Monday, September 29, 2014

Cause and Effect in Prose

Based on the title of this post, you can probably figure out which of the following two lines is better and why.

     Diego raised his hands in the air when he turned and found a soldier pointing an AK-47 at him.
     Diego turned and found a soldier pointing an AK-47 at him. He raised his hands in the air.

In the first line, we are told that Diego is raising his hands in the air before we find out the reason for it. The effect is given to us before the cause. While the line does make sense, it doesn’t flow as smoothly as the second line does, where cause and effect are given in their natural order.

Our minds are well-trained to identify cause and effect. As we discussed in this post, readers generally don’t need authors to explicitly identify what stimuli caused what effect; they can put two and two together. However, this is always easier to do when the cause is shown before the effect. Generally, you’re best off constructing your sentences and paragraphs so that cause and effect are shown in their natural order. The result will be clearer, more window-like prose (as discussed here), which will be easier for your readers to read and internalize.

You may be tempted to shrug and dismiss this advice as obvious—it seems natural and instinctive, after all. I mean, really; what writer would put effect before cause? All of them.

Writers tend to jot down sentences as they come to mind, and they don’t always come to mind in the most logical or lucid format. If you’re dwelling on the effect, you may put it down first without thinking, no matter how well-practiced an author you are. I still do it, and I’ve been editing for years.

So take a look at your latest draft. Read it out loud, and pay particular attention to cause and effect. Odds are good that you’ll find a few out-of-order sentences or paragraphs, and now you’ll know what is wrong with them. Good luck!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Phrases to Avoid: "Causing Them To"

We've discussed the need to avoid redundant or excessive words a few times before. Over the next little while, we'll identify specific phrases and sentence constructions that add unneeded bulk to writing. The first is the phrase causing them to and all its possible variations. (Causing him to, her to, me to, etc.)

Here's a sample sentence based off of many that I've seen over the years:

     Bullets zipped around them, causing them to veer off the path.

The problem with the phrase causing them to is that it insults the audienceit assumes that they cannot understand something as simple as cause and effect without having it explicitly explained to them. Give your audience some credit. If you first tell them that someone is shooting at the characters, and you then tell them that the characters veered out of the way, they will understand that the one caused the other.

     Bullets zipped around them. They veered off the path.

See? Simple, perfectly understandable cause and effect. Removing causing them to turned a weak, awkward sentence into two strong sentences. In an actual story, of course, it wouldn't hurt to be a little more descriptive:

     Bullets zipped around the car. Dave swerved onto a side street without thinking.

     Bullets zipped around them. Shouting, Raisa dove off of the path into the bushes. The others immediately followed her.

    Bullets zipped around them. In near unison, the posse veered their horses off of the path into the river.

There is almost no situation in a story that would justify using causing them to. You might use it in the text of a police report or the dialog of a witness in a trial as they describe what they sawsituations where the objective is to simply explain a past event in a plain and even boring manner. But in your prose, in the moment when bullets are zipping around your characterswhen their lives are in dangerthe last thing you want is to be weak and boring. 

Go, right now, to your current work-in-progress. Pull up the find window, and search for every place that you've used the word causing. If it's an instance of causing them to or one of its variations, then get rid of it. I promise you your work will improve.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Word Mix-Ups: Pour and Pore

Pour is a verb which means “to cause to flow in a stream,” “to dispense from a container,” “to give full expression to,” or “to move with a continuous flow.” You might pour milk, or pour out your feelings, or the rain can be pouring.

Pore, when used as a verb, means “to read or study attentively.” It is usually paired with the word over. For example, you might pore over your textbook in preparation for an exam.

To remember which is which, I like to imagine that the little “u” in pour is a cup, into which I am pouring water. If there is any sort of transfer of substance or expression of emotion, then you have to have that u to pour it into.


Pore can be used as a noun, in which case it refers to the small openings in your skin through which you sweat. Poor is also pronounced like pour and pore; however, it is an adjective that means “lacking in money or some other substance.” They should be easier to keep separate, since they are different parts of speech, but watch out for them just in case.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Figure Problem: Part Two

Last time, we discussed the Figure Problem—what it is, and why it is a problem. We specifically examined situations in which a writer introduces their first character as a nameless “figure” in the distance. But the Figure Problem doesn’t only crop up at the beginning of a story or chapter. Take a look at this example:

     Jaimee moved through the subway station, careful not to jostle anyone or attract attention to herself in any way. Fortunately, most of the busy commuters were too distracted to notice some drably-dressed teenager. She moved into the crowd waiting for the train’s doors to open, and allowed the press of bodies to push her up against the people nearest the train. Those people pushed her back absentmindedly, not noticing when her hands slipped into their pockets and purses. When the doors opened, Jaimee let the crowd carry her onto the train and then slipped out the doors on the other side. She glanced over her shoulder with a smirk; no one had noticed a thing.
     When she looked back at the platform, she paused. A figure stood by the stairs that led up to the street—a tall, lanky woman with bleached-blonde hair and skin so tanned that it was beginning to look like a crumpled, damp brown paper bag. The woman wore huge, bug-eyed sunglasses and a black-and-white striped sundress that seemed a few sizes too small, even for her skinny figure. Her garish red lipstick matched her shiny red heels, which tapped loudly on the cement of the platform as she toddled up to Jaimee with a predatory snarl.
     “Hello, mother,” Jaimee said, sighing.
     “What do you think you’re doing?” her mother hissed.

