Every second person I speak to believes they’ve “got a novel in them”. It’s getting it out and onto the page that’s the tricky part!
Only about 3% of people who actually start writing a book, will ever finish it. Fewer still end up with a story that works.
So, how can you be in the minority of fiction authors who end up with a story that hits all the marks publishers and readers are looking for?
In my experience, it doesn’t matter when or how much you like to plan your stories, so long as you nail four critical aspects. It’s all about writing with purpose. Having a fabulous idea, is just the beginning. The hard part is moulding that idea into a living, breathing story that captures the imagination of readers, plucks at their heart strings and lures them towards ‘the end’.
Authors usually come unstuck by
Sure, there are dozens of aspects to the planning and writing process, and we can’t cover them all in a single article, but without the four critical aspects below, a novel is unlikely to have what it takes to catch a publisher’s attention and engage readers.
The four critical aspects of a workable novel
1. Idea transformation
2. Story purpose
3. Driven characters
4. Character-driven conflicts
Now, let’s look at each of these in more detail.
An idea is not a plot, no matter how amazing. It is the kernel of inspiration, which we must flesh out into a three-dimensional world populated by living, breathing characters.
The whole process of gathering, sorting and selecting ideas can take a long time. Our minds need to brainstorm, ponder and weigh up possibilities before settling on a host of ideas with the potential to come together to form a novel.
Take your time when brainstorming ideas that flow from that initial idea. Follow each one along the path of “what ifs” until you exhaust all avenues, no matter how crazy they may seem. I’m often surprised at what random ideas trigger solid story threads.
What if questions can lead in a host of different directions. Keep going until you expose the inherent conflict in a situation. Something that interests you enough to want to tease out the underlying struggles people in that situation are likely to face. Something that is substantial enough to germinate a multitude of possibilities and sustain a story for 80,000 plus words.
Once you’ve filled many pages with potential ideas, sort them according to topics or your degree of interest in them. If you still can’t choose the angle/topic you want to work on, I find it helpful to flesh out a few ideas. Just free write, imagine situations, locations and characters and see where they take you. Some will peter out, but eventually one will fire up your imagination and demand to be told.
Let’s look at a couple of examples (simplified though they may be) of how ideas can be transformed into story premises.
There are two parts to story purpose:
Understanding why you want to write a particular story will sustain you through the inevitable questioning of its worth, and being clear about where it’s going will prevent you from meandering so far from the core plot that you lose steam and come to a halt. Worst case scenario? You abandon the story all together.
The author's purpose
Books are so much more than ideas communicated through words. We tell them because we want to share our own beliefs and ideals with others and/or to open their eyes to the plight of a minority and/or to open their minds to a different way of seeing things.
Dig deep into your soul to see what aspects of the story and its character you want to explore. Where does your passion lie? It might be an injustice, moral standpoint or statement about an institution or culture.
What message or sentiment are you hoping to leave readers with after they close the book?
The story's purpose
A story’s purpose is the end point, which every action and thought is hurtling towards.
I use a “story summary” to point my characters in the right direction. It’s a few paragraphs that outline who the main characters are, what they want, why and what’s stopping them. Just like a synopsis, only less formal because it’s purely for your reference.
I often start mine by posing a “what if” question I will answer by the end of the story and spend extra words making it clear why my character is driven to pursue this goal and what inner fear or false belief they will overcome during the story.
Referring to this summary before writing or editing each scene, prevents me from getting side-tracked on tangents that don’t serve the core plot.
This is the most common area where I see stories fall short. Authors often come up with a story idea, complete a standard Character Profile and start writing. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to dimensionless cardboard cut-outs on the page.
It isn’t what a character looks like that will make them memorable or able to drive a plot. We need to unearth their “why”.
The answers to all of these questions must be relevant to the character’s goal (what they want to achieve by the end of the story).
How your characters got to the point in time where the story starts, has a huge bearing on the types of obstacles you put in their way during the story.
Use their personal fears, false beliefs and past traumas against them, to make their lives as difficult as possible.
Having to overcome such challenges will help them grow as a person (their character arc). Learn something about themselves (possibly something they would never verbalise).
