Reality Bites

A common bit of advice in fiction writing is to “write realistic characters” or “realistic motivations” or “realistic conflicts” or “realistic dialogue.” But what does this really mean? How do we balance realism in fiction with, well, fiction?

The reason for this advice is that many new authors err on the side of not enough realism. They write super-hero characters, villains with motivations that make no sense (e.g. wanting to destroy the world that they themselves exist in), nonsensical plots full of holes, and settings that could never exist, even in their own fantasy world.

I like to think of realism in fiction as a spectrum:

Now hold up, you say, I’m writing contemporary literary fiction about real people, none of that fantasy or sci-fi business, thank you very much. In fact, this spectrum isn’t about genres—it’s about how you design your characters, plot, and setting.

Characters

Going with the contemporary genre, let’s say your protagonist is an American suburban dad who likes to barbecue on the weekends and generally holds middle-of-the-road views on most things. He’s very realistic—there are millions of people just like him—but also rather dull. People will say he’s a stereotype, or just say he’s boring. You’re too far to the left side of the spectrum.

On the other hand, let’s say you’re writing about that same character, but you also make him a perfect dad, a perfect employee, even a perfect barbecuer, and also he secretly fights crime at night with body armor and an AK-47 that somehow never runs out of bullets or causes hearing loss. Now we’re way too far on the right side of the spectrum.

Let’s find something in the middle. He’s not a perfect dad and he struggles to connect with his teenagers. His boss is after him because he’s always tired at work and barely does enough not to get fired. His wife is worried about him. Why? He stays up all night staking out drug houses and collecting evidence that he sends anonymously to police to help clean up his neighborhood. Last night, he witnessed something that changed everything.

Okay, now we’ve got an interesting story with some elements of realism and fiction. Realistic: he’s not a perfect dad, employee, or husband. Unrealistic: he’s way more brave than most suburban dads ever would be. But because of the realistic first part, the reader can suspend their disbelief about the second part.

Regardless of the genre, this balancing act is key to writing compelling characters: mixing realistic components with unrealistic ones. I like to think of it as a bell curve. Most suburban dads are going to be modestly brave. They’ll stand up to protect their home, their family, maybe the dog, but that’s about it. That’s the middle zone, and these people are pretty boring protagonists because they’re too realistic.

In the orange zone on the right, you have the dads who are braver than average. They’re less common though, maybe one in a thousand or one in ten thousand. These are the people that make good protagonists.

In the red zone, you have the freaks: suburban dads who are taking anabolic steroids or have mood disorders or build Gatling guns in their basements. They’re one in a million, or more. They might seem to be a good protagonist for this story, but they’re so unrealistic and they’ll make the reader roll their eyes. That’s melodrama.

On the left side, in the green zone, you’ve got the wimpy suburban dads. They’ll run from a fight, maybe even pee their pants. Resist the urge to make this person the protagonist. Maybe you want to do a “wimpy to strong” self-confidence character arc because as an introverted writer, you’ve struggled with self-confidence yourself. The problem is the reader probably won’t keep reading long enough to see the development. These types of characters make great foils to your protagonist, but they usually aren’t protagonist material by themselves.

For example, consider Marty McFly’s dad George McFly in the first Back to the Future movie—the cool, confident hero Marty helps the wimpy George complete his character arc. Would you want the dorky, uncool George as the protagonist for the entire movie? Poke out my eyeballs now, please.

What makes characters unforgettable? They all have at least one of the following characteristics—grit, wit and “it.”

James Scott Bell

We don’t tell stories about the average person, or the below-average person. We tell stories about people who are exceptional in some way (albeit not impossibly so). Usually, it’s that Grit, Wit, and It that Bell writes about. Here are some examples:

  • Edmond Dantès is a common ‘everyman’ who shows incredible grit and determination in The Count of Monte Cristo and transforms into something more.
  • Charlie Brown is a mopey guy, but he’s a witty observer of life.
  • Forrest Gump had below-average intelligence, but he was exceptional about everything else—he’s got that mystical “it”, the cool factor.

Now wait, Charlie Brown is a mopey guy. Didn’t you say not to have your main character be like that? In general, yes, this is good advice. However, you can get away with a sad or wimpy main character if you give them enough wit or coolness (“it”) to make up for it.

A good example is the cowardly wizard Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. He makes up for his un-protagonisty wimpiness by being cool, clever, and so hilariously incompetent that we love to read about the problems his cowardice always gets him into.

