Tag Archives: POV

Editing Focus 2: Consistency

Yesterday, we discussed macro (Big Picture) editing, in which we ensure that all the story components do what they’re supposed to do and work harmoniously together.  Today, we’re going to concentrate on another aspect of macro editing: consistency.

Let’s use our same three categories — character, plot, and setting — to see what types of errors we’re looking to catch in this editing focus.

Character Consistency

In yesterday’s focus, we were editing for character depth and function.  Today, we’re editing for detail, voice, and point-of-view.

Detail Editing

Details are things like eye color, hair color, stand-out characteristics like moles or scars, and stature.  So, for example, if Lord Beardsley’s eyes are gray on page 10, then make sure they’re not suddenly blue on page 123.  If Bandit Bob has a scar on his right cheek, make sure it hasn’t moved to the left wrist twenty pages later.  (Reminds me of Young Frankenstein and the shifting hump).

The surest way to avoid this type of consistency trouble is to have written character sketches.  If a detail is important enough to include in your novel, it’s important enough to note in your character sketch.  If you notice that you have trouble keeping one character’s details straight and you don’t have a sketch, then make one as you re-read, jotting down details as you find them.  A running sketch like this will help you to correct problems you find along the way.

Voice Editing

Voice, even more than eye color or tattoos, is what defines your characters.  If your character has a distinctive dialect or way of speaking, then make sure that voice is authentic throughout the story. If you can’t write a certain dialect convincingly, then don’t even attempt it.  Better just to indicate that the character speaks with a heavy brogue than to do a lame job transcribing it.  Don’t start what you can’t make believable.

Voice consistency is also critical for POV, especially if you take up multiple characters’ perspectives throughout the story (as in alternating third-person limited or alternating first person POV).  In these cases, it’s essential that your characters’ voices be distinct and consistent, because otherwise your reader won’t know whose head she’s in.  And, if your characters all sound like carbon copies of each other, then it’s not only confusing to your reader, but boring. (Consider Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury for a stunning example of voice and POV.)

POV Editing

Let’s talk about POV.  If you start out with third-person limited POV, make sure you don’t switch to third-person omniscient in Chapter 10.  And remember, when you’re inside a character’s head, you can’t reveal details that he or she wouldn’t see or know, so you’ll want to be sure that things are revealed appropriately through action and/or dialogue.

Check also for those instances, especially in third limited or first person, where you might be tempted to have your character self-describe.  Most people don’t walk around thinking something like, “I’m five foot two.  I have mousy brown hair and glasses.  Gee, I wonder what’s for breakfast today.”   Instead, if you must have a character describe herself, try to work it into the action:

I stretched on tiptoe to see in the mirror.  Whoever had hung that darn mirror didn’t design it for someone five foot two.  I frowned and shoved my glasses further up on my nose, but there wasn’t a thing I could do with my hair.  Mousy brown and wild, it never would behave.  I fussed with it for a moment, but then my stomach growled.  I wondered absently what was for breakfast.

Make your narrative realistic and keep your perspective consistent.

Plot/Action Consistency

We’ve all read novels where there is a consistency glitch in the action.  Hopefully this isn’t an Epic Glitch — like the author forgot one of the main elements he’s established as necessary to the story’s climax. Make sure that whatever threads you weave into the fabric of your story are carried throughout — deliver what you promise.

Leaving Epic Plot Glitches aside, let’s consider a smaller, but no less annoying, consistency error:

Lord Beardsley gallops through the Dark Forest.  Suddenly, Bandit Bob steps out from behind a tree.

“Avast!” cries Bob. “Hand over yer gold!”

Lord Beardsley dismounts and strides toward Bandit Bob, brandishing his Vorpal Blade. “I will gut you like a fish, and then I will celebrate by laughing maniacally!” vaunts Lord Beardsley.

He gallops toward Bandit Bob on his Battle Horse.

Oops.

He dismounted, remember, and we never see him get back on his horse.

This type of error is easy to commit.  If you get up to get a fourth cup of coffee glass of water between Bob’s challenge and Lord Beardsley’s response, you may well and truly forget that he got off his horse to confront his adversary.

An attentive read-through of your novel should allow you to catch these types of mistakes.  I hear you laughing to yourself, thinking that you’re not so inattentive as to commit such an egregious and ridiculous error.  Don’t consider yourself immune.  I’ve seen these glitches in professionally published (and presumably, therefore, professionally edited) books, where both the author and the editor should know better.  Be better.   Check for consistency!