The format of the Figure Problem is here—first, we see a “figure,” and then we’re given a progressively-increasing amount of detail about its appearance and behavior before we finally find out who the figure is. The major difference between this example and last time’s example is the perspective.

Last time, our example started in a vague, third-person omniscient perspective and then eventually jumped into the point of view of the “figure.” This time, we’re in the perspective of another character viewing the figure. Since we’re already in third-person limited from Jaimee’s point of view, we don’t jump to the mother’s point of view at the end.

This perspective change actually solves many of the problems from last time. We avoid the slow, drawn-out beginning and the awkwardness of not being inside the head of the “figure” when there was no reason not to be. However, the new problem that is introduced is a perspective error.

Perspective Errors with the Figure Problem

Remember how third-person limited perspective works? Everything the audience sees should come through Jaimee; we should essentially be riding in her head and seeing what she experiences and thinks. Jaimee wouldn’t look at her own mother, whom she obviously recognizes, and think, “Huh, there’s a woman with bleached-blonde hair, etc.” She would look at the woman and think, “There’s my mother.” Describing the appearance of some “figure” without identifying the person's relationship to the perspective character implies that the character doesn’t have a relationship with the person.

The only reasons to not give the name of a person your perspective character meets are these:

1. If they don’t know one another and your perspective character doesn’t have a name to assign to the person.
2. If the perspective character cannot see, hear, etc., well enough to identify the other person as someone they know.

These rules also apply to other perspectives. In first-person, we're also in the character's head, so we should see things as they see. In third-person omniscient, you can give even more information than the characters have, but you certainly shouldn't be giving less except in rare circumstances.

However, there’s another perspective error to watch out for here. Let’s take our example from before and adapt it to fit the second reason to not give a character’s name:

     When she looked back at the platform, she paused. A figure stood in the shadows by the stairs that led up to the street, watching her. Jaimee squinted through the darkness and could just make out a few details—the figure was a tall, lanky woman with bleached-blonde hair. She wore huge, bug-eyed sunglasses and a black-and-white striped sundress that seemed a few sizes too small, even for her skinny figure. Her garish red lipstick matched her shiny red heels, which tapped loudly on the cement of the platform as she toddled out of the shadows with a predatory snarl.
     “Hello, mother,” Jaimee said, sighing.
     “What do you think you’re doing?” her mother hissed.

With some shadows added to the scene, forcing Jaimee to squint in order to make out details, it now makes sense that she wouldn’t recognize her mother right away. This gives us justification to describe other details of the mother’s appearance before actually identifying her as Jaimee’s mother. So what’s the problem?

We were told that Jaimee couldn’t make out who the figure was, and then a moment later, she calls the woman “mother.” But when did she identify the mysterious woman as her mother? It wasn’t at the moment she spoke—she’d obviously already discerned the figure’s identity at that point. At some point, Jaimee realized that this woman was her mother, and we didn’t see it happen; but we should have, because we’re in her head.

This usually happens because the author doesn’t want to spoil the reveal; an author writing this section probably feels like the line “Hello, mother” has a certain oomph to it that would be lost if the reader already knew that the figure was Jaimee’s mother, even if they only found out a moment before. As in yesterday’s example, however, this is unnecessary. Not every bit of information has to be “revealed.” There’s no real reason to hide that this is Jaimee’s mother for the sake of that line.

Or the writer could be trying to cut out superfluous lines and didn’t feel it was necessary to tell us that Jaimee recognized her mother. In some situations, that might be permissible, but I wouldn’t recommend it in this instance (or most instances, for that matter). Jaimee was specifically trying to figure out who the woman in the shadows was—skipping over the moment of realization isn’t a good idea.

A perspective-error-free version of our original example might look like this:

     When she looked back at the platform, she paused. A figure stood in the shadows by the stairs that led up to the street, watching her. Jaimee squinted through the darkness and could just make out a few details—the figure was a tall, lanky woman with bleached-blonde hair. She wore huge, bug-eyed sunglasses and a black-and-white striped sundress that seemed a few sizes too small, even for her skinny figure. Jaimee winced. It was her mom.
     Her mom toddled out of the shadows with a predatory snarl. Her garish red lipstick matched her shiny red heels, which tapped loudly on the cement of the platform.
     “Hello, mother,” Jaimee said, sighing.
     “What do you think you’re doing?” her mom hissed.