Plot

Plots are the same as characters: they must be balanced between the mundane and the ridiculous. Think about your favorite book or movie that’s set in the real world—is it truly realistic?

For me, that’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Is it realistic that a young man is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit? Sure, it happens sometimes. But is it also realistic that he also escapes his prison? It happens, but not often. What about finding a huge buried treasure and then using it to get revenge on the people who accused him? Okay, that’s not really probable, but it could happen, and it sure is cool.

Any good plot can be deconstructed that way: it could happen, even if it may not be very likely. As with characters, you want to be on the far side of the bell curve, but not the very end. You’re telling a story that is exceptional but still plausible. It’s one in a thousand, maybe one in a million. Not one in five, not one in five hundred billion.

So how do you tell exceptional stories? First, make sure your story has a conflict that is central to it. Even “slice of life” stories should have some kind of conflict, unless you are going for the ultra avant garde. Second, make sure the conflict matters—does the main character have meaningful stakes in the outcome of the conflict? Third, avoid relying on coincidences, make sure actions have realistic (within the story world) consequences, and watch out for plot holes and logic problems.

One common problem on the right side of the spectrum is characters who become “murder hobos,” going from place to place and killing everything. In real life, killing has a great toll on the psyche and also comes with serious legal consequences. But often, these characters just “get away with it” and the plot continues on.

Another common one is the action hero whose gun never runs out of bullets, and who can somehow still hear just fine after firing of 300 rounds. Hearing damage is permanent and cumulative!

Character motivations are also important. When your character makes a decision and takes an action that affects the plot, there should be a motivation for it, otherwise the plot is nonsensical. For example, if a key plot point relies on a priest violating his sacred vows, he’d better have a darned good reason for making that decision—emotional, logical or otherwise.

On the left side of the spectrum, you have stories that “aren’t actually stories.” This is a frequent problem with new writers who are free-writing. First comes the “get out of bed scene,” then the “bathroom mirror scene,” then the “drive to work scene,” that sort of thing. Or maybe it takes the form of a long rambling discussion between two characters. Make sure your story has a conflict, and the characters have a stake in how it turns out.

A word on coincidences. Your reader is generally a lot more tolerant of coincidences, strokes of luck, divine intervention, chance meetings, dodged bullets and so forth at the beginning of the story, as part of the plot setup, than they will be as the story progresses. If you save your characters at the end of the final climax because the villain’s gun jams, you’re gonna get a lot of groans from readers.

Setting

What about setting? You might say, I’m writing fantasy, my setting doesn’t have to be realistic!

Doesn’t it though? Often what is missed in unrealistic settings is a lack of logical follow-through.

A classic example is a culture that uses of gold as a currency. If a dagger costs twenty gold coins, then gold must be more common than steel. So why aren’t they using steel as a currency instead of gold? Those gold coins had better be very, very small!

Another example is the “city in the desert” with no consideration of how they get water or food (same goes for the mountaintop fortress!). Another is the story set in Manhattan that ignores the absurd amount of time it takes to get anywhere during rush hour. There are also those perfect utopias where nothing ever goes wrong, or perfect dystopias with not even a morsel of happiness—even in a utopia, there is complexity.

Another common issue on the right side of the spectrum is a setting that is so fantastic, interesting, or cool that it steals the spotlight from the characters and plot. For example, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory comes close to this. When the heroes get inside the factory, it gives the reader a superb sense of wonder, but it is almost over the top to the point where the factory is, for a moment, more interesting than the story or characters. Often this problem is caused by not spending enough time on characters and plot and far too much time worldbuilding.

On the left side of the spectrum, you have dull, ordinary settings that don’t do much. Whether it’s real life on a farm, or a farm in a fantasy world, or a farm on Mars Colony, we’ve seen enough farms! (There are always exceptions of course). Make sure your setting is “cool”, that it is tied to the plot, characters and theme in a meaningful way.

In the middle, you have the “rule of cool” — if it’s cool, do it! In general, this is good advice for characters and plot too, as long as you remember to stay somewhere in the center of the realism spectrum.

A good example of a cool setting is the Harry Potter series. Wizarding school could have been in a gray flat-roofed cinder-block complex of buildings, like an average American high school. But having the school at an ancient castle was way more fun, and it provided a lot of plot, character, and theme opportunities. If you’re choosing between a bland setting and a cool one, pick the latter.