Setting Consistency

Much like consistency in character detail, editing for setting consistency requires you to have a strong grasp of your world.  If  your culture doesn’t use electric lights, then you can’t have them turning on the lamp in Chapter 3.  And, on a “set design” level, if you place a fireplace on the west wall of the room, then it can’t be on the north wall in the next scene.

Sometimes we don’t completely think through the consequences of a setting choice.  They can be far-reaching.  For instance, if you place your characters in a world where they don’t have horses and have never even heard of horses, then you can’t have your characters use horse-y metaphors, similes, or turns of phrase.  Hamish can’t say, “You’re as wild as an unbroken mustang.”  He can’t say, “You can lead a horse to water…”  Be sure that if you limit your world like this, you think through the consequences.  Make your figurative language authentic to your setting.  It’s actually fun – it makes you stretch as a writer.  But it can also trip you up, so put this on your editing checklist as well.

Final Word

We’ve now finished our brief look at the process of macro-editing!  J. Leigh will take up Focus 3 and 4 (micro-editing) later this week.  (Remember, you don’t have to do these steps in the order we’re discussing them, and sometimes you have to do them more than once.)

Happy editing!!!


Understanding Character Voice

So, I had intended to write a follow-up post to the last one on scene-setting by S.K., but instead I’ve decided to write about Character Voice.  It’s something that’s been on my mind lately, and I think it’s one of those essential vocabulary terms for all writers to understand.

If you sit in a room with a bunch of writers, chances are one of them will eventually start tossing around words like voice, tone and mood. For beginning writers, all these concepts can seem a little fuzzy, not to mention a little scary.  What exactly do they mean?  How do you know if you’re doing it right?  Don’t panic.  It’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.

Though writers often talk about voice, tone and mood in the same conversation, don’t mistake these concepts for synonyms.  Tone and mood have more to do with the storytelling itself, whereas voice is a matter of characterization.  We might talk about a book’s mood being dark, gothic, atmospheric, or it’s tone being bubbly, sarcastic, or ironic. To put it briefly, mood describe the overall feel of the story, while tone is how the author approaches the story.  But I’ll come back to the question of mood and tone in a future post.

Character voice, on the other hand, has to do with the personality of the character, shining through how they see, understand, and discuss the world.

Think of ten of your friends.  They’re probably a lively, diverse bunch.  Now, think about the greeting you get when you reach their voicemail.  Some of them might use the automated robot response: “The number you are trying to reach is not available”, or some such.  But for your friends with personalized messages, do they all have their own robot response saying, “The number you are trying to reach…”?  No.  Probably not.  In fact, their messages are probably quite a good reflection of your friends’ personalities.  One of my friends has a very standard, serious, no frills message.  One of them has a great message that starts, “Congratulations!  You have failed to reach [friend’s name].”  I smile every time I hear it.  Another one offers the psychologically damaging message: “Hello? [five seconds]  How are you? [five seconds]  Sorry you missed me!  Please leave a message.”  Gee, thanks for making me feel like an idiot.

Okay, that’s great.  So what?  What does that have to do with character voice?  Well, everything.  If we, as writers, give all of our characters dialogue that sounds identical — and identically robotic and bland — then we have failed to give our characters a unique voice.  Voice is the principal way readers can identify a character’s personality.  It’s how, if we’re reading an untagged bit of dialogue, we can identify who is speaking simply by the way it is said.  Consider this example:

Joe glanced up in surprise as Ms. Mary Rhodes entered the coffee shop.  A fleeting sense of panic seized him, nudging him to hide behind his newspaper. He forced himself to be calm.  Mary might be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, while he was just the electrician, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t exchange a polite greeting.  He got up and crossed nervously over to the smartly-dressed woman, who turned to him in surprise.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“How are you doing today?”

“I’m all right, thank you.  How are you?”

“Very well.  Are you here for a cappuccino?”

“No, actually I drink espresso.”

“Really!  I never would have imagined that you would be an espresso drinker.”

Okay.  Pop quiz.  Who started the conversation?  Who is the espresso drinker?  Honestly, I don’t even know.  Two computers might be talking to each other for as interesting as that exchange was.  Now, what if the dialogue ran like this?

“Hey…uh, hello!”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Good morning.”

“Nice day, huh?”

“It was.”

“Guess you’re here for a coffee, huh?  You drink them fancy cappadachinos or what you call them?”

“Actually, no.  I’m a bit of an espresso connoisseur myself.”

“No sh— I mean, never would have guessed that!  Hard core!”

