Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Which Point of View to Use?

Last Monday, in my post about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, I mentioned a challenge with first person point of view (POV). The truth, though, is that all points of view have disadvantages and advantages. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine which point of view is best for a story, so with that in mind, today, let’s look at the reasons to choose or avoid certain points of view.

Before we begin, let’s take a look at what point of view is. In its most essential form, point of view is simply the voice a story is told in. Sometimes this is a particular character or set of characters. Sometimes it’s the voice of a narrator who never actually plays a role in the story, kind of like a storyteller spinning tales before a campfire. The point of view, or narrator, can know everything or know only some of the information about the story and its characters. It can take on any tone from the lyrical to the sarcastic to the humorous.

To choose the point of view for a story, an author must first pick from the three main branches: first person, second person, and third person.

First Person Point of View

This is the point of view using “I,” “me,” and “my,” literally the first person pronouns, hence the name of this POV.  Most of the time, a story in first person POV is told only from one character’s perspective. However, there are rare occasions where an author chooses to use multiple characters. Sometimes this means sharing both characters’ experiences through first person, and sometimes only one of the characters uses first person and the other another type of POV. I wouldn’t encourage anyone toward either of those options, however, as they’re difficult to write and sell, and the first one, where multiple characters use first person POV, can be very confusing to readers.

That aside, there certainly are advantages to choosing first person POV. It allows for the closest a reader can get to a character’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, perspectives, and experiences. For stories that hinge on an internal change in a character, first person POV can be quite handy. It’s also useful for stories where the author wants to keep information from the reader, like in a mystery. And for stories that focus on a single character’s life, it’s ideal.

The biggest disadvantage to this POV is that it’s very limited. The story must be told from a specific character’s perspective, and if a scene occurs where the POV character doesn’t do much, the tension suffers. It can also leave an author in quite a bind if they need to show something or reveal information that the POV character doesn’t know or isn’t present to witness.

Choose the first person POV if you want to tell an intimate story, keep things from the reader, and especially if the story is about one person.

Second Person Point of View

This POV uses the second person pronouns of “you” and “your.” It’s fairly rare. It can be awkward to read and write and is still experimental. However, an author with skill, finesse, and the right story can pull it off.

Unfortunately, as I’ve seen so little of this point of view, I can’t claim any expertise on it. If you want to consider this POV, read as much of it as you can to discover the ins and outs of writing it.

Third Person Point of View

This is by far the most versatile POV, which is probably why it’s so common. It tells the story through third person pronouns like “he,” “she,” “his,” and “her.” It’s ideal for stories that need to be told from more than one characters’ perspective. However, it is also the most distant POV and cannot reach the quite as intimate a feel as first person POV.

However, as third person POV is so versatile, there are ways to alter the closeness of the narrator to the story and thus how deeply readers experience what the characters undergo. Third person POV spans the spectrum from omniscient to close. This can give the impression of an all-knowing narrator or experiencing the story only through the eyes of a single character, one small step removed from first person POV. And it can fall anywhere in between.

The disadvantages of third person POV are the advantages of first. An author can’t get as intimate a feel, though they can get close. Also, it’s easier to get carried away in third person POV and make a story excessively complex or get muddled in the telling of it. First person makes it easier to stay focused, though that doesn’t mean a writer is immune to unnecessary tangents and literary wanderings.

Choosing a point of view is one of the first crucial steps in storytelling. It certainly isn’t the first, but it should be made early on. Otherwise, changing it to another takes a lot of work. On the other hand, if you get halfway or farther through a story, even all the way through, and decide the POV isn’t right, it isn’t too late to change it. Ultimately, a story should be told from the perspective that best suits it. Sometimes a writer knows which instinctively, and sometimes it’s a carefully considered choice. If all else fails, however, and you’re still uncertain which way to go, try writing a small section from different points of view and see which fits best.

After you decide which POV is best, then you can select elements of POV like tone and voice. Or you can allow these subtler elements to flavor the story naturally, only perfecting and illuminating them during revision. In fact, past choosing whether to write in first, second, or third person, don’t stress out over the rest. Let your muse, subconscious, or whatever else you like to call it, spin the story. You can tighten and mend during edits.

Good luck!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 18

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we explore what makes a bestselling story work.