A Final Note

Before you go, there is one more element of the Figure Problem that I should mention: 

The word “figure” is extremely vague and nondescript. It gives the reader almost no useful information. Think about it: how often can you see a “figure” without being able to identify more descriptive characteristics? You could probably tell a figure’s gender from a distance; at the very least, you could tell that it was a human, a person. You might be able to tell their relative age—whether they’re a child or an adult. If you can be more descriptive, then do it! Only resort to something as vague as “figure” if you absolutely must.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Figure Problem: Part One

     The scene begins. Wind blows across a harsh desert, or maybe rain is falling on a dreary city alleyway, or perhaps sun is shining through gaps in the leaves of a peaceful green forest. Wherever the story is taking place, a figure appears in the distance. The figure is stumbling, or hurrying, or strolling; maybe we’re told that the figure is lost, or avoiding being seen, or is relaxing. They could be panting, or mumbling, or whistling. Slowly, the view dials in on the figure. It looks to be male, or female, or perhaps neither. We’re told the figure has a ragged beard, or a dark hat and trenchcoat, or metallic skin. Gradually, we get more and more details about the appearance and behavior of the figure. Perhaps we’re expressly told that the figure has survived a plane crash, or is a cat burglar on the way to a job, or is an oddly-built android; after this point, the “figure” might begin to be referred to as the survivor, the thief, or the android. Whoever they are, the figure keeps moving, and more details of their appearance and what they’re doing are gradually revealed.

     Finally, after anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages, we find out the name of the figure—maybe they meet someone else who calls them by name, or maybe the writer simply felt that this would be a good point to reveal it. From this point on, they cease to be the “figure,” the “survivor,” the “thief,” or the “android. They are called by name for the rest of the story, whether they’re the protagonist, a side character, or a temporary, otherwise-unimportant vessel to carry us to the actual plot.

If you have been writing for any length of time, then you’ve probably written some variation of this scene. Everyone does, at some point or another, and I do mean everyone. It’s almost always a bad idea.

Why is this a problem?

Because it is slow, distant from the character, and usually distant from the plot; put those together, and you’ve got a whole basket of boring. And being boring is the worst sin a piece of purported entertainment can commit.

Slow: Usually, not much is happening while the “figure” walks across the screen for us to admire. Why? Because it is difficult to blend description and action, so the writer is getting all of that pesky description out of the way before they actually get to the action. That’s an adequate workaround, but it would be a better idea to start closer to the action and learn to work in shorter, quicker bits of description along the way. We’ll go over tips for doing that well at a later date.

Distant from the character: Why don’t we know the character’s name? There is almost never a good reason—new writers simply withhold information out of habit, trying to give every bit of info through some sort of “reveal.” This isn’t a movie; we don’t need to zoom in from an establishing shot, drawing closer and closer to the figure until we suddenly get their name and jump inside their head to start finding out what they’re thinking about what they’re doing and the things around them. That just doubles up on the slowness of the piece—first, we spend pages setting the scene, and then we have to sit through the character thinking about everything that we’ve just seen, forcing us to go over it all again? Just put us in their head and give us their name right from the start. Help us know them through their actions and how they perceive their surroundings, and it will be more interesting.

Distant from the plot: All of this scene-setting isn’t the plot, it’s a gradual meander toward the plot. But your readers already approached the story—they bought your book or borrowed it from a friend or looked up your story where it’s available online. Don’t languish in non-action because you’re so impressed with your breathtaking powers of description. Your readers picked up a story, so just get to it.

As I mentioned before, almost every writer has done this at some early point of their career, usually well before they got published. I did this on multiple occasions before someone pointed out to me why it was a problem. Ask an author sometime; they’ll probably know about the Figure Problem (though not necessarily by that name) and will be able to remember when they did it themselves. So don’t feel bad if your current masterpiece begins this way—you’re in good company.

In this post, we discuss how the Figure Problem can become even worse.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Punctuation Problems: The Apostrophe

When writing fiction in English, the apostrophe ( ' ) is generally used in only two ways.

Omission of letters

The apostrophe indicates when a letter or letters have been omitted from a word. This happens most commonly with contractions, or the shortening of two or more words into one word. Do not becomes don't, we are becomes we're, etc. 

Letters can also be omitted from a word when the writer is attempting to convey an accent. The most common example of this is when a character with a Southern or Western American accent leaves "Gs" off of the end of a word, i.e. runnin' or somethin'. This can be tiresome and difficult to read, however, so do it sparingly.


Apostrophes are also used to create possessives. You know the drill, I’m sure. You add an apostrophe and an S (‘s) to the end of the word to indicate that the word is now being used to imply possession. Brad’s badge and his wife’s sweater.

