing. Did you know "write a book" is one of the most common "bucket list" items? If you've so much as dreamed an idea for one, you're on your way to something most people hope to accomplish at least once in their lifetime.

7. You have doubts.

Only those with serious psychological problems never have doubts. Doubts are a sign that you take yourself and your creative drive seriously, and that you are taking risks in what you try to write. Doubts make you dig deeper to find the true heart of every story, rather than settle on the first idea that popped into your head at 2 a.m. Doubt is a tool of a craftsman who seeks to continually improve.

8. You're seeking support among like-minded people.

Mentoring has been shown to be a vital ingredient to success. Even if you don't have face-to-face contact with writer-mentors, visiting blogs like mine can be a powerful way to connect to other writers, gain support and advice, and be an encourager to others as well.

Study after study of what makes people happy name "positive social connections" at the very top of their lists. So by networking on social media with people who care about the same things you do, you are also doing a great deal to become a happier person. How cool is that?

Any others that you would add?