Conflict is the heart pumping life through the arteries and veins of your novel. The source of character development and the thing that hooks readers into the character’s life.
Use what the main character(s) want (their goal) and why they want it (their motivation) to create challenges that are difficult for them specifically. This is what I mean by the characters driving the conflicts in the story.
Stephen King says, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and see what happens.”
Force your main character(s) to face challenges as soon as possible. To create a well-rounded story, your characters should come up against external and internal conflicts. Gradually making the situations they are in more challenging — with more to lose emotionally and physically — will increase the tension and lure readers through the story.
So, if you find your stories fading into oblivion and remaining unfinished, or you have completed stories that aren’t quite coming together right, you may be left feeling confused, overwhelmed and insecure about your writing abilities. But don’t despair.
Take a step back and make sure you have fully explored the four essential elements to transform your idea into a workable story using driven characters and conflicts, and keep it on track with a clear purpose. With these things in place, you will have a solid foundation from which to create a workable story.
Competition judges, agents, publishers and (often subconsciously) readers, are looking for these elements to create a cohesive story they can follow and become fully immersed in.
Why POV is important to your novel
Point of View (POV) characters determine the focus of a story, which is why the decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s not just about who is telling the story but how they are the best character to convey information in an interesting and believable way.
Whether you decide to use first-person, third-person limited or omniscient POV, you will still have to decide which character is going to communicate the story to readers.
Any character who is given the privilege of narrating part (or all) of a story, should:
Who can narrate a story?
The decision of who narrates a story is often dictated by genre, but don’t discount the interesting effects achieved by altering the narrator.
In romance, it is common to give the hero and heroine a POV, so each of their emotional motivations and insecurities can be explored thoroughly. Whereas, in crime novels there are often many POV characters or an omniscient narrator who sees and knows all. But that doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to the norm. Throughout history there have been more unusual POV characters, like inanimate objects, animals, otherworldly beings and even voyeuristic characters.
Here are some examples of unusual POV characters:
Whose story are you telling?
Too often authors focus on the subject matter they are writing about and neglect to nail down whose story they are telling. When it is actually the narrator’s view of the world is the compass that will guide story direction and influence structural decisions.
Imagine attending a funeral as each of these characters and how it would change the story that would be told of the event.
Each of these characters would not only witness different parts of the event, but would have different perspectives, based on their degree of emotional attachment and history with the deceased.
If the estranged brother told the story, it might look like this: Harold returned to England after a decade in exile, to finally get what he was owed from his estranged brother’s estate.
Whereas, the herse driver’s story might look like this: Bob kept several magnetic car signs on the back seat because he needed to pay off the car loan; herse driver by day and chauffer by night.
Each character in your book has the power to change the way readers view and experience the story. So, think about whose story you want to tell, why you want to tell it and the best character to do it in an interesting and engaging way.
Who deserves their own POV scenes?
POV characters are the lens through which readers see and experience events in the story. When you give a character their own voice through POV, it provides certain freedoms to explore their thoughts and feelings, as well as limiting what they can see and know about other events and characters.
Knowing your audience for the book, will enable you to understand which character(s) they are most likely to sympathise with and want to spend time with. For example, in a Young Adult story readers will want to spend time with the young adults, not their parents or teachers.
Therefore, when deciding who you want to narrate your story, consider:
While you have plenty of artistic options when choosing POV characters, it makes sense to let readers experience the story through characters whose desires, motivations and actions align to the main plot thread.
One of the biggest mistakes in choosing POV characters
Thinking that giving all, or many, characters a voice enables the author to more adequately show what is happening and why, is one of the biggest mistakes when choosing POV characters.
The more POV characters you have, the less likely it is readers will connect intimately with them.
Think of it as how thinly you spread your resources. You have a limited wordcount within which to tell a story, let’s say 80,000 words for example, and if you have eight POV characters, they each only get 10,000 words to reveal who they are, what they want and what drives them to get it. This might not be an issue if the point of telling the story is to solve a crime and delve into each facet of the enigma, rather than the past and future lives of the characters.
