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The Unsafe Road to Writing Fiction

So you’re writing a story and you know it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that … it isn’t. In fact, it’s bad. But the reason it’s bad is NOT that you’re a bad writer. The reason it’s bad is because you’re using a technique that’s not familiar to you. What do you do?

Hamish posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello!

Ben reading your blog for around two years now, it has helped me greatly, thank you!

My question is this: I love first person, I despise third person. I love the knowledge of a single character, knowing them like the back of my hand, creating them however I want. I love being able to make my reader feel! Which, is something I’ve found I can’t do in Third Person.

This, however, is where I run into a problem. The stories I want to write my ‘staggeringly heartbreaking work of genius’ is best written in third person.

The real problem is that, when I write in Third Person I feels if my writing is poor of quality, and I hate it. So, how do I overcome this? When my story i best suited to third person? But, I myself am dismal when writing third person?

Apologies if this is a question asked many times.

Thanks.

Randy sez: Well, now, there’s a dilemma. You’ve got a story that’s screaming to be written in third person, but you are better at first-person than third-person. What do you do?

Tough question, and there’s no easy answer. This is why we call it a dilemma. This is a judgment call, so I’ll give you my judgment, even though I can’t prove it’s correct.

Let’s look at your options.

The Safe Road

You can take the safe road and write it in first person. This is what you’re familiar with. You believe you’ll do your best work in first person. The only problem is that you think the story would work better in third person.

There’s a possibility you might actually be wrong. It might be that this story would work just fine in first person. You could probably find that out by writing a few scenes or chapters and see how it’s working.

But let’s assume that you’re right—that the story would best be told in third person. If you take the “safe road,” what’s going to happen is that you won’t do this story justice because you’re using the wrong tool for the job. And that’s just not acceptable, at least not to me. I don’t want to work on a story unless I can do my best. So this is not the road I’d take.

The Unsafe Road

The unsafe road is to write the story in third person, even though you believe that you can’t do it well.

I suspect that if you give it a chance, you might find that third-person isn’t any harder than first-person. It’s different, but it’s not harder. You can give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience in third-person just as well as you can in first-person.

Writing in third-person is not harder. It’s just less familiar to you, Hamish. Which means that at first, it won’t feel right. But I’d bet that if you try it for a few scenes, you might start getting more comfortable with it.

Third-person lets you do interior monologue and interior emotion just as effectively as you could do them in first-person. (These are two of the five standard techniques novelists use in writing fiction. All five techniques are explained in great detail in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, so I’m not going to try to repeat all of that here.)

But in third-person, your interior monologue can be indirect—it doesn’t have to be an exact verbatim transcript of the character’s thoughts. Instead, it can be a summary of those thoughts, which is sometimes an advantage.

Third-person also has another slight advantage over first-person. In third person, your narrative voice can be different from the voice of the point-of-view character. This lets you, the author, use your own narrative voice when you need to. You don’t have to. You can write a whole novel in which your narrative voice is always the voice of the point-of-view character. In first-person, you have to do this. But in third-person, if you want to, you can pull back a bit from the point-of-view character and inject your own voice.

Hamish, it’s not my job to tell you what to do. But here’s what I’d do if I were you. I’d try this story in third-person and see if I can grow into feeling comfortable writing that way. Every writer needs all sorts of tools in his toolbox. One of the most useful is the third-person point of view. If you don’t develop this skill, you’ll be limiting yourself. In fact, you’re limiting yourself right now.

Try it. See how well it works. Study the works of other authors to see what tricks they’re using to make it work. Keep trying.

That’s how you learn in this business—by trying things. Whether it works or doesn’t, send me an e-mail in a few months to let me know.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

 

The Official Rules on Head-Hopping

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but somebody told you head-hopping is a no-no, and now you’re worried because you like head-hopping. What’s the deal?

Agata posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’ve been reading your blog and it’s amazing. I’m planning/writing a novel and your posts are incredibly helpful in organizing everything. I’m writing here because I have a dilemma about the POV characters.

I have two POV characters, sometimes they have their own scenes and sometimes they are together. In that case, I don’t always know which one should be the POV. Is it acceptable to go from one character’s head to another? Like here (I’m just making it up, but it shows the structure of my scenes):

Emily looked up when the door opened.

“you’re late” she hissed. God, he was so irritating.

“what do you want from me?” he snorted.

“to act like an adult” she left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Josh stood there, wondering how to apologize to her this time.

 

So Emily is the POV when she’s alone and when Josh comes in, but then she leaves so he has to be the POV. Is that ok? If so, can I swith POV when they’re both in the room as well, or should I adapt the “God’s eye” approach throughout the story and not show anyone’s thoughts?

Hopefully my question makes sense, I’m just not sure what I should stick to.

Thanks a lot

Agata

Randy sez:  Let’s define terms. “Head-hopping” is the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene. This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.

If you want to start a war among fiction writers, a golden way to do it is to tell everyone that they can’t hop heads. Or tell them that they can.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Wrong

Those who oppose head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character in each scene. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for the scene.

Then in the next scene, your reader may become some other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Right

Those who believe in head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character at a time. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for a part of a scene.

