Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Unifying Your Narrative Voice

In first-person narrative, your character tells the story. In third-person narrative, an unidentified narrator tells the story.

First or third-person, you need to know your narrator to make sure it’s a unified, consistent voice.

That’s a little easier with first-person because you’re developing that character for us. In all but the unreliable narrator*, your third-person character is whole at the start of the story, just unseen.

Hallmarks of the invisible narrator include:

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Imagine if bruises weren’t invisible.

  • Trustworthiness.
  • Competence.
  • Consistent vocabulary, reading level, rhythm, narrative distance, and word-choice.

Trustworthiness is achieved by accurately telling the story, placing reveals in the proper order (when the reader needs and not after the fact), and not spieling off into irrelevant prose. The trustworthy narrator is concise and complete, but not pedantic or over-explaining. This is also true for the first-person narrator.

The competent narrator understands the subject matter, using appropriate language correctly. In a sci-fi novel, the narrator has to competently handle the concepts and technology of the story. They psychological thriller must have an insightful narrator who can relate complex concepts with an approachable style, but clear understanding of it. For the first-person narrator, competency may begin low and build to competency, which is an effective storytelling device and sometimes may tell you if your narrator should be first- or third-person.

Trust and competence are like butlers; they are noticeable only when a mistake is made. (There’s a story about a director struggling with a supporting character, a butler, who was finding every means to take the spotlight. The director finally asked him, “John, are you playing a good butler?” “Why, I’m playing the best butler!” “Excellent. Great butlers are invisible. Make it so.”)

Use of language is often visible in a tingling kind of way. You never want your prose to pull the reader out of the story, yet you do want the occasional thrill at the back of the reader’s mind. This is done with the occasional, consistent metaphor. “His heart pounded a paradiddle on the snare drum of his chest.” Paradiddle is a musical term, suggesting the narrator should stick with artistic metaphors. She should NOT throw in nautical metaphors unless the story is suddenly in an oceanic setting. That doesn’t mean metaphors must always be musical. No character is a single thing, however, consider that few people are several major things. So your narrator may have other, minor, metaphors and similes, but it would be wise to make most of the metaphors artistic in this case.

Hemmingway kept his word choice to one or two syllables. Ted Geisel was challenged to write a book with only single syllable words, and Dr. Seuss was born. Consider the texture of your words. Crunchy, spikey, edged words should be used as seasoning… not too much; not too little. Sticking to a consistent rhythm makes deviations of the rhythm more powerful. Long sentences and large paragraphs can begin to shorten to increase pace and shave to a punch!

Narrative distance refers to how close to the characters and actions the narrator is. Can the narrator hear the character’s thoughts? If so, relating those thoughts need to be consistent. Is the narrator warm or cold? Warm means close; cold means distant, that is, the descriptions are clinical, not insightful.

A couple caveats:

  • You can use different narrators based on the chapter’s major character as long as it’s the same narrator each time for each character (don’t use more than a couple narrative voices). In shows and movies, certain characters have musical themes that play when they are the focus. Same idea here.
  • Unreliable narrators first appear to be trustworthy and competent before showing their true colors as a liar or incomplete narrator who withholds vital information. With an unreliable narrator, it can be the only narrator (except in rare cases). Writing a good unreliable narrator is difficult to pull off.
  • One of your first editing jobs is to evaluate the consistency of your narrator. Get this right and your story will probably fly.

Think about your favorite stories and examine the narrator. A great narrator will make you fall into the story despite your intent to analyze. Now go find your narrator.

Oh, for More Yesterdays!

This post is about Yesterday, the movie. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * and more SPOILERS *

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And I was never a fan of the Beatles, but I love this movie!

I loved this movie. Jack Mallek awakens in a parallel universe where the Beatles never existed. As a frustrated musician in his own failed career, Jack claims to have written and plays the Beatle’s hits as his own and becomes famous as the greatest singer/songwriter in the world.

Burdened by guilt and oblivious to his best friend’s devotion to him, Jack slowly discovers the differences between the two worlds.