If the same story had four POV characters, they would each get 20,000 words to reveal who they are, and if there were two POV characters, they would each get 40,000 words. Imagine how much more deeply you could explore their psyches, desires and emotions if they had more of a voice.
This is precisely why romance stories tend to stick to one or two POV characters. That way the author has plenty of time to connect readers to those characters and enable them to experience events with the characters and feel emotions on their behalf.
What to do once you've chosen the POV character(s)
Once you have decided whose story you are telling and the best character(s) to reveal the information to readers in an interesting and believable way, all that’s left to do is make them human (even if they’re not), by ensuring they are multi-faceted and interesting narrators who drive the story to its conclusion and to remain consistently within the confines of your chosen POV narrators.
That’s where Sandy Vaile can help.
(This article was previously published by Romance Writers Australia in the May 2022 Hearts Talk ezine.)
Why limited third person POV is the most common
There are various options when it comes to choosing the right Point of View (POV) for your romance story and they each have benefits and drawbacks.
The most obvious reason is, romances are about two people falling in love (no matter how many demons, villains or past traumas they have to battle along the way), and therefore it makes sense to get into the hero’s and heroine’s heads, so readers can understand both of their desires and doubts. We love to experience the push and pull of a blooming romance. Feel the flutter of realisation, the denial of compatibility and the accidental touches.
The benefits of using Third Person Limited POV include:
#1 The ability to spend time in the heads of the hero and heroine during each scene, enables the author to show two different perspectives of the same situation.
They may be working towards a common goal, but have different approaches, or they may want different things out of life (initially). Seeing these conflicts build and unravel best laid plans, creates glorious expectations in the reader. Not to mention sheer terror that neither party will make the concessions it will take to come together in the end.
#2 Immersing readers in one character at a time, provides them adequate time to really get to know each one and care enough about them to spend eighty-odd thousand words following their journey.
The author has the scope to fully explore what the character thinks about their situation, what they desire and are motivated by, as well as what troubles and frightens them.
It also forces the author to come up with active and interesting ways to show what the non-POV character is thinking and feeling.
#3 It is easier to connect with a character when you are privy to their thoughts and feelings.
This can be especially beneficial when it comes to showing a hero’s vulnerability. Seeing as men tend to be less about verbalising and more about taking action, getting inside their heads reveals layers to their disposition.
Someone who might come across as obstinate or antagonistic from an outside view, can be more sympathetic when readers know why the character is acting that way.
There are a few things that can trip you up when writing in Limited Third Person POV including:
#1 Head hopping can occur when authors don’t fully understand the limitations of writing in this POV, or when they aren’t sure who has the most to lose at a particular moment and therefore, swap from the hero to the heroine’s POV too often.
While there is no hard and fast rule, a good guide is to only change POV once during a chapter (depending on its length).
#2 Showing the same scene, two ways. Having two POV characters isn’t an excuse to show a whole scene from the hero’s perspective and then relive it through the heroine’s perspective.
Reliving time leaves readers feeling like they’re in Groundhog Day, so stick to having each character show a different moment in time.
#3 Narrative distance is one of the arguments against this POV; however, going into Deep POV, solves this perceived problem. Deep POV silences the narrative voice and lets readers experience only what the POV character can see, hear, taste, feel or know.
This kind of immersion in a characters heart and mind is deeply emotive, but can also be tiring. It’s all right to go deep and then pull back, so you get the best of both worlds.
#4 Being able to fully step into the heart and mind of two different characters, and potentially a character of a different sex to yourself, can be challenging.
It requires authors to spend equal time and energy developing both POV characters. Understanding where they came from, what motivates them, how they think and speak. Strive to create more than a cookie-cutter love interest and truly flesh them out.
Explore your story's POV
When writing a romance story, Limited Third Person POV provides the perfect opportunity to reveal the heart’s desire for the hero and heroine equally. It creates the perfect environment for readers to develop a close enough relationship to care about what happens to both of them. To laugh with their joy and cry for their sorrow. To bite their nails in anticipation and hide their eyes from uncertainty. To fall in love with your characters and story as much as you do.