In addition to the issues above, one of the biggest “setting” trouble spots for writers is contrasting the social norms of today versus the culture you are writing about. For example, historical fiction is set before the current era. The further back you go, the more objectionable the average person’s views become to modern readers.

This is particularly a problem for women, because prior to basically now, the overwhelming majority of women were essentially kept as pets or slaves. If you write realistic historical fiction, women had it bad, and it’s rather miserable. A protagonist who holds “correct views of the time” is, to modern readers, a monster.

On the other hand, if you make your protagonist someone who holds modern views, this quickly becomes unrealistic—or at least, unlikely—and it gets more unrealistic the further back you go. A popular solution is to ignore this stuff entirely (I don’t have to worry if my story only has men in it!) but this ignores the plight of women, racial injustices, class struggles, human rights, etc. in a way that isn’t fair to those people who lived through it.

Again, the solution here is balance. As the author, your job isn’t to sugarcoat history, nor is it to write some hyper-realistic horror-show that just makes everyone depressed. You’ve got to celebrate the good things and acknowledge the bad. Rather than getting on a soapbox and moralizing, present the world as it is and let the characters grapple with the issues themselves.

This is likewise true for fantasy and science fiction, where your society might be more or less progressive than the current era. You have to reconcile the modern reader’s reaction and experience with the story you want to tell.

For example, if your story is in a dystopian future where everyone grows their genetically modified children in tanks in a lab then treats them like cattle to harvest their organs, and the protagonist is perfectly okay with this, don’t be surprised if today’s readers don’t like it.

A more marketable way to explore the ramifications of this idea would be to have the main character begin with a “normal person’s” views on this issue (e.g. in The Hunger Games, Katniss isn’t part of the society that approves of the games). Then have that main character come to terms with this strange experience. The reader will feel much more at home in that situation, even if they may not agree with where your protagonist finally lands on the issue.

Dialogue

I did say something about dialogue at the beginning, didn’t I? Well, this one is a bit easier.

Realistic dialogue isn’t exactly like real speech. We cut out all the filler, such as:

  • um and uh and most other non-word noises,
  • all the throat clearing words (“Well, y’know”),
  • circular conversations where people repeat themselves redundantly,
  • longwinded stories and anecdotes that often go nowhere,
  • rambling monologues without interruption,
  • the time spent struggling to understand each other’s ideas (Q&A),
  • and the small talk (“how’s the weather”).

Why do we cut it? Because this slows down pacing and bores the reader. Leaving all that in puts you on the left side of the spectrum here.

On the right side of the spectrum, you have “stilted” dialogue that’s unlike real speech as someone walking on stilts is unlike someone walking without them. Examples include:

  • not enough contractions,
  • stiff textbook grammar,
  • getting straight to the point on awkward issues instead of speaking about them circuitously,
  • always speaking logically (or always speaking emotionally), and
  • trying to write out people’s accents.

The easiest way to study this is to read some good books and see how each line of dialogue matters to the story and is carefully selected by the author to advance the plot or reveal character or setting.

Alright, that’s it! I know it’s a lot, but just remember “real eyes realize real lies”. Why? Cause it’s cool!

Beginnings

What makes a good beginning? Whether it’s the first line, first paragraph, first page, or first scene, here are some things to think about when planning the beginning of your story.

In my view, the most common mistakes with beginnings are:

  • Starting the story without a scene, and instead a bunch of world building, an infodump, some dry narration, or a bunch of summarization and backstory (“telling”). Often this comes in a “prologue” chapter. Unless you are a grandmaster author and can make your telling of backstory actually interesting, it’s best to start your story with an actual scene that pulls your reader into the story.
  • Starting with a scene, but spending too much time on setting description before getting into the character and showing what’s going on through actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Epic fantasy novels are often guilty of this, where the reader must wade through pages and pages of descriptions of castles and clothes and banners and banquets before getting into a character’s point of view.
  • Starting with a character in a scene, but starting the story too early, before anything interesting happens, such as with the get-out-of-bed or daily routine scene, or the drive to work, or the “board room” or “meeting” scene that’s really just a bunch of exposition.
  • Likewise, starting the scene too late, such as in the middle of a conflict without the setup of character and a goal. This usually leads to the reader’s confusion or inability to bond with the character unless you’re very careful about it.