Chapter 18: Raiders in the Rocks

Summary: Claire and her Scottish companions depart from the inn. On the road, squeezed between Jamie and Dougal, they discuss Captain Randall’s reaction to finding out he would get Claire for interrogation purposes. Whatever Randall said, Dougal thinks it too vulgar for a lady’s ears, even Claire’s. However, Dougal thinks it unlikely that Randall will pursue Claire further as she’s now Colum’s niece.

Writer Comments: I doubt Randall is going to give up on Claire quite so easily. Perhaps there is no obvious advantage to Randall pursuing Claire--or rather there are too many risks--but Gabaldon has worked too hard to build Randall up as a terror to discard him so easily. Even if Randall doesn’t immediately come after Claire, I have little doubt that they’ll meet again.

Summary: That night, they camp on rocks. They’re too close to the border of MacKenzie lands to risk venturing into a more comfortable campsite. Security is more important now than comfort.

While telling stories around the campfire, each of the MacKenzie men starts finding excuses to get nearer their weapons. Jamie, under cover of nipping Claire’s earlobe, whispers that the horses are nervous, meaning someone is near. He tells Claire to hide the instant battle begins.

A surge of screaming, rioting Scots roar into their campsite. Claire darts into the cleft of nearby rocks, Jamie’s dirk in her fist. She hides while the battle gets into full swing. The attackers make off with two of the horses, three bags of grain, and one of the MacKenzie men. They nearly make off with Dougal and Jamie as well, but Murtagh shoots one of them and Jamie functionally berserks on the rest.

After the battle, Claire patches everyone up, then as the rest drift off to sleep, Jamie unleashes his pent up excitement through more amorous means. At first, Claire is horrified at the idea of doing anything intimate so near to twenty sleeping men, but Jamie swiftly persuades her that it’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

Writer Comments: There’s a great line in this scene when Jamie is coaxing Claire into making love.

Twenty-seven years of propriety were no match for several hundred thousand years of instinct. While my mind might object to being taken on a bare rock next to several sleeping soldiers, my body plainly considered itself the spoils of war and was eager to complete the formalities of surrender. -- page 251

The first sentence is my favorite because it so succinctly and wittily summarizes Claire’s internal struggle, state of mind, and the events of the moment. It also helps make palatable an act that most in our modern times would find disturbing. The second sentence is good as well, further expanding on the meaning of the first, but it’s the first I consider most brilliant. Such bits of summary are highly useful to the author. They help keep prose punchy and clever.

Beyond the phrasing itself though, Gabaldon handles a challenging subject here. In the modern world, any sort of sexual contact in public is highly taboo and can potentially get one in legal trouble depending on the exact nature of such contact. However, Gabaldon is writing in a different time and place, a time when our modern concepts of propriety do not fully apply. This is a challenge for Claire, but it’s also a challenge for Gabaldon’s readers. Hence, she’s wise in addressing the internal struggle directly. With Claire, we can face the challenge. Especially when dealing with a touchy subject, it helps tremendously to have a character through which readers can wrestle the morality of the matter. It doesn’t mean readers will agree or fully understand, but it helps makes it more palatable for readers.

In this scene, Gabaldon faces another challenge. Claire is relatively inactive. She watches the battle from her niche in the rocks. Unfortunately, this combined with the abundance of being verbs, which create a further layer of distance between the action and readers, creates a scene that lacks the intensity it would be capable of in other circumstances. But part of that is the nature of 1st person point of view. It’s great for some things like intimately experiencing a character, but it does have its drawbacks, as do all other choices an author can make for the construction of a story.

Summary: The next morning, Jamie and the other men decide it’s time Claire learned to use the dirk and defend herself. They spend all day teaching her to fight, attacking her in mock combat and allowing her to attack them. Jamie even helps construct a dummy for her to practice thrusting the dirk into, complete with ribs made of wood. By the end of the day, however, they declare her good enough to be a novice knife fighter.

In the one break Claire has, Dougal asks her how she and Jamie are taking being married, and she expresses a greater concern for how Colum will take the news. Dougal doesn’t seem to think Colum will react with nearly the fury Claire fears.

Writer Comments: I suppose this means Claire will get herself in the middle of a battle later on in the book. She’ll undoubtedly need to thrust that dirk into someone. Maybe it’ll be Captain Randall.