This article was originally published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog in June 2022.
The best way to add more tension to a story
Regardless of the length or genre of a story, creating tension is essential to holding readers' attention.
But what is the best way to add more tension to a story?
Often I see aspiring authors withholding information in an effort to be vague and cryptic, which only serves to frustrate readers instead of engage them. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the act of proving information to the reader — be it in the right place and quantity — that makes them curious enough to continue reading.
The whole point of storytelling is to share tales and you need people to read the whole thing in order to get your point and fully enjoy what you’ve created, but not even having a best-selling book provides this guarantee. Data collected by Kobo from more than 21m users, showed that readers were keener to finish Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core than many award-winning and best-selling novels.
What does this show us?
Creating and sustaining tension is the most effective way of keeping readers engaged and making sure they will read all the way to “the end” of your novel, and we want them to do that so they can fully experience and enjoy the wonderful plot and characters we’ve invested our time and souls to develop.
So, if withholding information isn’t the best approach to hook and keep readers, let’s explore how the delivery of information increases story tension by:
Why withholding all of the information doesn't work
Creating story tension is about making promises to your reader regarding potential disaster, tragedy, misfortune or complications, making the outcome of the situation uncertain, and then drawing that uncertainty out for as long as possible.
When you don’t give readers a clear sense of what might happen if everything doesn’t go the character’s way, what they have to lose and why, they can’t possibly be invested in how the character struggles to prevent it.
Trying to be cryptic by withholding too much information only results in a vague future the reader can’t picture and therefore doesn’t care about, for example:
Creating reader curiosity
Curiosity is at the heart of building tension because humans are innately inquisitive. Once a mystery has intrigued us, we will persist to find the solution. For authors, this means raising questions in the readers mind, to pique their desire to know more, and then revealing the answers/solution gradually over time.
For example, if you show your character boarding a plane but give no reason for the trip or hint that it doesn’t go to plan, readers will lose interest. But if you provide just enough information to give context to the characters actions and hint that there is more at play than what we can see, then you immediately have an enigma to be solved.
See how I’ve provided the reader with concrete information in this example, but only enough to make them curious, so they want the next piece of information?
How to sustain uncertainty
Maintaining a level of uncertainty throughout the story, makes readers worry about what is going to happen to the characters.
For example, a woman who is riding in remote countryside alone. If her horse bucks her off, it would be unpleasant, but you could increase the tension by providing uncertainty. What if her leg was broken or her horse ran away? Suddenly this goes from a bad experience to a potential disaster because the woman can’t walk to safety. The reader doesn’t know how this situation is going to turn out and that uncertainty creates the desire to continue reading to find out more. Voila! Tension.
In this way you can really eek out the drama and create repeated doubts in the reader’s mind.
By revealing just enough information to make readers curious and create uncertainty about the outcome of situations, you can lead them along a trail of breadcrumbs through the story, all the way to the end.
So, rather than withholding all the information from your reader, to successfully building tension you need to set reader expectations and then controlling the release of information, i.e. what you reveal and when, in a way that raises questions and creates uncertainty.
This article was originally published on 24/08/21 on Margie Lawson's blog.
The purpose of these exercises is to explore how it feels to write using Third Person Limited Point of View (POV).
This POV option restricts you to one character’s heart and mind at a time, which gives readers time to engage deeply with that character’s desires and struggles.
Choose one character whose POV you will explore. Ideally, it will be the character with the most to lose in the scene, so you can fully immerse readers in the emotional drama.
Write a scene showing only what this one character can see, hear and know. Use third person pronouns, i.e. he, him, she, her and they.
Check emotional labels
When describing how other characters feel, make sure the POV character doesn’t make assumptions by saying they are angry, sad, annoyed, etc. because they can’t possibly know what is going on in someone else's head or heart. Instead, show what the other characters are doing and have the POV character make assumptions about how they feel.
No – Bob knew Jenny was sad.
Yes – Jenny’s lower lip twitched, tears welled in her eyes and she sniffed. Bob handed her a tissue.