Here’s what the movie did right:

  • Fresh, interesting concept that could be a lot of fun.
  • Jack Mallek is Indian but this is never brought out as a focal point. It just is. Nice example to people with social concerns; don’t make it a thing, just put it out there.
  • It’s clean. No swearing, no nudity, no sex, yet works on multiple levels.
  • Rising tension presented by two people also from his world who know he’s faking it. We know about them for a long time before they confront Jack – and it’s a complete surprise (or at least not what Jack and I expected).
  • The “fun & games” of the movie were Jack’s rise to fame, him trying to remember the lyrics, his guilt, and his dawning realization that he loves Ellie.
  • This is billed as a romantic comedy, yet the romantic build is slow simmer rather than a focal point.
  • The writer/director understood that Jack needed to think the leap was worth it. He did so in a unique and surprising way. The door opened on someone other than I was expecting!
  • To reiterate an important point: Confrontations were telegraphed… we KNEW what was going to happen, yet what took us by surprise wasn’t just a twist, it made more sense than what we were expecting!
  • When the romance aspect came to head the first time, timing wasn’t right. Second time, timing wasn’t right, third time timing was right, but it didn’t matter, it was going to happen. The writer skillfully built two parallel story lines that weaved in and out before coming to a satisfying end.
  • The means of the parallel world switch was never revealed. So much so that many people think time was rewritten rather than Jack being in a whole other world. Had they explained the workings, it:

A) Would no longer have been a romantic comedy, and

B) No sequel would be necessary.

That’s right, the writer gave himself an opening for a sequel. What is that opening? If Jack is in a parallel universe, then he switched places with that world’s Jack, so that world’s Jack is now on our world. What’s happening to him? What’s wonderfully crazy about this sequel opportunity is that it doesn’t have to be the same genre. It could be something else entirely: sci-fi, suspense, psychological thriller or psychological comedy (more likely).

Response to Yesterday is mostly positive, though the critics think it was too simple, lacked depth, lacked gravitas. Translation, it was too clean.

I think the world needs more clean stories, more clean movies, more clean TV shows. I would love more movies like Yesterday.

End Well

The end of your story, that is, the third act, is easy if you’ve done your job in the first and second act. There you’ve set up an ending. Just do something different that fits the clues and your golden!

The greatest problem with an ending is when it’s predictable. But the opposite problem is also detrimental… the ending that comes out of nowhere.

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Cue music, swap out the lens! It’s the living end!

Your third-act job is to give the reader the ending they expect in a different form than they expected. Sometimes that’s just giving the end a twist. In a romance, for example, you might set up that the heroine is going to jilt the guy and marry the fellow next door. Instead, she discovers something she didn’t understand about the first guy that makes her want to keep him.  In a thriller, the bad guy turns out to be someone other than who we thought it was.

Alternatively, as the writer, you hold back a critical piece of information from the reader that skews the expected ending to one more apt.

As important as the conclusion is, it’s always the setup that’s important. When does the end begin? When your character is fully outfitted for the fight. Whatever character flaw is addressed, whatever relationship is mended, whatever weakness – internal or resource – is fixed or acquired. In act one and two, the hero is no hero, by the third act, the hero IS the hero (use the term lightly; your main character may be a creep, but he’s the creep on the right side now).

All the conflict of the second act adds a plate to the hero’s armor, refines character, increases the stakes, offers red herrings and reversals, and narrows the story to its conclusion.

It’s tempting to achieve the ending too fast. Conflict and surprise need to be part of the process, something that puts the reader in doubt of the expected ending, but the last thing that should happen is that the hero’s plan actually works. Plans fall apart; character and improvisation makes it work. Short third acts are common in today’s fiction. Don’t fall prey to the idea that the first and third act should be roughly the same size. Sometimes dropping of the cliff (a short third act) is ideal. It’s only rushed if it feels rushed (my first novel’s ending is a bit rushed. We write, we learn.)

Classically, there are two endings: Comedy, where things end well for the hero, and Tragedy, where things end badly for the hero. (There are also tragedies that end up working out for the hero… he loses the girl, but she’s not what she seemed…) There is a lot of wiggle-room in those classifications. True tragedies are rare today, but they can still work.