One nice thing about this story is that Gabaldon doesn’t make Claire capable of fighting right off. I’ve seen too many stories--especially speculative fiction--where the characters were skilled combatants even when it didn’t entirely make sense. Claire has to learn this skill, and she isn’t some prodigy at it either. She must struggle, and even after a lot of training and practice, she still isn’t good. This bit of realism is nice.

Further, here and in other parts of the book, it’s clear that Gabaldon did a lot of research. She goes into detail about dirk fighting, pistols, and other combat paraphernalia. In other parts of the story, she gives detailed information on medicine, dress, food, and other such subjects. It’s clear that Gabaldon did a lot of research, and the payoff is that it makes the story seem more real. Too, Gabaldon wisely doesn’t lecture her audience on the various subjects; she simply includes them. This keeps the information interesting and prevents it from bogging down the story.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Heroes

Recently, I watched a few episodes of Little House on the Prairie, a show I absolutely adored growing up. Watching it as an adult, however, I have a slightly different perspective on it. I had not realized how much it had informed my concepts of heroes, life, and story.

The show would probably never be made today because of its emphasis on morality and religion. Little House on the Prairie was never meant to be a religious show--instead merely to represent the people of that historical period--but it does not shy away from themes of faith. Nor does it avoid themes involving doing the right thing, honesty, hard work, or the power of love and family. Rather, it embraces these things.

In the decades since the show was made, fiction has gotten dark. Antiheroes have become common, and morality and any sense of the good in religious concepts are very much the exception. There’s nothing wrong with dark themes, antiheroes, or exploring new territory, but watching this show again, it reminds me that heroes, true heroes, should live like heroes, not just fulfill the part in the climactic scene.

A big part of what makes Little House on the Prairie work so well is because the characters are genuinely good people. They hurt and suffer, and the audience wants them to get the happiness and joy that good people should get. The stories are more satisfying because it’s much harder to successfully hold onto humanity in the midst of adversity. Their ability to stay true to their noble selves is what makes the Ingalls family all the more impressive and admirable, and that’s what makes them true heroes.

Amidst our darker antiheroes and amoral stories, it’s good to remember that stories like Little House on the Prairie exist. It’s good to remember the kind of heroic qualities that are worth striving for in real life. It’s good to remember that adversity, prejudice, hatred, misfortune, disease, poverty, greed, loneliness, disaster, and even death do not have to ruin or rule us, and in fact, they shouldn’t. It’s good to remember that what makes anyone a person of true and noble character is how they conduct themselves in the midst of such hardships. Stories like Little House on the Prairie are our reminder.

Stories have power. Wield yours wisely.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 17

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a peek into what makes good writing like this book work.



Chapter 17: We Meet a Beggar

Summary: The next day, Jamie and Claire head off into the woods again, but in a different direction. There’s a spot Jamie wants to show Claire, but it takes a long time to get to. Along the way, they stop at some pools carved out by glaciers called tarns. A bunch of plovers crying beside their nests are there too, and Jamie calms one, then sends it fleeing off into the woods. He tells Claire when she asks that, according to myth, plovers are inhabited by the souls of young mothers who died in childbirth, which is why they cry beside their nests. Claire realizes he had his own experience with such a mother, his own mother, when he was eight.

They climb higher up the mountain and rest once more. Jamie confesses to not being able to stop wanting Claire. He asks if his feelings are normal, and Claire says something like it is normal but there is something different between them.

Finally, they ascend to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the valley. They can see the inn and road from there. While admiring the scenery, someone shoots an arrow at them. Jamie hastens Claire down, then sees the arrow’s fletching. It belongs to an old friend named Hugh Munro.

Munro comes up to catch up. He wears layers of rags and has been granted permission to beg in multiple parishes because of the wounds and torment he suffered in Turkey for Christendom, among them the loss of his tongue. He uses sign language to communicate, which Jamie can understand and Claire cannot. He and Jamie catch up. Hugh is also recently married. Jamie gets Hugh to send a message for him to Horrocks, an English deserter who was supposed to meet Jamie where it’s no longer safe, where Captain Randall and the Black Watch have gone. Hugh will get Horrocks to change their meeting place so Jamie needn’t fear capture.