Check POV descriptions
Remember, the POV character shouldn’t describe how they look because they can’t see themselves (unless they’re looking at a reflection). Instead, describe how they feel.
No – Bob blushed.
Yes – Bob felt his cheeks heat, mortified at being caught in the act.
Check for head hopping
Make sure you haven’t inadvertently written what another character feels/thinks.
Also, check that you don’t change to another POV character too often. Try to stay in one character’s head for a significant part of a chapter.
Take a look at what you’ve learnt about limiting your view to one character and how this compares to other POVs you have tried.
Once you have completed this exercise, leave a comment below to share your experience and how it has helped your writing craft or story.
Bonus Expert Help
Are you tired of struggling through your novel alone? Book a Storytelling Clarity chat with Sandy Vaile and get clear about your next best steps.
How to use uncertainty to keep readers on the edge of their seats.
We are all familiar with being so engrossed in a story that we can’t put it down: the “I’ll just read one more page before bed time” scenario.
Tension is the critical element that keeps readers expectant regardless of the genre, place in the story, or whether a scene is action-packed or reflective. Read on to find out how to increase uncertainty and eek it out for as long as possible, to keep readers on the edge of their seats in your stories.
What is tension?
Tension is the emotional anxiety we feel in the face of uncertainty.” Sandy Vaile
Sure, readers might anticipate good and bad events in a story, but it’s the emotional stress of waiting for a negative outcome that is the focus of story tension, because that is what makes hearts beat faster and stomachs somersault.
Tension = Emotional investment + Stakes + Uncertainty
How to create tension
In order to create tension you need to:
Uncertainty is where the opportunity to really pump up the tension resides and there are a variety of techniques to enable it, like:
Readers love that anxious churning in the pit of their stomachs when they’re unsure how a situation is going to turn out, so it’s the author’s job to make them anticipate the worst and keep them desperate to know the outcome for as long as possible. Let’s explore some techniques you can use.
Humans are innately curious, so play on this by raising questions about characters or situations. Hint at a painful past experience or a secret they are desperate to keep hidden. (These hooks reel readers in and keep them wanting more.) Perfect characters are boring, so be clear about their flaws, e.g. a struggle with a moral decision, hiding information from loved ones or acting outside the law.
When faced with unpleasant change, characters often react fiercely because they are desperate to avoid it, which is an excellent way to force them out of their comfort zone. Give them no option other than to face their worst fears, in order to lead them to personal growth.
Instead of giving information away early on, gradually add it piece by piece, like a puzzle for the reader to solve.
Another technique is to provide the reader with more information than the protagonist has. For example, the reader might learn about another character’s motives or secret when the protagonist hasn’t yet or they might know that a villain is waiting just around the corner. This leads them to dread a particular outcome that they believe they can see coming as the protagonist ploughs blindly forwards.
Of course, just when all is about to be lost, is the perfect time for you to surprise them with a revelation.
Unexpected changes in the story help prolong tension. After leading the reader along a particular path of expectation, you might throw in a twist (surprise direction of the plot) or reveal startling information (a revelation) or even different take the reader in a suddenly new direction.
Unexpected events unsettle readers and provide a peak of tension in the story. Readers wonder about the ramifications of these surprising events.
Conflict is at the core of a purposeful story with plenty of tension. You need to know what your characters desire and how far they will go to achieve it, then make sure you push them to their limits. Conflict leads to tension when there’s an emotional connection with the character. The audience needs to care about, or at least be interested in, what happens to them.
Conflict can be internal, like a moral dilemma, or external, like a relationship breakdown. You can pit one character against another or a character against an idea/event/themself. Preferably characters will have both internal and external conflicts to deal with and the obstacles they face will continually increase in difficulty.
It isn’t necessarily how big the conflict is that creates the tension, but how much the character wants it. Throw every obstacle and complication you can think of at them, so they have to prove how much they want that goal.
And if their lives were difficult enough, why not add a sense of urgency?
Urgency can be created by a literal ticking clock, e.g. you have until noon to come up with the money, or a subtler deadline, e.g. if the love interest hasn’t made a move by the time the company sells, she’ll leave town.