After the pay off, we then need to see the cool-down phase after the ending. The sigh of relief, the French story term I can’t remember how to spell that sounds like day-num-wa (I’m so pitiful sometimes). It can be right after, or days or even months/years after. It’s a time of implied reflection, a taste of the new normal.

A final comment in reflection of the Amazon pool of reality and POD: Your story doesn’t have to be 90,000 words. It can be just about any size now (at least 25 pages for POD printing). The terms novella and novel have little meaning anymore. In printing, 200 pages was necessary for a good price-point. Not so anymore. All that to say, end your story when it’s ready to be ended. Is it “too short” but feels satisfying? Then end it. If it doesn’t feel satisfying keep working on it.

Who doesn’t love endings? It’s all downhill and craft at that point. You’re almost done!

Voice – The Topic that Terrifies Writers

We aren’t talking about the reality singing show when we say The Voice, we’re talking about that thing that seems so hard to describe that is a vital element of a successful story.

We can look to a singing icon, though, to better understand Voice. Reba McEntire gave an interview about her early days learning to sing. She learned by doing covers of other people’s songs and sounded just like them. Her comment was insightful, “I had to learn to sing like everybody else so I could eventually sing like myself.”

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Just part your lips and speak… (is that how that goes?)

That’s an excellent description of narrative voice. Voice isn’t something you put on, it’s something you discover. It consists of your cadence, your word choice, your sentence structure, your way of describing, YOU.

When we talk to a friend, we hopefully are relaxed and natural. It’s when we try to pretend to be someone beyond, above, below, or what we think people want to hear that we get tripped up.

Think about an actor’s version of voice. I’ve been enjoying Chris Evans’ filmography, from the independent movies, Fantastic Four movies (he was the only good part), Captain America movies, and other studio movies. Evans has a range of expressions and movements. His body language changes from role to role, but he pulls from a stock of movements that are uniquely Chris Evans.

Impersonators cherry-pick such movements and mannerisms to convey the celebrity of choice. Then they grab their cadence and word choice, their manner of speaking, and away they go.

Once you’ve mastered writing so that it’s effortless, your voice will ring out. Sure, you can put on a persona when you write, but your best stories are the ones you are true to with your own voice. In other words, don’t worry about it. When you’re ready, when you’ve written like other people, you will eventually sound like yourself. That’s Voice.

Exposition Wears Concrete Shoes

We’ve all read the books that are so exposition-heavy that you feel exhausted getting to the end of the chapter… if your read that long.

Yet exposition is necessary. Sometimes you need to know what came before, why a setting is significant, or just explaining how something works or the story doesn’t make sense.

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Ned would read every word of a Tom Clancy novel.

Exposition differs from description in that it’s required information that is apart from the story, but needs to be understood for the sake of the story.

There are several ways to handle exposition, and a few “rules.”

Rule 1: Give it to the reader when they need it and not before.

Rule 2: Give them only what they need to know (be strategic and be concise).

Rule 3: Make sure it IS needed. If Tesla’s intimate love a pigeon isn’t required knowledge to his invention of cell-phone technology, don’t include it in exposition (it may be included at some point for other reasons).

Rule 4: Do NOT include it in dialog unless it’s necessary. Remember, effective dialog between people includes not saying what the other person knows. “As you know, Kit, Shakespeare was a frustrated actor who had a lisp and a hunched back.” If Kit already knows it, the speaker would not be informing him of it. If Kit doesn’t know it, only include it in dialog only if Kit must know it (see below).

Rule 5: Hide it if you can.

The ways to handle exposition:

  • With a spoonful of sugar. Or saccharine. In this method, you break the exposition up into chunks, adorned with comedy or conflict. For example: You have to explain the process of mixing an explosive. Rather than just tell us in a block, your lab assistant assures you (the main character) that he knows how to do this. Problem is, he doesn’t, much to your horror and anger, you must walk him through the process. This can be funny or serious. The attention is on the characters and the process is explained almost by accident.
  • With concrete shoes. Tom Clancy is the master of this. Want to know how to build an atomic bomb? He sets aside characters and just lays it out. Most of us skip over it, engineers eat it with a spoon.
  • With a spoonful of concrete. This is a mixture of the first two. Your main character remembers/reviews/discovers the exposition. Kirk recalled the first time he’d been to this planet and suppressed a roguish grin. Risa was a pleasure planet, and they knew their business. Rita, the famed astrophysicist was a guest… I mistook her for a working girl. Rita had discovered the transwarp signature of the Curator’s race, the ancient beings who had….
    You get the idea.