Let’s say you’ve avoided all those pitfalls, and you’re starting your scene, from a character’s point of view, and at a point where something interesting is happening or about to happen. Great! Here are some more things to watch out for:

  • Not including any setting description in the first paragraph or two, leading to “white box syndrome”—the reader doesn’t have enough information to build an image in their imagination. A little goes a long way, but just make sure to have something.
  • Not including the character(s) name, gender, and approximate age in the first paragraph or page, also known as “talking heads syndrome.” This information is usually implied not stated outright.
  • Starting out with a weak point of view that doesn’t match what you’re supposed to be writing. For example, shallow first/third person instead of deep, which makes it hard for the reader to get into the character because there aren’t enough character thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Or, if writing omniscient point of view, not handling it well (it’s hard and often mucks up beginnings, because people don’t usually expect omniscient so you’ve got to ease them into it and set up the expectation).
  • Not picking a good character to follow, such as not starting with the story’s main character, even though their point of view is 90% of the scenes. This results in the reader getting invested in a character who doesn’t matter, then they have to start all over with the “real” main character. Or, if you’re doing many of points of view in your book, starting the book in the point of view of some jerk or wimpy-whiner that isn’t going to make readers want to read more.
  • Likewise, not giving the reader a reason to care about the point-of-view character in the first few pages. Are they the underdog? Are they righteous, do they self-sacrifice, or do they care and love something or someone dearly? They’d better have some kind of emotional hook about them so the reader wants to care about this person and their story. In general, if your character cares about something, your reader will care about your character.
  • Not including some kind of hook in the first paragraph, ideally the first line, that raises a question to which readers want an answer. Study the first lines or first paragraphs of famous novels and you’ll find many great examples.
  • Not establishing a scene-level goal for the character in the first page. The hook is fine and dandy, but soon readers will want a bigger plot question, and that’s where the goal comes in. As Kurt Vonnegut said, every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Not establishing scene-level conflict in which the character has personal stakes, usually in the first page, if not sooner. This is the conflict that prevents the character from reaching their goal, and takes up most of the scene.
  • Not foreshadowing/hinting at the plot-level goals and conflicts to come. Ideally this happens in the first scene.
  • Not establishing what kind of world this story is set in if it’s not present day real world (e.g. fantasy, sci-fi, historical, steampunk, etc.). This is usually done subtly with setting description and dialogue right from the first few lines. For example, if magic is commonplace and there’s no mention of it until Chapter 3, readers will feel blindsided when people start shooting fireballs at each other.

You may ask, but I’ve read books that had slow, boring beginnings—how do big name authors get away with it? Yes, it’s true, weak beginnings are out there, but you’ll find they aren’t usually in the author’s best known works. The author gets away with it primarily because readers are willing to put up with it, since the story surely will get better later, because it’s from a big name author.

So then why are strong beginnings important for the rest of us? Because for most writers, readers won’t have that same patience.

Fundamentals: Participial Phrases

Misuse of present participial phrases (PPP) may be the most common beginner writer problem that we see in our critiques. They can make your writing seem amateur at best, or at worst, nonsensical. To become skilled writers, we must understand what PPPs are, when to use them, and how to use them.

What is a present participial phrase?

A present participial phrase is, essentially, when a phrase is tacked on to a core sentence, and that phrase contains the present participle form of a verb (usually a verb ending with “-ing”). Example:

Pablo smelled the roses, savoring the scent.

The first part before the comma is the core sentence: subject (Pablo) does verb (smelled) to an object (the roses).

The second part is the present participial phrase: verb-ing (savoring) the object (the scent).

The key thing to understand about a present participial phrase: when we use one, it means the two linked events (smelling and savoring) are happening at the exact same time.

In Pablo’s case, we have no problem. We can smell flowers and savor them at the same time. It’s a good use of the present participle.

Some examples

Here’s a misused present participial phrase:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room, dropping her glass of milk.

This may seem okay on the surface since these two things could happen simultaneously. The first problem is that the participle verb (dropping) is very far away from the noun it modifies (Millicent). This is called a “dangling” or “misplaced” modifier.  The second problem is that it feels amateurish because the cause (window breaking) should come before the effect (dropping milk). Let’s fix it:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room and dropped her milk.
…or…
Glass broke in the living room and Granny Millicent dropped her milk.

How about this one?

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver, fumbling with the ammo as she loaded it.

This has a clear cause-and-effect issue: she can’t simultaneously rummage for the gun and load it. How can she load it if she hasn’t found it yet? It’s also a bit bland because it summarizes instead of dramatizes. Let’s fix it:

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver. Her hand touched cold steel. She found the ammo box and began to load it, fumbling with the bullets as someone began to pound on her front door.