Note: even if a word ends in s, you still add an ‘s to the end to create a possessive, if the word is singular. Chris’s computer and the actress’s costume. If the word has an s on the end because it is plural, then you only add an apostrophe to denote possession. The Johnsons’ house or the babies' laughs.

Do Nots

You do not use an apostrophe to create a plural. Not ever. (This was done in certain cases in the past, but has largely fallen out of use nowadays. Some people still cling to it, but you don't need to.)

It's is a contraction meaning it is. This is the one place where a possessive does not use an apostrophe: its means "belonging to it." Don't mix them up.

Do not use an apostrophe with a verb. Not ever. Wrong: She love's me. Right: She loves me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Proper Nouns and Information Overload

A proper noun is a title given to a specific item or entity in order to distinguish that item from others of the same class. Essentially, a proper noun is a name. (There is a whole, deep linguistics debate about the exact difference between proper nouns and proper names, but we don’t need to go into that. For our purposes, the simplified definition proper noun = name is adequate.)

So, for instance, Canada is a proper noun that is used to distinguish one country from all others. To Kill a Mockingbird is a proper noun that identifies a single book out of all others. If you were describing a group of girls, you could distinguish them by their names; Elizabeth, Meghan, and Catherine, for instance—all proper nouns.

Every story contains proper nouns: names of characters or places, titles of companies or ships or official positions, or even just names of ideas and theories. Some will have more than others, of course; the number will depend on the size and needs of the story. A short story that takes place in one location with only two characters will need far fewer pronouns than a trilogy of novels that visits a dozen locations with fifty characters.

The important thing to remember about proper nouns is this: they are difficult to remember. The more you give to your reader at once, the more confusing the story will become. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a story full of all sorts of interesting pronouns—it just means that you need to learn to pace yourself. Arrange your story so that you can start with just a few new pronouns; once the reader has those down, you can give them a few more, and then a few more.

Here are some things to keep in mind regarding pronouns:

Avoid using pronouns where a common noun will do: If the main character of your novel will only speak with Brian Elmson the security guard once, then Brian probably doesn’t need a name. He can simply be “the security guard.” If your character loves guns, it might be good to describe their handgun as a “Glock 30SF”; otherwise, you can just call it a handgun.

This is a particular problem in fantasy and science fiction, in which authors often have to come up with numerous pronouns to describe the various non-existent magics, technologies, and alien races that they’ve created. Don’t add any more then you have to—for instance, don’t call your character’s knife a Dalkirk when it could just be a dagger.

Common names are easier to remember than unfamiliar names: Again, this tends to be a problem in fantasy and science fiction, but it is not limited to those genres. If you’re writing in English, most readers will remember “Matt Davidson” and “Tyler Smith” more easily than “Yeon Gaesomun” or “Vyachislav Dimitrovitch.” That doesn’t mean all of your characters should have common English names—it just means that if your readers are already trying to remember “Yeon” and “Vyachislav,” it might be a good idea to name the next character “Matt” to give your readers a break.

Short, easily-pronounced names are easier to remember than long, tongue-twisting names: Even if your reader is not reading out loud, they’ll still have an easier time if they can hear the word in their head. So if you’ve got a Russian character, it might be a better idea to name him “Dima” than “Vyachislav.”

First letters of pronouns can be used to help readers remember: If you have several characters whose names all start with the same letter, it will be harder for the reader to keep track of them. Sean, Saladin, and Soo-mi are going to be harder to keep separate than Mike, Saladin, and Bo-yeon.

When creating new terms, incorporating familiar words can help your reader remember what the new term refers to: When Brandon Sanderson put magical swords into his Stormlight Archive series, he called them “Shardblades.” He could have called them “Trevinoagiki” or some other completely-made-up term, but it would have been harder to remember. Even if the reader forgets how Shardblades work, they’ll never forget that they’re swords, because the word “blade” is right there in the name.  

This can also be used in non-fantasy works. Say your story takes place in the fictional town of Oakdell and the fictional city of Davis. If readers are having trouble remembering which place is the town and which is the city, just change the name of Davis to “Davis City.” Bam. Problem solved.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Perspective Errors: Too Little Information

            A knock at the door awoke Sally. She squinted against the light coming through the window and groaned, pulling her warm blanket over her head. But the knock came again, louder and longer this time. With a sigh, she pulled herself out of bed, keeping her blanket wrapped around her shoulders for warmth.
            She opened the door again mid-knock, and found Beth standing there with her fist still raised.
            “It’s about time,” Beth said with a frown, lowering her hand. “Go get dressed, we’re going for a drive.”
            “What?” Sally grumbled. “Why would we do that?”
            Beth folded her arms. “It’s about the Grimoire.”
            Sally blinked, suddenly alert. “The Grimoire? What happened?”
            “We can’t talk about it here,” Jacob said from beside Beth. “Just get ready.”