A finite amount of time puts characters under pressure to solve any problems that come their way or something terrible will happen. This goes hand-in-hand with making sure the stakes are high enough. If readers understand what a character has to lose, and it is dire (to the character at least), they will follow them through thick and thin.
Stories that are layered with tension provide readers with the perfect arena to enjoy risk-taking and angst in a safe environment, as well as contentment when they finally reach the satisfying outcome. Keeping readers engaged doesn’t have to mean constant action or mortal danger, you just have to make them care about the characters, give them something to lose and then create uncertainty about the outcome and delay the resolution for the entire story.
This article was first published in "Hearts Talk Magazine" 2020 and republished in the Romance Writers of Australia "30th Anniversary Edition" 2021.
If you’d like to delve further into how to develop and sustain tension in your stories, join the discussion in The Fearless Novelist Facebook group; a place where kindred spirits come to share industry and craft information, and inspire one another to write share-worthy novels.
Providing readers with truly memorable stories requires complex and authentic characters, but to provide the kind of meaningful character traits and motivations that keep readers intent throughout a story and pondering its characters long after they close a book, you need to go much deeper than the standard Character Profile checklist.
The trouble is, deficient characters lead to weak stories. So, it's not enough to figure out where they came from, you need to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Too often, when working with authors, I find missed opportunities in this area, which leaves readers not quite satisfied. The consequences of not delving deeply enough into a characters psyche are:
The key to bringing out the best and worst in our characters, is to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Whether you start with plot or character, to create a dynamic story, you need to tie the two together and this means knowing which parts of their personality and backstory you can use against them, and which abilities you can harness to give them a fighting chance.
It’s not enough to fling mud at the wall and see what sticks, you have to know which parts to use and how to leverage them for the benefit of the story.
What makes characters authentic?
There are countless Character Profiles out there to help you list physical traits, mannerisms, demographics, lifestyle and personal preferences. What I’m talking about here are the things that make characters unique, like their:
I always think I know my characters when I start a new story, but by the time I get to the end of the first draft, I've had to make innumerable decisions, which add complexity to them.
For this reason, I recommend using a Character Profile template that goes the extra mile and updating it as you write. Dig deep into your character’s driving forces to unearth what’s special about them and will evoke readers’ sympathies. (Below is a link to a ready-made template that’s loaded with prompts to draw out those complexities.)
What makes characters relevant to the plot?
There is an inextricable link between what needs to happen throughout a story’s plot for the characters to get from the starting point to their destination, and why each character is driven to take specific actions. Characters who act with purpose, i.e. they have solid reasons for their actions, have the power to engage readers in their conflicts, which in turn creates tension and draws them all the way through the book.
In order for characters to behave believably, you need to be able to communicate why they think a certain way or take a particular action. You can’t communicate it if you don’t know it. So, my favourite question to ask every time a character has a thought or takes an action is “Why?”.
This desire will invariably come from their past, even when they are reacting to situations in the present. For example, if five different people were faced with the same situation, they would each handle it in their own way, based on what they believe and want.
For each plot point, it must be clear how the character got there. Not how the author physically put them in that situation, but what life choices they made, what they did and with whom, to plausibly bring them to this moment in time.
Readers connect with characters when they can sympathise with what they’re going through. They may have been through a similar situation or understand the strong emotions linked to it, be cringing at a failure or rooting for a win.
This peek inside their humanity comes from what shaped them as a person, i.e. everything that happened to them before the story started. Just like real people, story characters need to appear to have lived, loved and lost. It’s these backstory events, world views and personal beliefs that add depth to them.
Only share the character traits and backstory events that are relevant to what’s happening in the story at that time, to enable readers to understand what’s going on and feel the emotional turmoil alongside the character.
Instead of forcing characters to perform like circus animals, deep character development provides solid reasons why they are on this journey and will stick with it even when the going gets tough.
When plot requires the character to behave a certain way, there must be a plausible desire within them, based on who they are and what they believe. On the flip side, if a character wants to do something, you must be able to provide sound reasoning for their decision and motivation for them to act.