If you need to transition to another character in the same scene, you do that in a way that cues the reader that you’re about to hop heads. And just like that, the reader becomes that other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Randy Settles The Argument Once And For All

So who’s right? The hoppers or the non-hoppers?

Randy sez: Personally, I’ve never hopped heads. That has worked for me, and I’ll bet that 99% of my readers don’t know or care that I’m a non-hopper. Readers just care about whether the story is working for them.

But I have plenty of friends who hop heads all the time. So far as I know, they all write romance, and in the romance category, head-hopping is accepted. Why? Because in a romance novel, the relationship is the most important character in the story. Not the hero. Not the heroine. The relationship. So the reader likes to know what both the hero and heroine are thinking in each scene.

As far as I can tell, this works for my head-hopping friends. I’ll bet that 99% of their readers don’t know or care that they’re head-hopping. Readers just care whether the story is working for them.

Po-tay-to. Po-tah-to. What really matters is how it tastes in the soup.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me your opinion.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Are Flashbacks Allowed in Your Novel?

So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?

Paul posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?

Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)

But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.

The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)

Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.

But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.

One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.

Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.

If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.

So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.

If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

Avoiding Sameness In Your Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that all your characters talk alike. What can you do to avoid that pesky sameness in your dialogue?

Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a issue with having my characters sound a like. I have great details on each of their personalities but other one secondary character they all seem the Sam. One is the dialogue, how do I make the sound different?

Randy sez: That’s a great question, Tim. It’s a question every novelist faces.

Let’s try to understand first WHY all your characters are sounding alike in their dialogue.

The reason is because all your characters inherit quite a bit of their personality from you. That is necessarily true. Your characters aren’t real. They spring out of your imagination. They exist because you thought them into existence.

Which means they are limited by you and your experiences. If you’re an American and have never met any Germans, it would be really hard for you to write a German character. If you’re a southerner and have never met any yankees, then you’ll have a hard time writing a yankee character.

So the solution to getting rid of the sameness in your dialogue come in two steps:

  1. Meet more people.
  2. Steal their voices.

Let’s look at each of those in a little more detail.

Meet More People

When I say you need to meet more people, I mean people who are different from you. Wildly different. One of the best things I ever did for my writing career was to spend six years at UC Berkeley working on my Ph.D. in physics.

While I was at Berkeley, I met an amazing assortment of people. Panhandlers. Nobel laureates. Religious nuts. Political fanatics on the far right and far left.

My classmates came from all across the US and all around the world. I spent a lot of time with people from China, India, Korea, eastern Europe.

One of my close friends was an 80-year-old woman. Another had cerebral palsy. I had friends getting degrees in history, English literature, engineering. And I was a teaching assistant for a while and wound up trying to explain physics to a lot of normal people who don’t speak math.

I’m an introvert, but in my time at Berkeley, I got a serious education in the enormous differences in how people think. Which comes out in the way they talk.

Steal Their Voices

This has been immensely valuable to me in my fiction writing, because I had a huge number of people whose voices I could steal.

In one of my novels, I needed a cranky old midwife. No problem. One of my best friends at Berkeley was an 80-year-old woman who always said exactly what she was thinking. She didn’t have an internal censor. So when I was writing dialogue for my cranky midwife, I just asked myself how my friend would say it. I’d actually hear her voice in my head and then I’d just write down what she said.

In another book, I had a minor character who was an exuberant extroverted Israeli archaeologist. He spoke English with the same charming accent as my tour guide when I visited Israel. I remember listening to that guide and memorizing the sound of his voice because I knew I was going to put him in a book someday.

Whenever I have a character who’s very different from me, I ask myself what real person I’ve known who was like that character. Then I try to imagine having a conversation with that real person, and listen to their voice. What pet words do they overuse? What slang do they use? How do they think about the world?

Don’t Copy Too Exactly

One thing you want to avoid is trying to reproduce a person’s accent too exactly. If you’ve ever read GONE WITH THE WIND, you probably struggled to understand the way-too-literal reproduction of the speech patterns of slaves from the Civil War era. Every word is misspelled the way it sounds, making it almost unreadable for modern readers. In cases like this, spell the words correctly but misuse the grammar the way the speaker actually says it. That strikes a balance that your reader can understand.

Different people tend to use different  thought patterns. Try to capture those as exactly as you can. If you have a character who isn’t very original, he might use a lot of cliches when he talks.

One thing to be wary of is capturing the exact slang-of-the-moment. That might work for a year or two, but slang tends to go out of style pretty quickly and then it sounds dated. So if you’re going to use slang, make it up. Then it can never go out of style.

Tim, I hope that answers your question. You get better at writing dialogue by writing a lot of dialogue. You get better at writing in different voices by writing in different voices.

Naked Dialogue

Here’s an exercise to force you to build your dialogue muscles: Write an entire scene in dialogue without using any tags to identify the characters. This means you can’t use “Joe said” or “Mary said” anywhere in the scene. And you can’t even use action tags, such as “Voldemort slammed his fist on the table.”

You have to write the whole scene in what I call “naked dialogue”–just the dialogue, without action or description or interior monologue or interior emotion or narrative summary or exposition.

It’s hard to do, but it forces you to learn the tricks that help distinguish between your characters’ voices.

You will rarely use naked dialogue in an actual scene of a book, but writing it as an exercise will build your skills in dialogue fast.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.