I’m sure you noticed the problem at the end of that passage—if Jacob was standing next to Beth that whole time, why wasn’t he mentioned when Sally first opened the door? This is another common type of perspective error, when the author fails to share every important thing that the perspective character knows or can sense.

Introduce things to the scene before they're being used

Picture another scene: A burly man in a black suit drags Sally into a parlor, where a sinister-looking old woman is waiting. Clever and threatening words are exchanged, and then the woman tells her burly henchman in the black suit to take Sally out back and dispose of her. The man reaches for Sally, but she grabs the bowling pin on the table and hits him over the head with it.  And then the reader goes, “wait, what bowling pin? Since when was that there?”

If there is a bowling pin on the table, that is something that Sally would have noticed when she came into the room. If you didn’t mention it when it would have been visible, then you can’t use it later—that’s the rule. If you get to the middle of the scene and realize that you need a bowling pin for Sally to use, then scroll back and put it in at the beginning of the scene. The important thing is that your character becomes aware of things naturally; the scene won’t feel real, otherwise.

Now, if your character suddenly realizes that there’s a bowling pin on the floor by their feet just a moment before they grab it, that’s okay—there are situations where that’s the best way to go. The important thing is that you show your character becoming aware of it, so that your reader can become aware of it, too:

Sally suddenly noticed a bowling pin, of all things, lying on the ground by her feet. Without taking time to think, she snatched it up and swung it at the burly thug’s face.

This is still a little abrupt, but it is acceptably and realistically abrupt.

Using perspective errors to create tension = bad writing

The examples above are simple mistakes; the writer forgot to mention Jacob and the bowling pin when they came into the scene instead of when they became important. There will be times, however, where you are tempted to break perspective in this way deliberately. Why? Almost always, it will be for the purpose of artificially creating tension.

For example: Sally, after hitting the thug over the head with that convenient bowling pin, runs from the room. She gets out of the building and into the spacious yards around it. But as she runs up to the open gate that leads off the grounds, a guard steps in front of her and points a rifle at her head. She stops and raises her hands. He tells her to turn around and go back. She pleads, explains, cajoles, and maybe even threatens him—she talks and talks and talks, stalling. Then Jacob suddenly hits the guard over the head (probably not with a bowling pin), having crept through the gate while Sally was distracting the guard.

The writer didn’t mention Jacob until he hit the guard over the head so that the readers would wonder how Sally was going to get out of this situation. If they’d known that Sally could see Jacob sneaking through the gate (she was looking that direction, after all), then the tension of the scene wouldn’t have been as high.

I’m not going to mince words—this is a cheap trick, and you should not do it. Your readers will feel cheated, and they’ll be right to; you flat-out lied to them in an attempt to keep them from figuring things out sooner than you wanted. Your characters can lie to one another all you want; if your story is narrated by one of the characters, then you have the possibility of having them lie about the events of the story (though it won’t necessarily feel less cheap if you do this, so be careful); but you, as the author, as the person telling this story to your readers, cannot ever lie. If you do so, it will be bad writing, and that’s the end of it.

Find a better solution

So, when you’re tempted to do this, just don’t. Find a way around it. Rearrange the scene so that the guard is standing near a corner that Sally can’t see around, so that Jacob can appear suddenly without a perspective error. Have the guard come up behind Sally, so that she can’t see Jacob sneaking up. Give Jacob the ability to teleport, for all I care—unless you’re writing creative non-fiction, then you can do whatever you want—the possibilities are limitless! Just don’t lie to your reader.

To make things even more difficult, the same thing goes for the information your character knows. If you’re writing from the perspective of a detective investigating a murder, and at the end of the story you suddenly reveal that he knew all along that their primary suspect was innocent and that his boss was the real murderer, then you’ve cheated. If he knew that the whole time, and we were in his head, then we should have known, too.

Picture Ocean’s 11 written through Danny Ocean’s perspective: it wouldn’t have worked, because the movie ends with a big reveal about what the real plan was. In a movie that's okay, because we’re not actually in Danny’s head—there’s not technically a perspective error. No lies. But in a book from Danny’s perspective, it wouldn’t work. If he knew the plan from the beginning, and we were in his head, then we should have known, too.

You can get around it—take us out of the detective’s head and put us in someone else’s head (as Arthur Conan Doyle did in the Sherlock Holmes stories, relating them through Watson) or have the detective suddenly figure it out at the end instead of having known the whole time. For your version of Danny Ocean, have the plan go wrong and he suddenly has to improvise; or put the story from someone else’s perspective, someone who wouldn’t be in on the plan. Again, there’s tons of options. 