After, Jamie and Claire return to the inn. Dougal has returned and teases Jamie, but Jamie and Claire retreat to their room for lovemaking.

Writer Comments: Like the previous honeymooning chapter, this one doesn’t have as much action or tension. It reveals information and does small things to set up later events. We learn of Jamie losing his mother at age eight. We learn of Hugh and, through him, Gabaldon reminds us about Horrocks. We see Jamie and Claire being consumed by a passion that is sure to get them into trouble when Claire returns to her own time, or at least tries to. And we learn that Murtagh, the man who initially captured Claire, is a Fraser and one of Jamie’s cousins. He’s also the man among their group Jamie trusts.

Normally in my writer comments, I try to steer toward what a writer does well because, as writers, we ought to emulate those good points. I also prefer to stay on the positive. However, there are a few things I’d like to point out in this chapter that should generally be avoided.

First, in the previous chapter, Jamie caught a fish for Claire and said they’d eat it for breakfast the next morning. However, instead, he and Claire and up eating bread and cheese for breakfast. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to that fish. It’s important as an author to keep track of your details and make sure everything in consistent. Unless there’s a very good reason, in this case like Dougal stealing their fish for his own breakfast, the story and its details, even minor ones, should be logical and consistent. Editors and beta readers are wonderful for helping writers out with this.

Second, low tension. Yes, it’s true that many authors get away with the occasional low tension scene. If everything else is down well, most readers will sit through the scene and patiently wait for the excitement to pick back up. However, this makes the second chapter in a row with low tension. The only real risk felt is that Captain Randall will soon expect Claire and that maybe the Black Watch might take notice of Jamie if they happen upon him. However, these details are so background and ephemeral that they don’t contribute to the scenes in these chapters. Tension and conflict are like oxygen for a story. They’re absolutely crucial and must be taken in near constantly. Without them, a writer risks boring her readers, and I confess that, much as I enjoy this book, this chapter was a bit tedious.

Third, handing the characters something easily should be avoided. It’s one thing to make something easy on a character only to turn it on its head and reveal it actually creates a bigger problem. However, in this chapter, shortly after Claire and Jamie discuss the need for someone else to meet Horrocks, someone conveniently appears to do just that. It stretches believability and weakens the impact of the characters and scene.

On the other hand, Gabaldon’s audience, for the most part, might be more tolerant of all this. Her audience is primarily composed of female readers who enjoy romance. This chapter includes passion, a few honeymoon trysts that certainly fall under the category of wish fulfillment, and a hero who can’t stop wanting to have his way with the heroine. All this plays to the escapism and wish fulfillment motivations of many romance readers. But, even with that, the chapter would have been stronger with much more tension and conflict.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don’t Let Your Characters Starve

One disadvantage to fictional characters is that they can technically survive anything. It may not always make sense, but they can. They don’t whine when they’re hungry. They don’t pass out from exhaustion. They don’t get weak from thirst or disease. You can riddle them with bullets or make them into swiss cheese with swords. They can fall from extreme heights and only suffer a scratch. They can... Well, you get the idea.

That means it’s up to the author to remember the basic needs of characters that allow them to appear human with human limitations. It’s up to us to feed, water, and care for them. Very few characters in fiction can go without having physical, emotional, or mental needs met, so it’s a sure thing that when you write you should keep the following in mind:

Food: What does your character eat? How often? How does this impact his overall health and ability to perform in your story?

Water: Or some other fluid. Hydration is essential, and it doesn’t take long to become dehydrated and suffer some pretty severe side-effects like weakness, confusion, fever, heart palpitations, and within just a few days, death.

Temperature Control: What’s the environment like? Is it hot? Cold? How does your character cope with the temperature? How does it impact his ability to perform heroic deeds?

Elimination: Gross as it may be to some, it has to happen. No, you don’t have to include it in a story, but keep it in the back of your mind. Especially if a character is in a situation where he can’t relieve himself, it’s going to become an issue.

Illness and Disease: Most stories require putting the hero under a lot of stress to keep them interesting. Stress weakens the body and make it more susceptible to sickness. Keep that in mind, especially if your hero is spending cold nights outside leading a rebellion.