That’s better. Note that in the second sentence, we have three things happening simultaneously (loading, fumbling, pounding on the door) but we have correctly used the present participial phrases to communicate to the reader what is happening and in what chronological order.

Let’s try another one:

Running into the living room, Granny Millicent shot the intruder dead, sweating profusely as she did so.

Here we have another misused present participial phrase and some pretty amateurish writing (the two tend to go hand in hand). I have a hard time picturing a sweating granny shooting someone dead while she’s running through the house. Three things are happening at once, and it seems a bit silly. Let’s take another shot at it:

Granny Millicent lifted the revolver with both hands. Her arms shook from the weight of it as she stepped softly through the kitchen in her bunny slippers. Her hair curlers were soaked in sweat and sliding down her neck. The first shot had to kill—there was no way she’d be able to hold her grip on the pistol after it fired. The front door opened and she squeezed the trigger.

Now that’s better. We fixed the participial phrase problem, we’re showing the action instead of telling it, and we got rid of that cliche “sweating profusely” and that unnecessary filler “as she did so”. Note that the order of events is clear and logical, even though we used participial phrases.

In general, overuse of the present participles (-ing) verbs is a hallmark of amateur writing, and many editors will scrub them out of your manuscripts, sometimes to the point of removing them entirely. If you learn how to use them correctly, you can save them for when you actually need them: when two things happen at exactly the same time.

Click here for more examples.

How to get better at writing

How do you become a better writer, anyway? This is a question we see frequently. It’s fairly straightforward.

  1. STUDY. Read books and articles on how to write.
    • What to do: Read some good books on the craft of writing. There are also good audiobook courses. We have a good list of learning resources on our Resources page.
    • What happens: You’ll learn how to recognize both good and bad writing when you read it. You’ll be able to study the work of others, and apply those lessons to your own work.
    • If you don’t: If you only write, without learning how, you’ll waste time generating a large quantity of low quality work. This work may be fixed in editing, but it’s more efficient to write the best first draft you can, and if you don’t study, you won’t know how to fix it anyway (or you will work very slowly.)
  2. READ. Study the work of good writers, especially in the genre you want to write.
    • What to do: Studying high-quality writing (and not just any random thing) is crucial: check out the National Book Awards, or for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, or any other relevant literary awards. Pay attention to what the writer is doing, and how it affects you as a reader. Remember, you are writing for your reader—not for yourself. Take notes if you want, and review them at the end.
    • What happens: Combined with a study of writing techniques, you will see how writers construct stories that entertain their readers. This will help you improve your writing by learning from others examples.
    • If you don’t: You’ll end up writing a story that doesn’t hold up to the quality most readers of your genre expect, and you’ll learn the craft of writing very slowly.
  3. WRITE. Practice your writing skills, especially short stories.
    • What to do: You can start a huge novel project, but a better choice is usually a series of short works such as journal entries, short stories, or articles. Short pieces are faster to write and edit, so there is less risk of burnout, and you will be able to see your progress as you improve. Writing prompts can be helpful if you are not sure what to write about. We have thousands of writing prompts available via a chat bot on our Discord server (link at the top) as well as monthly short story themes.
    • What happens: Combined with the knowledge of how to write (from your study of the craft and the works of masters), you’ll be able to practice your new skills, and you’ll also accomplish your writing goals over time.
    • If you don’t: How can you be a writer if you don’t write? Also, the stories you want to write will never be written. You’ll have a great knowledge of the craft perhaps, but no actual work of your own.
  4. EDIT. Most of the work of writing is actually editing.
    • What to do: You may edit as you go, or edit at the end, but most first drafts need a lot of editing. Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts, then polish them into decent second drafts, better third drafts, and so on. Most successful authors revise their work dozens of times before it is published. Editing or critiquing the work of others, and having your own work edited or critiqued, can help you see your blind spots. Studying, reading, writing, and editing (as above) will build your skills so that you can give good critique, and understand the critique that people give you. We have active writing and critique discussion on our Discord Server (link at the top), and often discuss our editing work. You might also want to read this post on editing.
    • What happens: You’ll massively improve the quality of your work by editing it. The more you edit, the better it will get, but only if you’ve spent the time studying and reading to learn how to create good stories.
    • If you don’t: Unless you are unlike every writer in history and somehow you write perfect first drafts, your work will probably be disappointing to readers due to typos, grammar problems, point-of-view issues, and other basic mistakes that are easy to miss when crafting your first draft.