Taking the time to develop complex characters who are driven by their beliefs, will make for an emotive experience readers can buy into and remember fondly for years to come. But remember, just because you’ve thought about every possible situation, doesn’t mean it’s all relevant to the story. Only use what is needed to support the events happening in the story at that time.
If you’ve been accused of having cardboard cutout characters or unbelievable scenarios, it’s likely you need to explore the inner workings of your character’s mind and make sure their thoughts and actions are relevant to what’s going on in the plot.
Grab a copy of Sandy’s free Character Profile template (it’s so much more!).
About Sandy Vaile
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).
Sandy is an experienced course presenter who provides a nurturing workshop environment where participants can truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work. In her spare time, she composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers critiquing services.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
The subtleties of story Point of View
Are you sometimes bamboozled by all of the choices and subtleties of story Point of View (POV)?
You’re not alone. POV is one of the most common errors in fiction manuscripts and even after reading explanations, authors are often still unclear. Should they choose first person, second person, limited third person or omniscient? Which one is right for their story? The mind boggles.
Today we’re going to explore the difference between Point of View and Perspective and the whole reason behind applying them to fiction. I’m not going to go into the different types of POV or how to use them, but will:
Point of View has evolved over time
In the early 19th century the omniscient POV was common place and was used by many of the great literary masters, i.e. Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, but by the end of the same century it had become frowned upon and called intrusive. By the early 20th century novelists were even swapping between multiple POV in the same book. In the 22st century Deep POV has become increasingly popular, particularly in the romance-based genres.
My point is that the popularity of different POV changes over time, is different in each genre and is often more a judgement call than rule. So do yourself a favour and relax in relation to choosing what’s right for your story.
Some of the rubbish I’ve heard:
The difference between POV and perspective
POV is the vantage point of the narrator
(who is telling the story).
It might be a single character, multiple characters, someone who isn’t even in the story or an all-seeing narrator. The type of POV you choose will determine how much the narrator can see/know and how close to the action they get.
When a writer breaks POV (starts letting the reader see/know things the narrator couldn’t possibly see/know) it distracts the reader from what’s important in the story and tends to prevent them from having a close association with the narrator.
Perspective is how the narrator and characters view and experiences the story world.
The character’s perspective will determine how they view their surroundings, react to situations, process information and make choices about actions to take. Everything that makes up a person, e.g. their past experiences, upbringing and influences, will all affect how the POV narrator experiences and reacts within the story.
When a writer doesn’t delve deep enough into their character profiles, it can cause them to feel two dimensional to the reader. The result is characters who lack motivation to drive their actions, which makes the story fall flat.
The effect of your characters
So, every time a character moves through you story world, put yourself in their shoes and consider their perspective. As you plan a scene, think about what they would see and know, why they would behave a certain way and what is causing them to make choices and take actions. Each one will have a a different perspective.
Then, when you come to write the scene, think about who the POV narrator is and what they can realistically see, hear, feel, taste and know. Stay within these boundaries as you write, which means that some characters will only ever been seen from an external view and others the reader might get to experience up close and personal.
Although Point of View and perspective and interrelated, they are different aspects that work together to keep the reader’s attention focused on the important parts of the story and strengthen their understanding of the characters in play. It’s important to write within the boundaries of your chosen POV, to keep readers focused on the right information, and within each character's perspective, to keep readers engaged.
The most important rule to remember with POV is, be consistent.
This article was originally published in the Hearts Talk magazine, September 2021 edition.
Have you published a book yet?
You may have heard over and over again that you need to treat your fiction writing like a business or you’ll never be a successful author, but what you don’t often hear is that doing that could be the very thing holding you back.
If you haven’t had your first book published yet, then I believe focusing on the business of writing is wasting writing time, and we all know what a precious resource time is.
Building a platform, blogging and posting on social media regularly, getting your branding right, having professional headshots taken and more. Not to mention your day job, family commitments, etc. It’s exhausting just thinking about it all!
And when are you supposed to find time to write?