Just don’t use the perspective error because it’s easier—you want to be better writers than that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Word Mix-Ups: Breath and Breathe

This is an error that I see a lot of writers make. And not just novice writers; I’m often surprised at how frequently this one crops up in the work of experienced and even published authors. Unlike between and among, which we discussed here, the problem here isn’t that authors don’t know the distinction between the two words; practically no one confuses breath and breathe when they’re speaking, after all, so it’s clear that we know the difference between the two words. The problem is simply remembering which word is which in our writing. So, let’s distinguish them:

Breath \’breth\ noun: the air that you inhale and exhale from your lungs when breathing. (She took my breath away.)
Breathe \’brÄ“th\ verb: to move air into and out of your lungs; to inhale and exhale. (It’s so stuffy in here that I can’t breathe.)

Now, if you don’t know how to read the phonetic spelling of the words, that’s okay—I can never remember how to read those, either.  But when you saw that breath is a noun, that it is a thing rather than an action, you probably immediately knew that it was pronounced with an eh sound and a fully-voiced th, like “Beth” with an R thrown in. Likewise, when you saw that breathe is a verb, you knew that it is pronounced with a long ee sound and an unvoiced th. This is because, as I said before, everyone knows how to use these words already, we just need to remember which is which in writing.

So, how to remember? I recommend either of these two options:

  1. Verb has an E in it, so it matches up with breathe, which has an extra E at the end. Noun does not have an E in it, so it matches up with breath, which has no E at the end.
  2. Breathe has two Es, so it gets the longer ee sound; breath has only one E, so it gets the shorter eh sound.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Perspective Errors: Too Much Information

Another very common perspective error occurs when the author gives the audience too much information—that is, more information than the perspective character should have. For example, let’s say you’re reading a book written in third-person limited perspective from the viewpoint of a man named Sam, and you come across this passage:

     Sam glanced at the notebook on the table and then shook his head. “I won’t need it today,” he said, turning and walking out the door. Little did he know that, by leaving his notebook behind, he had just ensured that this would be the single worst day of his life.

Do you see the problem? Since this story is written in third-person limited perspective, we should only receive information that the viewpoint character has access to. Sam doesn’t know that he’s just ruined his day . . . the passage explicitly states that he doesn’t! Therefore, in giving us this information, the author has just made a perspective error—they leaped briefly from third-person limited to third-person omniscient narrator.

Generally, when an author makes a TMI perspective error, it’s because they’ve described the emotions, thoughts, or motivations of a non-viewpoint character:

     “I’ll be fine,” I said, kissing Emily on the cheek. “Go have a good day.”
     “Wait a second James,” she said, worried that I was still upset. “You’ll still call me at lunch, right?”

or described action that the viewpoint character cannot see:

     “I don’t want to go,” Missy said, thinking of the long drive and the awkward silences that would surely fill their conversation on the way. She turned away from Frank to look out the window at the storm. “It’s just going to get cancelled because of the weather, anyway.”
     Frank sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Well then, what do you want to do?”

In the first example, we’re in James’s perspective—therefore, we shouldn’t know that Emily is feeling worried. James can speculate that perhaps she is worried, or note that she looks worried; he can even say that he knows she’s worried, just as long as the action remains in his head rather than jumping into hers.

In the second example, Missy is our viewpoint character. She has just turned away from Frank, and therefore she cannot see when he runs a hand through his hair—and if she can’t see it, we shouldn’t be able to, either. 

Here are some options for how the previous examples could be fixed (italics for emphasis):

     “Wait a second James,” she said, probably worried that I was still upset. “You’ll still call me at lunch, right?”

     “Wait a second James,” she said. Her face still looked worried. “You’ll still call me at lunch, right?”

     “Wait a second James,” she said. I could tell that she was worried I was still upset. “You’ll still call me at lunch, right?”

     “I don’t want to go,” Missy said, thinking of the long drive and the awkward silences that would surely fill their conversation on the way. She looked out the window at the storm and then turned back to Frank. “It’s just going to get cancelled because of the weather, anyway.”
     Frank sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Well then, what do you want to do?”

     Frank sighed and stepped up beside her, running a hand through his hair. “Well then, what do you want to do?”

     Frank sighed. “Well then, what do you want to do?”

Friday, September 5, 2014

Perspective Errors: Slip-ups

Now that we’ve gone over the different perspectives from which most novels are written (first-person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient), we can begin to discuss the many, many ways in which writers can make mistakes in regards to perspective.

A perspective error is any point in the story where the writer unintentionally presents information that is not consistent with the perspective in which the story is written.