That’s it, those are the steps! The rest is up to you: be disciplined and spend the time to build your skills—or don’t, and you won’t.

You don’t have to do those steps separately; in fact, you may get better results and find it more interesting to switch between the different tasks as needed. Just make sure not to neglect any of them and you’ll be on your way. Good luck!

Fundamentals: Point of view

Think of Point of View as “where the camera is” in your story.

  • Is it stuck inside one person’s head and seeing out their eyes? (first person)
  • Is it following close behind one character in each scene, able to see inside their head like the back was cut off? (third person limited)
  • Is it like a movie, going from place to place, following many characters, without ever going in anyone’s head? (cinematic omniscient)
  • Is it moving from place to place, following many characters, and also moving in and out of their heads in the same scene? (head-hopping omniscient)

Types of Point of View (POV)

Personage – Impacts the pronouns

First person: tells the story directly through the character:

Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.

Second person: tells the story to the reader (rare in fiction).

Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.

Third person: tells the story from outside the character:

Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.

Scope – impacts how much you know

It’s a spectrum in terms of how close you get into the head of a character (primarily for third person, since in first person, you’re in the character’s head automatically).

On one end of the spectrum, the reader has intimate knowledge of all the character’s thoughts, and can’t know anything the character doesn’t know. On the other end, the reader remains distant, watching events like a fly on the wall.

Intimate (close): the reader has direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the character who is telling the story. Intimate third person is a popular choice for fiction writing today.

Example (intimate third person):
Shane’s clown suit did nothing against the biting cold winds of the Moscow winter. Some secret agent he was, sent to infiltrate the birthday party of a Russian railroad baron dressed as a clown. No one will suspect the clown, they said. This was going to be a trainwreck. He shivered and pulled his purple peacoat tighter across his polka-dot shirt.

Omniscient: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters, even if the author/narrator may not write about all of them. In an omniscient point of view, the author/narrator may include the thoughts of any character, or stay detached and simply narrate a story as an outsider, or zoom in/out as needed.

Example (omniscient third person and distant, except for intimate components in italics):
Jill stepped off the casino elevator and surveyed the slot floor. It was busy for a Monday morning, with about half the machines grinding quarters. She found her target and walked quickly, with the confident stride of someone well-within the bounds of their authority. Time to take out the trash, she thought.

Raymond jerked up from his reverie at the sound of footsteps behind him. Someone was coming, he could feel it. He turned and locked eyes with Jill, then moved his gaze down to her employee badge.

She smiled with just the slightest touch of a sneer on the side of her nose. “Excuse me sir, but you’ve been here for three hours.”

He crossed his arms, covering his ketchup-stained shirt. “And?”

“Complementary drinks are for players only, sir. And you haven’t been playing, sir. Just drinking.”

Note that by removing the italics, you have what is often called “cinematic point of view” which is omniscient, but can’t have access to thoughts. This is what people are used to from watching TV and movies, but in books it can be difficult to write well (usually becoming boring to read) because of the lack of intimacy. Being deep in a character makes up for the fact that books can’t show you flashy images or play dramatic music like movies can. A book without that depth is like reading a movie script versus watching a movie—which would you rather do?

More on POV in writing.

Head-hopping

Above, we stay in the same omniscient point of view and clearly mark who is thinking which thought. But what happens if you jump from one point of view to another to another, telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, without clearly setting them apart? This is called head-hopping.

Head-hopping is all about how frequently you do it and how well you do it. Few readers would balk at a book that switches back and forth between two primary character POVs with each chapter.

On the other end of the spectrum, a story that jumps from one character to another after each sentence is tiresome to read. In general, there’s no reason to head-hop frequently unless it’s crucial to telling your story.

Don’t (painful head-hopping):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone. Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake. Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course. Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them. Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

In the above paragraph we shift POV from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating to read, isn’t it? There are authors who have pulled off this type of narrative shifting, but those that do tend to do so smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s POV.

Even with just the addition of line breaks, it’s easier to read, but it’s still a mess. Imagine how this story would change if we spent a paragraph, a page, a scene, or a chapter in each character’s point of view instead of a line or two.

One way to improve it would be to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information.