Don’t get me wrong, it is important to take any business seriously, but a creative pursuit isn’t the same as a regular business venture. Writing a novel is a labour of love and there isn’t a totally right or wrong way to do it. There isn’t a checklist of what to include that will automatically result in a best-seller. The whole process is more complicated than that.
I feel that the assumption you can build a creative business the same way you would for other products or services, leads to a lot of heartache. Sure, in the end you hope to have a book that sells and make money from it, but a regular business venture isn’t founded in the hopes and dreams of the creative arts. It is grounded in measurable goals, trackable data and profitable results right from the start.
The truth about an author business
“But people make money out of writing books”, I hear you cry.
They sure do, but by that stage you will usually find one of two things has happened.
1. They are prolific enough to produce books regularly, so as to keep up with algorithms and reader appetites; and/or
2. They have diversified and book sales are only a portion of their income.
Now, I’m not suggesting you don’t need to think about the business of writing, but at the optimum time. There isn’t any point wasting precious writing time doing stuff you don’t enjoy or that takes you away from the whole point this journey, BEFORE YOU ARE EVEN PUBLISHED.
The very best thing you can do for your author career when you first start out is WRITE BOOKS.
Indulge your creativity, spend time fantacising about plot scenarios and chatting to imaginary characters. Read articles, do courses, attend webinars and talk to likeminded souls. Learn the craft by writing your way into it … all the way to the end of your first novel.
By all means, if you enjoy blogging, do it. If you love interacting on Instagram, go for it. But if you have limited time and/or aren’t totally confident in your writing technique yet, take a step back and focus on what’s really important right now: storytelling.
Get published … THEN spend time developing an author platform, a readship, marketing and business plans.
If you haven’t written a publishable novel, then you are better off focusing your efforts on mastering the craft and creating an unputdownable story. After all, it’s the very foundation of your author career. You need to complete this first step so you have something solid to build a business on.
Where to next?
If you’re ready to stop feeling overwhelmed by the publishing industry and figure out what the next best steps for you are, book a complimentary Storytelling Clarity session with Sandy Vaile.
This article was originally published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog on 18/09/21.
Immersive Deep Point of View (POV)
When Things Happen to the Character
When something is happening to the character, you only show what they can hear, see, touch, taste and intuit. Their mind and body takes in raw information and it appears on the page exactly how they experience it, e.g. how it sounds, looks, feels and tastes to the character. Use physical sensations, body movements and language, e.g. dialogue or thoughts.
Example of normal Third Person POV:
Nervous energy pumped through Anne’s veins as Don stared at her, shaking his head slowly, lips pursed in disappointment.
Example of Deep Third Person POV:
Anne shifted from foot to foot, fingers tapping on her thigh as she waited for Don’s reaction. His mouth pressed into a thin line and he shook his head slowly.
When the Character Reacts
When the character processes or reacts to what’s happening in the story, only share their immediate visceral and physical responses, not the conclusions they reach or the thought process that got them there. The way they experience the situation will depend on their personality, current emotional state, the beliefs and scars from their past and skills.
Continuing with the previous example:
Then Don sighed. He didn’t say a word before he turned and walked away. Pin pricks stabbed at Anne’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, holding her breath least a strangled cry made itself out of her mouth before he was out of earshot.
See how the author doesn’t tell the reader that Don was disappointed and so decided to leave, or that Anne was nervous about his reaction and upset when he turned his back on her, but they can surmise all of this from the characters’ actions.
Move In and Out of Deep POV
Being up close to emotions constantly can be tiring, so I prefer to save Deep POV for times when there are high emotional stakes. At other times you can pull back to a more distant POV, so the character (and reader) have time to process emotions, think through how the situation affects them and make decisions based on what the experience means to them.
As characters move through you story, put yourself in their shoes and experience situations as they would. When you translate this onto the page, focus on their immediate visceral and physical responses. Show the reader what they are thinking and feeling through facial expressions, body language, dialogue and tone of voice. Rather than explaining what is happening, just show the action as it unfolds and let readers draw their own conclusions. This will more thoroughly engage them emotionally and intellectually, resulting in a more satisfying experience for them.
This article first appeared on the Romance Writers of Australia blog on 23/08/21.
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication