Saturday, July 14, 2012

"It's Important to Me!"-Point of View fiction writing class

Today was a fabulous day!  Probably one of my favorite teaching opportunities occurred at Write for the Heights, located in the Whitmore Library Conference room.  Three hours of instruction and workshops, free to the public. (To find out more about this program, check out the page "Write for the Heights 2012" on the home page of my blog.)  I shared techniques I've gleaned through my past ten years of writing, researching, editing and teaching.  Approximately 40 people were in attendance, and responses were very positive.  A huge thank you to those who were able to attend!  This blog post includes notes from the lecture in case you weren't able to take notes as I rambled on, or if you missed the class.  This is long, but so was the class.  :)  Enjoy!

These techniques were gleaned from my personal experiences and understanding as well as concepts taught in the following books:  "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain, "Scene & Structure" by Jack M. Bickham, and "Characters & Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card.  All of these books are available on

Part 1: Characters

When you are developing your characters keep the following questions in mind: How does your character see himself?  (Bickham calls this the self-concept.)  What is your character's reputation, or how does the world see him?  Has he earned that reputation? Which is more realistic/true, his self-concept or his reputation?  Self-concept is important because when your story opens, that self-concept is challenged. 

Know your character's background, even if you don't include it in the novel.  Background includes family dynamics, socioeconomic status, religion, education, and anything that happened in his past that contributed to his self-concept and reputation. 

Your character must have strengths and weaknesses, fears and goals.  Your character must be strong enough to make choices and take risks. 

Ask yourself the following questions about your characters:

Is your character able to make choices and take risks?

How far is your character willing to go to get what he wants?

What is one thing your character WON'T do? Why?  Would this character vacillate on this standard if presented with the choice between their values and what they love most?

What is your character most afraid of?  (Hint--your character will have to face their fears if you state their fears, or the story will fall flat.  As soon as the fear is stated, the audience will expect this to be part of your climax....)

How does everyone else in the story feel about your main character? 

How does your character deal with stress?  He needs a physical outlet--coffee drinker?  Runner?  Soap Opera watcher?  Fiction reader?  Does he eat ice cream or chocolate? Yoga? Reality TV? Secret hideaway?

How do you feel about your character?  How do you think readers will feel about him?  Remember that we read to feel something.  Does this character inspire that emotion? 

Part 2--Putting the characters together.

Ultimately, successful stories are about interpersonal relationships and external conflict.  Internal conflict will always be present--if you have an imperfect person, you have internal conflict.  External conflict is what drives the story and makes it interesting.  External conflict is caused by characters who provide conflict for your point of view character. 

Choose your pov (point of view) character by asking yourself the following questions:

Who has the most to lose?

Who will take the most risk?

Who knows what you, as the author, want to reveal?

Who will make the audience feel the way you want them to feel?

Use the "choice cycle" to help you lock into point of view.  The choice cycle involves sensory input, emotion, evaluation, choice, and action.  It is the atom of fiction.

Every character in your story experiences choice cycles.  As the author, you should explore the choice cycles for every character in your scene so that you know what their motivations are for their actions. If you don't know this, their choices and actions may not make sense.

There is a cycle or a rhythm between characters as they experience choice cycles.  Your conflict provider's action becomes your pov character's sensory input.  Then, your character feels, evaluates, chooses, and acts.  Your pov character's action becomes your conflict provider's sensory input. 

Goals are essential to story progression.  Without goals, there is no conflict and without conflict, there is no story.  Your pov character's goals should be in conflict with your conflict provider's goals. 

Writers know everything, but they don't write everything.  :)

Remember that writing is a form of communication.  You need an audience.  Find a critique group, a beta reader, or hire a coach/editor. 

Part 3--Using the choice cycle to critique.

Use the choice cycle to pinpoint weaknesses in your work.  Make sure topics of conversation are organic to the situation, or make sure your character has a reason for changing the subject. (Deflection, for example).

Critique Group Questionnaire re point of view and character:

Ask your critique group the following questions:

Based on what you've read, do you believe this character is strong enough to carry a story?  (In other words, can this character make choices that will influence the world around him?  Can this character put himself in bad situations?  Can this character deal with conflict?)

How do you feel about the character?  Do you care whether this character gets what he wants?  What do you know about the character?

Are the steps in the choice cycle present?  What is missing?

Do the choice cycles progress logically?  Is there give and take between characters?  Plausible motivation and response? 

Do you know who is speaking at all times?

Do you ever get confused?  If so, when?

Part 4--Using the choice cycle in the revision process.

Use the choice cycle to help you through the following revision issues: 

"I can't tell who is speaking"

If the person who is speaking is the point of view character, add emotion or evaluation in the same paragraph as the action.  This "internalization" will act as a speech marker. 

If the person who is speaking is not the point of view character, add a speech marker (he said, she said) or add a sensory input using a sense other than hearing.  (When a character who is not the point of view character speaks, it is always sensory input because speech is heard.)

"This action seems out of character"

Make sure you have an "evaluation" section to explain your character's choice. 

Make sure your character has set a goal, and the action somehow moves the character toward the goal. 

"I'm not sure what's going on."

Make sure you have enough sensory input.  Try to use emotionally charged words as you describe what the pov character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels.  If you use emotionally charged words, then you won't have to state what the character feels because you will already have stated it. 

Slow down the action--make sure all of the choice cycle elements are present.  It's usually easier to cut what doesn't need to be there than it is to add new stuff. 

"This feels rushed"

In order to slow down the action, insert more evaluation and emotion in your choice cycles. 

"This drags"

In order to speed up the action, take out some evaluation and emotion.  Make sure your verbs and nouns are emotionally charged. This will cut down on verbiage.

Sometimes, when the comment concerns dragging, what they are really trying to say is that the scene lacks external conflict. To increase conflict, strengthen your character's goal.

"This ending feels abrupt"

When ending a scene or chapter, make sure you end it in the correct place.  You want to encourage the reader to keep reading--make them anxious to find out what will happen next.  There are two places in the choice cycle that maximize this tension--After sensory input, and before action.  This is the best place to end chapters and to change point of view. 

"You slipped out of point of view"

Anytime you include information that your point of view character can't observe, you've slipped out of point of view. 

He couldn't imagine what awaited him around the corner. 

If he can't imagine it, why is he mentioning it? 

Also, through point of view, your character observes the other characters in the story.  Through emotion and evaluation, your character assumes/judges what the other character's emotions and motives are.  Using that assumption and judgment, along with your pov character's goals and his own emotions, your character chooses how to respond, then acts.  Avoid any statements that assume what other characters feel or think unless you go through this observation-internalization process. 

A few final thoughts: 

In most cases, the difference between a published author and an unpublished author is the ability and determination to revise. 

Most of these techniques will make more sense when used during an outlining phase and during a revision phase.  Don't worry about them during the writing phase. 

Every author must find his or her own technique, balance, methods, and patterns.  This is what makes writing an art and not a science. 

And finally:

Writers Write.