You need to decide how to handle it by analyzing the pace of your story. Can it handle a block of exposition without grinding the pace to a halt? Can it be embedded and parsed slowly?

How do you handle exposition?

Isolation: A Vital Element of Story

Your main character, the hero of the story no matter the genre, must be isolated to make a logical, powerful story.

I don’t mean stranded on a desert island isolated, but cut-of-from-help isolated.

It’s amazing how many pictures of “alone” and “isolated” are negative. Am I the only one who likes to be alone?

Consider, your hero encounters a problem in the first act of the story. We learn who the hero is, what their normal is, and then something happens… this is the inciting incident. What happens next is the isolation of your hero. It isn’t enough for the problem to be solvable, it must only be solvable by the hero.

Such isolation takes on many forms. It could be they (the hero and the merry band of support characters, or the ensemble) are literally cut off. Their plane crashes in the dinosaur-infested jungle and there are no other humans for miles.

Or it could be a matter of skill set. The president is dying on Air Force One and the hero is the only doctor. It all on the hero.

It could be relational. The hero estranged from his dying father is the only one who can fulfill his last request. Or a terrorist will only deal with the hero, no one else.

This is vitally important because, hey, if there is someone better suited to save the day, why is your character the hero?

This is particularly difficult in today’s society where everyone has a cellphone. You either need to get rid of the phone, out of range, broken, or dead battery, or isolate through time; there are others more suited, but they don’t have time to get there, or are unmotivated, or in league with the villain.

How is your character isolated? Make sure it’s clear and strong or your story will be unbelievable.

The Invisible Character

Every story has it. Fiction and non-fiction, blogs, even your journal has the Invisible Character. Who is this hard to see person?

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The Where’s Waldo Character

Your narrator.

Who’s telling the story? The answer to this question can radically impact your manuscript.

Let’s first look at the “levels.”

There’s:

  • First Person, meaning one of the characters is telling the story—“I watched Hortense move like a snake.”
  • Second Person is rare and reserved for short fiction—“You walk into the room. You see her…”.
  • Third Person means someone outside the characters is telling the story—“He watched Hortense walk into the room…” This may eventually be revealed to be first person, if the narrator appears later in the story as a character.

There is also:

  • Past tense: The narrator tells a story that has already happened.
  • Present tense: The reader discovers things as the narrator and characters to do (not a fan of present tense, but it has its place).

We haven’t spoken to the power of narration yet. The question is: Who is your narrator? When is your narrator?

Imagine how different a story would be if told by someone else? To Kill a Mockingbird would be very different if Atticus was the narrator rather than Scout. Scout is effective because she is a very limited omniscient character. She’s young, naïve, and learning as we do. What a different book it could be if the Scout telling the story was an old lady, interjecting her wisdom in the place of young Scout’s innocence.

An educated narrator uses different words than an unlettered storyteller.

Ask yourself, if using past tense, how far removed is the narrator? Is she five seconds away from the action or five decades? Does the narrator offer her view and opinions of events, even subtly, in the way the story is told?

How reliable is the narrator? Is he telling the truth only to surprise you later with broken trust? Is the narrator making personal discoveries in the retelling of the story?

Who you choose as narrator can broaden or limit the story scope. Characters are limited to what they know, unless they are far removed in time. Detached narrators simply tell the story, no frills, but word choice still enters in.

In non-fiction, YOU are the narrator, but you are a multitude of worlds, which do you narrate from? Are you informal? Humorous? Clinical? Just how much of “you” do you put into your manuscript?

Pro Top: If you get stalled in the first couple chapters of your book, or if readers say your voice is uneven, you have narrator problems.