Sleep: This one is easily overlooked. Sleep is crucial for good health, and a character can go only so long without it. And the longer sleep is postponed, the greater toll its lack will have on the body, mind, and psyche. Even if a character catches sleep, is it good sleep? Is he getting his solid eight hours? Is his sleep interrupted frequently? Does he have insomnia worrying about what you’re doing to his life?

The nice thing about all of these is that, when you keep them in mind, they walk hand in hand with building tension. If your hero hasn’t slept in three days, that car chase is a lot more tense. If he hasn’t eaten since yesterday morning, that duel suddenly looks a lot more challenging. What if he faints in the middle of it? If he’s cold and struggling against hyperthermia, rescuing his daughter becomes a far more daunting task.

On the other hand, don’t be a slave to these needs. You don’t need and shouldn’t describe every meal, bathroom break, or how many hours a character slept. That gets tedious. The same rules apply as with all other aspects of fiction: include only that which is essential to the story. To some extent, a reader will assume your characters are eating, sleeping, and handling their other basic needs, but give the subject some attention to add believability to your story and to increase tension.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 16

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take an in-depth look at the techniques Gabaldon uses to spin such an enduring tale.



Chapter 16: One Fine Day

Summary: Jamie and Claire spend their first full day of marriage away from the inn, trying to overcome the occasional awkwardness that rises between them. They slip off deep into the hills, avoiding the Black Watch, a band of self-appointed police keeping peace in the Scottish countryside. Jamie shows Claire how to tickle trout and catches her one for their breakfast the next morning. They spend the rest of the day talking and learning each other’s bodies. But always, shadows rise up between them: Captain Randall, Frank, Dougal, and secrets.

Writer Comments: This chapter is like a lazy afternoon in the spring. The pace is slow and the tension subdued. On first glance, it might appear a chapter merely devoted to the budding love affair, but there are other things going on.

First and foremost, Gabaldon is strengthening Claire and Jamie’s relationship, giving Claire more reasons to become attached to him. Though I don’t know all Gabaldon has in store for the book’s plot--I’ve been good about not cheating and taking a peek into the story’s future--a close relationship between Claire and Jamie can only complicate matters. At the least, it will make Claire’s goal to return home that much more difficult. Much as she wants to return to Frank, emotional ties to Jamie will eventually weaken her resolve.

Further, Gabaldon is setting up the love triangle. Frank isn’t present, but his memory is very much alive. Even Jamie is keenly aware of it. He sees Frank in Claire’s thoughts whenever he touches her. However, Claire is swiftly developing an infatuation with Jamie and is just as aware of it. Gabaldon wisely develops both these aspects in this chapter. After all, she can’t make things too easy on her heroine. Frank will, undoubtedly, remain a shadow lying between Claire and Jamie, and if Claire should manage to return to 1945, Jamie’s memory and her feelings for him will certainly cause Claire heartache.

Then there’s Captain Randall. Claire still has days more before the English officer expects her, days in which to enjoy her new husband, but his specter looms. Despite all their efforts to idle the day away, Randall repeatedly comes up in conversation, and Jamie has to remind Claire again and again that he’ll protect her. In this way, Gabaldon ensures her readers don’t forget about the near future threat.

But Claire isn’t the only one with complications. Jamie reveals that he’s a potential contender for the MacKenzie clan chieftain in the event Colum dies before his son Hamish comes of age. This makes Jamie’s position precarious. Dougal and Colum would rather see Jamie dead than become laird, and it’s possible--though Jamie doesn’t know for sure--Dougal already tried to kill him. This makes Dougal far more dangerous, even if Jamie has been working hard to demonstrate that he has no intention of become a MacKenzie chief.

In essence, Gabaldon uses this chapter to subtly build tension. The higher she brings her heroes, the farther they have to fall. She both quietly reiterates extent threats and lays the groundwork for future struggle. As an author, Gabaldon is well aware of the importance of layering conflict and building up multiple lines of tension simultaneously.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Enjoy the Holidays!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

As it's Black Friday and we're all still dragging ourselves out of our post-feast stupors, I'll leave you to enjoy the holiday weekend with something fun.

Last week, I saw Big Hero 6 with my kids. Even if you don't have kids, it's totally worth seeing. Five stars. If you want to escape barbaric, stampeding shoppers but still get out of the house, I highly recommend this movie. It'll make you laugh and cry and enjoy every moment of it.