Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
There’s an entire school of thought behind the use of standard third-person perspective in narrative fiction. Often enough, beginning writers are encouraged to see it as their go-to, which isn’t horrible advice. Let’s do a quick POV lesson, in case your memory is hazy.
First-person: I walked to the lake.
Second-person: You walked to the lake.
Third-Person: He walked to the lake.
Conventional wisdom says most readers stomach lucky number three best. I think that might be a load of hogwash, but let’s assume it’s 100% correct. What would be the benefit of writing fiction—or creative nonfiction, for that matter—from a quote, unquote “nontraditional” perspective? Your own edification, right? And maybe something else.
Third-person is the norm because it provides helpful breathing room between us and our readers. It’s easy to tell a story this way, natural. We’re used to it, having read it a million times before. By the same token, I have noticed it’s become increasingly more common for storytellers to dabble in other modes. First or second-person, past or present tense, limited omniscience or full-blown mind-of-God territory. First-person present tense, by the way, is notoriously apt to cause chaos.
“I write on the blog post for a bit, and then I check my email. It occurs to me I’ve never met a sultan of Saudi Arabia, so it’s possible these diet pills are phony. Oh well. I chuck them in the trash and head outside to clear my mind. It smells like a forest fire out here. Hey, what gives?”
This is stream of consciousness stuff, easy to write but difficult and unwieldy to beat into proper shape. All the verbiage points to me, me, me, now, now, now. It can get same-same after a while, difficult to chew through. Not always, but often enough.
I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your new forest fire/phony diet pill story is perfectly well written, thank you very much. You did the job, tale told effectively, end of discussion. In that case, one crucial question comes to mind. Is your narrator any fun to read?
What do you mean, what do I mean? What’s a fun narrator supposed to sound like? Well, I guess they can be any of the following: idiosyncratic, faulty, confident, psychotic, mentally sound, likable, unlikable, funny, unfunny, jaded, naïve, a super focal lens, an individual with something to say, a personality worth delving into.
Maybe you’ve never considered it this way, but in my humble estimation, narration of this kind is a blank check. Most things worth achieving sound unlikely at first. Think of it like speed dating. You known instantly upon sitting across from someone whether or not you’d enjoy their company. Is your speed-dater worth engaging in conversation? Are they fun to listen to?
Gut check time. How well do you write dialogue? I only ask because I’ve realized throughout the years not everyone is as keen on it as I am. Sharp and amusing with zero fat left to trim, that’s my favorite kind. But what’s yours? Informative but not dull? Wacky and a bit irredeemable? More importantly, do you think you could extend a few lines of it to encompass an entire story? I’m willing to bet you can.
The simple truth is most writers create bland characters by default. Not you, of course. Perish the thought. Mentors and teachers might encourage us to pre-fill character sheets or go to public places and write down snatches of conversation we hear. I’m not saying that’s bad advice, but I can confidently tell you it’s more efficient and effective to let characters tell us who they are rather than to impose our sizable wills upon them. Don’t bloat yourself up with too much preparation. On the fly, hit the page and let your creations speak to you. A little honest individuality is enough to distinguish your work from the work of others, and that’s a good thing.
Rule makers have tried to enter this arena, but I don’t think they’ve done a great job setting any concrete prescriptive measures. Is addressing your reader directly breaking the fourth wall? No, not really. If you think about it, first-person narration divorced from context is unnatural anyway. It was much more common in centuries past for authors to speak to their readers through narration. As we discussed earlier, stability is easy to achieve by providing a little breathing room. This is a blank check, remember? Anything and everything is achievable, provided you’ve got the skills to stick the landing. That’s the thing about experts. If they tell you something can be done, they’re most certainly right. If they tell you it can’t, they’re most certainly wrong.
Style remains essential in this domain. My final advice is this: If you’re currently working on something you’ve written in first-person, try playing with your style a little, write it like you’d write some nice extended dialogue, just as far as you’re comfortable, nothing too crazy—unless you like crazy. You might just surprise yourself. Scratch that. Your narrator might surprise you.
Don’t be stiff or formal. Get into the nitty gritty and pour a serious helping of personality gravy on those otherwise boring and bland mashed ‘taters.
On that note…
See you next time, everyone. Have an awesome May, will you?
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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A good way to learn to write good dialog is to become an observer of people, watching and listening to the conversations around you when in public. You must both watch and listen because dialog doesn’t come just in words. Dialog also contains subtext. You know, body language, tone of voice, etc… You can have whole scenes where no words are spoken, yet a conversation occurs between two people in the subtext of their body language. Everyone in the real world talks in subtext. If you want to have believable dialog for your characters, they must talk with subtext, too.
Whether you’re an author or a screenwriter, it’s an important concept to master. Subtext is the message that lies beneath the message. It’s what people, or characters, are really saying. It is indicated in actions, movements, change in pitch of the voice. A character may say, “I’m happy for you”, but if it were said through gritted teeth, the reader may get the idea that there’s some underlying resentment with the characters words, lending a very different meaning to the scene. The same dialog would take on a whole other meaning, that the words are not spoken sincerely, if the character rolls her eyes as she says it.
We humans are funny creatures. Many of us have some type of mental block that prevents us from saying what we mean outright. It may be the fatal flaw of mankind in the communication realm, although I suspect it may be easier to speak honestly in the digital world, where you talk with people without being face to face. Regardless, if you want your characters’ dialogue to be believable,they will have to speak in subtexts, offering readers the subtle clues necessary to figure out what is really going on.
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Karen said, tapping her newly painted nails on the table top. “I’m perfectly calm.”
What can you tell from the dialog above? The character says she’s not upset, but do you think she is? Rather you get the idea that she is upset from the tapping of her nails on the table, which is not a calm behavior, even though her words claim different.
The example above is pretty clear for illustration purposes. In real life, and in good fiction, it’s not always so easy to discern between words and actions. As authors, we must offer good clues, in the form of subtext, so readers can see the whole picture we’re trying to paint with our words. You see what I mean?
If your character is angry, you might have him clench his fists or stomp his foot. If the scene is a breakup, your character may hold back her tears and swallow the lump in her throat to avoid revealing how much she is really hurting. Or maybe she is trembling although trying to appear brave to her friends.
It’s the way real people talk. It’s the way our characters need to talk if we want our dialogue to be convincing. In many cases, the old adage is true, especially in fiction and screenwriting- “Actions speak louder than words.”
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