Do (an omniscient narrator describes the same scene, telling us the character’s thoughts):

Sarah glared at Betty, eyeing the crumbs on her lips, the crumbs of the last blueberry scone Betty had carefully purloined. It was a game of scones and crones, and the parlour was filled with the scents of both. Betty glared back at her. Even now, on Sarah’s ninetieth birthday, the sting of Sarah’s adultery with Betty’s first husband had hardly faded in seventy years.

Jezebel, Sarah’s daughter, caught Betty’s eye with a knowing smile. Of course, Jezebel knew all about the affair, and of her feelings towards Sarah, but Betty still had the upper hand: Jezebel had never finished her dissertation, and the PhD that her mother was so proud of was fake. She was no more a doctor than Sparky the dachshund, but that didn’t stop Jezebel’s smug smile as she watched Betty glance from her to the framed diploma on the wall.

Tonight, Betty would spring her trap, finally realizing a revenge seventy years in the making, humiliating Sarah and Jezebel together at the birthday gala like she had been humiliated so many years before. Sparky the dog yapped, jarring Betty out of her reverie. He wanted biscuits of course, but a scone would do, or perhaps, even better, she would give him a bone to gnaw by the night’s end. A bone from an old, cheating crone.

As you can see, an omniscient POV gives access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings, and allows for more to be described, as the narrator knows everything and doesn’t have to wait for thoughts, dialogue, or action to reveal important plot details (through “showing”) and can simply “tell” the information to the reader.  This is closely related to some considerations on “show versus tell”.

In general, you’re better off sticking a single point of view in each scene or chapter and developing the character for your reader to enjoy, then switching at a natural break in the story.

Even in omniscient point of view, where knowledge of multiple characters thoughts may be expected (but is not mandatory), authors that use it well follow a single character at least long enough to make a point, if not for a whole scene or chapter.  In some cases, narrators stay out of heads entirely, merely reporting the scene as it happens, with the backstory and musings, but without access to any thoughts at all (other than the narrator’s own).  In this case, the writer is still sticking to a single POV — that of the narrator.

More on head-hopping POV.

Establishing a Character’s Voice

Is your language right for the viewpoint character? Can you tell how he/she feels? Or does the character not match the point of view?

If your character is a college professor, they’ll use big words. If they’re a high-school drop out, they’ll speak differently. Likewise, they’ll have different thoughts, reactions and dialogue if they are introverted or extroverted, optimistic or pessimistic, religious or agnostic, angry or calm, mature or childish, neat or sloppy, creative or analytical etc. etc. etc. It all comes down to knowing your characters and living inside of their heads.

On “The Simpsons”, the character Dr. Hibbert is an educated physician who went to Johns Hopkins Medical School.  He’s no dummy, and tends to be solemn when making diagnoses.

Don’t: Dr. Hibbert put his feet up on the desk. “Well shucks Homer, you’re in a dilly of a pickle. We’ve gotta pre-form some surgery on your old noggin.”

Do: Dr. Hibbert tented his fingers. “It’s a serious matter Mr. Simpson.  If we don’t remove that crayon from your brain, it could damage your cerebral cortex.”

Likewise, the character Reverend Lovejoy is kind and a bit depressive. He’s typically not the type to start a fight, take the lord’s name in vain, or swear at people.

Don’t: Reverend Lovejoy glared at the atheist protestors, then flipped them the bird. “Hey! Jesus says to kiss my ass you bastards! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”

Do: Reverend Lovejoy sighed when he saw the atheist protestors, but then tentatively smiled when he didn’t see any members of his flock among the group. He shook his head and headed home to play with his model trains.

Check out our article on style and voice, or find even more here.

Filtering Words

When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience. Unless you are writing in a distant third person (fly on the wall or narratorial voice with no access to thoughts) you’re going to have to write thoughts and feelings. But how to write about them?

The first instinct is usually to write thoughts like dialogue, like so:

Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.

While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” with no filtering words like “thought”.

Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.

Filtering words can take many forms, because they can include emotions.

Don’t: Sarah saw her bees out the window. She loved them so much. She expected a good harvest this year. She heard her husband snoring in the bedroom. She wanted to drown him in the honey vat and make it look like an accident.

The verbs are a mix of senses and emotions: saw, loved, expected, heard, wanted. The sentence style is also repetitive because each sentence begins with a filtering verb. Here is it without the filtering, and with more showing rather than telling.

Do: Sarah glanced out the window at her beehives and smiled. The bees were busy, and there would be a good harvest this year. Her husband snored in the bedroom and her smile twisted into a sneer. After the harvest, she could finally drown him in the honey vat. It would be so easy to make it look like an accident.