The simplest type of perspective error is when an author accidentally switches perspectives. It happens most often in stories that have been adapted from one perspective to another—say the first draft was in third-person limited, but the author decided the story would have more impact written in first-person perspective from the protagonist’s point of view. So, they rework the second draft into first-person, but they miss a few lines here and there. Other times, this is just an absent-minded mistake. Here is an example:

     “You can’t keep going like this, Rachel,” Geoff said to me. “You need to get some sleep.”
     “I need to be here when Diana gets back,” I replied, shaking my head.
     Geoff sighed. “Rachel . . . it’s been two weeks. No one survives outside the walls for more than a day. You know that.”
     She refused to look at him. “When Diana gets back, she’ll need someone to throw her a rope.” I knew that she was still alive, somehow. But I couldn’t say it out loud. I just couldn’t.

Although the example is written in first-person from Rachel’s point of view, there is one point where Rachel is referred to as “she” rather than “I”—a slip into third-person perspective.

The two best ways I know of to catch these slip-ups are:
  1. Read your story out loud—often, your mouth and ears will notice mistakes that your eyes didn’t.
  2. Have someone else proofread your story—you know what you’re trying to say, and often your brain will fill in what a sentence was supposed to say rather than noticing what it actually says. Other people won’t have this problem when it comes to your writing, so ask them for a hand.
This is just the first of dozens or even hundreds of ways that writers can make perspective errors. We’ll discuss more in the future.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Overview: Third-Person Omniscient Viewpoints

Third-person omniscient is a viewpoint where the perspective jumps from character to character, showing many points of view over the course of any given scene at once. It generally comes in one of two styles: the omniscient narrator or head-hopping omniscient.

Omniscient Narrator

As the name implies, a story told through an omniscient narrator is given through the perspective of a usually-nameless storyteller, someone who is not a character within the story. This narrator is, so far as the story goes, omniscient, with complete knowledge of what all the characters are thinking or doing at any given time. They will often tell the audience what one character is thinking, and then mention what another character is thinking immediately after, rather than restricting what the audience sees to the perspective of one character at a time. Here is an example from the opening of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis:

ONCE there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.
As soon as they had said good night to the Professor and gone upstairs on the first night, the boys came into the girls' room and they all talked it over.
"We've fallen on our feet and no mistake," said Peter. "This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like."
"I think he's an old dear," said Susan.
"Oh, come off it!" said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. "Don't go on talking like that."
"Like what?" said Susan; "and anyway, it's time you were in bed."
"Trying to talk like Mother," said Edmund. "And who are you to say when I'm to go to bed? Go to bed yourself."
"Hadn't we all better go to bed?" said Lucy. "There's sure to be a row if we're heard talking here."
"No there won't," said Peter. "I tell you this is the sort of house where no one's going to mind what we do. Anyway, they won't hear us. It's about ten minutes' walk from here down to that dining-room, and any amount of stairs and passages in between."
"What's that noise?" said Lucy suddenly. It was a far larger house than she had ever been in before and the thought of all those long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms was beginning to make her feel a little creepy.
"It's only a bird, silly," said Edmund.

Notice how over the course of these few paragraphs the narrator first sets the scene without focusing on any specific character, and then how he describes to us the internal thoughts and emotions of both Edmund and Lucy. These are hallmarks of third-person omniscient.

Head-hopping Omniscient

The “head-hopping” variation of the third-person omniscient viewpoint is similar to the third-person limited viewpoint in that it eschews narrators and instead conveys the story directly through the viewpoint of the characters, as though the reader were riding along in the characters’ heads. However, unlike the limited viewpoint, the omniscient viewpoint jumps from perspective to perspective within any given scene—hence the “head-hopping” description. Here is an example from the beginning of Frank Herbert’s Dune:

Paul felt his left hand aching, uncurled the clenched fingers, looked at four bloody marks where fingernails had bitten his palm. He dropped the hand to his side, looked at the old woman. "You did that to my mother once?"
"Ever sift sand through a screen?" she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness: Sand through a screen. He nodded.
"We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans."
He lifted his right hand, willing the memory of the pain. "And that's all there is to it—pain?"
"I observed you in pain, lad. Pain's merely the axis of the test. Your mother's told you about our ways of observing. I see the signs of her teaching in you. Our test is crisis and observation."
He heard the confirmation in her voice, said: "It's truth!"
She stared at him. He senses truth! Could he be the one? Could he truly be the one? She extinguished the excitement, reminding herself: "Hope clouds observation."
"You know when people believe what they say," she said.
"I know it."
The harmonics of ability confirmed by repeated test were in his voice. She heard them, said: "Perhaps you are the Kwisatz Haderach. Sit down, little brother, here at my feet."
"I prefer to stand."
"Your mother sat at my feet once."
"I'm not my mother."
"You hate us a little, eh?" She looked toward the door, called out: "Jessica!"
The door flew open and Jessica stood there staring hard-eyed into the room. Hardness melted from her as she saw Paul. She managed a faint smile.
"Jessica, have you ever stopped hating me?" the old woman asked.
"I both love and hate you," Jessica said. "The hate—that's from pains I must never forget. The love—that's...."
"Just the basic fact," the old woman said, but her voice was gentle. "You may come in now, but remain silent. Close that door and mind it that no one interrupts us."
Jessica stepped into the room, closed the door and stood with her back to it. My son lives, she thought. My son lives and is ... human. I knew he was ... but ... he lives. Now, I can go on living. The door felt hard and real against her back. Everything in the room was immediate and pressing against her senses.
My son lives.
Paul looked at his mother. She told the truth. He wanted to getaway alone and think this experience through, but knew he could not leave until he was dismissed. The old woman had gained a power over him. They spoke truth. His mother had undergone this test. There must be terrible purpose in it ... the pain and fear had been terrible. He understood terrible purposes. They drove against all odds. They were their own necessity. Paul felt that he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.