In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head”.

That said, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may become more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through a narratorial voice.  The third crones-and-scones piece above gives an example of how to do this.  This approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, it is just as enjoyable as anything else.

More on filtering words.

Writing Deep Point of View

Okay, now that you understand concepts like personage (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and scope (deep or shallow or omniscient) and some of the pitfalls (head hopping, voice, filtering words), the logical question is “but how do I do it?”

As mentioned above, we generally focus on deep point of view in modern fiction writing. Whether you’re doing it in a limited sense (sticking to one point of view in a story or scene), or zooming in and out of different character’s heads with an omniscient point of view, you usually want to go deep so you can create that emotional resonance with the reader.

Deep point of view means that you are including the character’s senses (touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing, and more) as well as their thoughts, dialogue, and actions. It means that you’re customizing those sensory experiences and those events so that they match up with the character, so that their voice matches who they are as a person.

Like most things in writing, depth is a spectrum. Here are some examples, written from shallow to deep. Note how the lines change as we go deeper into the point of view until we’re truly viewing the world through the character’s eyes and not from the writer’s.

Let’s use a mountain climber getting out of a crevasse.

  • Arnie grabbed onto the rock and hauled himself over the top of the ledge and out of the crevasse.
  • Inch by inch, Arnie pulled with his one good arm, tugging and straining. Everything ached, and every muscle and tendon was stretched to the limit, and then, finally he hauled himself up onto the ledge. He was finally out.
  • Arnie grunted as he wrapped the tips of his fingers around the last outcropping. One more pull, just one more. Simple as lifting weights in the gym, simple as one more bale of hay back on the farm. It was just one more. But his arm whispered, do I have to? Yes, dammit, yes you have to! Arnie’s biceps, triceps, and pectorals spasmed into one last pull, hauling his chest over the granite ledge and out of the crevasse, out to freedom.

In the first example, we’ve got a solid description of what’s going on. It’s not very exciting, because it’s too detached from the struggle the character is going through.

In the second one, you’ve got more details, you’re closer in to what he’s feeling. You’re feeling his tugs, strains, aches and pains, and then his relief when he makes it out. Note that we didn’t use filtering words like “feeling”.

In the third example, we go even deeper. We feel his fingers grab on. We hear his thoughts, hear him psyching himself up, hear his muscles cry back to him, hear him force it and overcome. He’s not just “finally out,” he’s free. Thoughts, emotions, memories, graphic details (fingers on the edge), and a specific voice (that of a weight lifter who knows the names of his muscles and is attuned to what they’re doing, he knows what kind of rock he’s climbing).

Here’s another example, this time of a woman discovering her son’s drug stash.

  • Stuffing the socks in the drawer, Karen touched a plastic bag. She grabbed it to throw in the trash but stopped. It was full of little green nuggets, some kind of plant, maybe marijuana. She grabbed onto the dresser to steady herself.
  • Karen neatly placed David’s rolled up socks in his sock drawer. One of them crinkled when she pressed it into place. Why was he always such a messy boy? She pulled the sock back out and rummaged. It was a plastic bag, a plastic bag full of green things, some kind of plant—marijuana! She crushed the bag in her hand. Not her son.
  • Karen pressed David’s socks into his drawer in neat little rows, just like she did every Monday morning. They were still warm and sweet-smelling from the laundry, like little newborn pups in a basket. She smiled as she fit the last roll into place, then stopped as something crinkled. She shook her head. Davey had been eating candy again. There would be a punishment for that, probably take away his screen time for a week. She gently pried the socks out and searched for the offending plastic. What would it be this time? Mars bar? M&Ms? Maybe a—she gasped. Marijuana.

In the first example, we’ve got a pretty straightforward description of what happens in the scene with not much depth into her point of view or voice.

In the second, we’ve got some sensory details, a few thoughts (messy boy, not her son) and a bit more of her clean-freak personality and her emotions.

In the third example, we’ve got a clear picture of this person, a doting yet very strict mother. We’ve got her thoughts, her emotions, and some sensory details (touch and smell). We know what she’s thinking, how she views the world, and we can already guess the shitstorm that David is in for when he gets home from school.

Now you give it a shot. Take a key moment in a story (like a triumph or important discovery) and write it plainly, then try to go deeper into the point of view, giving us the sensory details, the thoughts, the emotions, the dialogue and the world as this person sees it.