Although there is no narrator directing us through the scene, notice how the reader is shown the thoughts of all three characters at various points—the Reverend Mother, Paul, and Jessica.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Third-Person Omniscient Viewpoint

Advantages of the Omniscient Narrator

Easier to write than head-hopping: Since this perspective is very similar to first-person (a narrator relating the story to the readers), it can be somewhat easier to write than the head-hopping style of omniscient.
Tension: Since the author can share with the reader any character’s thoughts or even information that none of the characters know, it is easy to introduce tension through obstacles that the characters don’t know are coming.
Infodumping: Since the narrator can show thoughts from multiple characters and even pause to explain information, it is possible to get across a lot of information in a very short space of time.
Direct address to the reader: As always, a narrator can address the reader directly if necessary.

Advantages of Head-Hopping Omniscient

More immediate than the narrator: Since there’s no one between the reader and the events of the story, the narrative can feel more immediate and real and less like just a story.
Tension: Just as with the narrator, you can convey information from multiple viewpoints or information that none of the characters know.
Infodumping: Again, it is possible to convey information from multiple perspectives very quickly, rather than having to give a separate scene to each perspective.
Most reliable narrator: With its absence of a biased, actual narrator and ability to show the thoughts of many characters in quick succession, this is the single most reliable narration that a writer can provide to a reader.

Disadvantages of Both Types of Third-Person Omniscient

Difficult to write correctly: Third-person omniscient is the most difficult to write without creating viewpoint errors or getting confusing—when you move from head to head, the reader can get lost very quickly and become unsure who is thinking what.
Unfamiliar to many readers: To make matters worse, very few books are written in third-person omniscient these days, so readers are unused to reading it. This means that even if you get it right, readers may still end up confused. This is particularly true with the “head-hopping” variation of omniscient, because to the reader it will often seem like third-person limited until the first time the narrative jumps to another character’s thoughts. This can be very jarring to readers, even if they’ve read omniscient before.
Lack of tension: It can be difficult to keep secrets and tension going if the readers are getting too much information about what is going on.
Infodumping: While it is an advantage that omniscient allows you to convey lots of information more quickly, this is a very difficult thing to do well. Often, this can turn into a firehose-esque flood of information that the reader will be unable to follow.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Punctuation in Parenthetical Phrases

 A parenthetical phrase is a short statement inserted into the main body of a sentence to give additional information. It is usually set apart from the rest of the sentence by means of commas, em dashes, or parentheses. Some examples:

  1. John, my oldest brother, came to see me in the hospital yesterday.
  2. The floor was made of stone—or at least it looked and felt like stone—and was freezing cold beneath his feet.
  3. She made me pelmeni (a type of Russian dumpling) and baked potatoes for dinner.

The punctuation you should use depends on the necessity and importance of the information you’re inserting. If the information you’re adding is necessary for the reader to understand the sentence, or at least very helpful, then you’ll want to use commas. If the information is important but not actually necessary, or if it doesn’t flow too well with the rest of the sentence—as in the case of example two above—then you should generally use em dashes. If the information is extremely superfluous or disconnected from the rest of the sentence, then you’ll use parentheses.

As was the case with breaking punctuation in this post, there is often more than one possible choice when you’re deciding which punctuation to use with your parenthetical phrase. Which punctuation you use will usually depend on how strongly you want to connect the parenthetical to the rest of the sentence.

Setting apart a parenthetical phrase with em dashes is also a useful tool if the sentence already contains several commas, or if the parenthetical phrase itself contains commas. For example, this sentence:

  • Whenever I went to the theater, I would always invite the group, consisting of John, Mandy, and Gus, so that I wouldn't have to sit alone.
reads a little bit more clearly like this:
  • Whenever I went to the theater, I would always invite the group—consisting of John, Mandy, and Gus—so that I wouldn't have to sit alone.

Parentheses can also be used in these cases, but be wary about using them too often in fiction. Generally, you should avoid parentheses in your story unless a narrator with a strong personality is speaking—usually in either first-person or third-person omniscient perspective. Even then, parentheses should be used rarely.