All right.  So basically, we’ve had the same dialogue exchange here, and we still didn’t use any tags to mark the speakers.  But it should be fairly obvious who’s speaking.  We’ve already set up that Mary is the CEO of a highly successful corporation, and Joe is an electrician with low self-confidence. Now, unless we seriously wanted to shatter some reasonable expectations, we know that the nervous speaker who mispronounces the word cappuccino must be Joe, while the snobby, slightly catty speaker who uses words like connoisseur must be Mary.

That, in a nutshell, is what character voice is all about.

The concept becomes more interesting when we start talking about 1st person POV narrative, where character voice begins to usurp the place of author tone.  What 1st person POV does is put the reader directly inside the mind of the narrator, who is a character and not just an outside story-teller.  It’s basically me, as character, relating the world and the events of the plot as I see them, to you the reader.  Everyone has a unique personality (think about those voicemail greetings).  Some people are positive and outgoing.  Some are shy.  Some are gloomy.  The vocabulary and phrasing you use for the narrative must all reflect that personality in 1st POV.

For instance, if I have Joe, the gloomy, broken-down, pessimistic electrician as my narrator, would this bit of description feel authentic?

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A Matter of Perspective, Part II

I’d like to continue J. Leigh’s discussion of POV vs. perspective.  This is such an important topic for writers, and something that can make or break a story if not executed correctly.  In the last post, J. Leigh defined perspective as a refinement or narrowing of the larger category of point-of-view.  When writing, you have to know whose head(s) you’re in — not only capturing how would the world look through those eyes, but also how that character would express what he or she perceives in language.  In 1st person POV, incidentally, the focus on language is even more crucial because you’re inside that character’s head all the time; there is no narrator or outside “God voice”.

So that’s by way of summary — by all means, though, if you missed that first post, go back and read it! 🙂

I want to pick up the discussion of perspective with respect to embedded narratives — stories within the main story, such as a flashback or a narrated account within the context of the larger plot.

Example: Joe Shady meets his pal Slim at the local pub.  Through the haze of smoke and liquor, Slim asks Joe what he’s been doing for the last three months.  Joe replies, “You would hardly believe it.”  End of chapter.  The next chapter and the three chapters after that are told in Joe’s voice as he narrates his adventures.  This is an embedded narrative.  For a more classical example, Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid — Aeneas’s tale of the fall of Troy in the court of Dido — is perfect.

Okay, let’s mix it up.  Get your thinking caps on, ladies and gents.

Let’s say you want to write a story told in a retrospective voice (older Joe remembering younger Joe).  This would allow the older Joe’s narrator voice to be more sophisticated than younger Joe’s dialogue voice.  Now, suppose you use this voice for most of the story, until young Joe catches up to older Joe.  Can you also include an embedded narrative in the first (retrospective) section?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes, if you are careful and know what you’re doing.

The key to pulling off a complicated layering of perspectives is to inform your readers that this is what you’re doing and then execute it with surgical precision.  Perhaps you could include a prologue to set up the retrospective tone of the first section of the book.  Set up the embedded narrative clearly and end it clearly.  On the sentence level, be sure you don’t confuse your verb tenses.  When the voices come together in the present, unify the voice across all levels of your writing (sentence, paragraph, chapter, book).  If present Joe is 17, then use a 17-year-old’s voice for the rest of the book, not a 35-year-old voice.

As J. Leigh pointed out in her post, the perspective and the P.O.V. have to be appropriate to the story.  The same applies to the decision to layer perspectives.  An pure, adrenaline-pounding adventure story or thriller probably wouldn’t lend itself well to the retrospective flashback structure.  Readers will expect action, not nostalgia.  An adventure that is character-based may well support such a structure.  It all returns to the basic rules of writing:

  1. Know your story (genre as well as plot lines).
  2. Know your characters.
  3. Know your audience.

So don’t be afraid to experiment with complex layers of perspective.  Perspective is one of the many tools at our disposal, and its correct application within a story can enrich the overall experience for your reader.

Or ruin it.

So make sure you practice.  A lot.

And get a friend to beta-read.

And….

Have fun. 🙂


A Matter of Perspective

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective lately. That is, perspective in the literary sense of the term. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to ramble a bit about it.

“Perspective” technically means:

  1. A way of regarding situations, facts, etc, and judging their relative importance
  2. The proper or accurate point of view or the ability to see it; objectivity

In writing, we usually talk about “viewpoint” rather than “perspective.” Viewpoint is divided into 1st person (I), 2nd (you), and 3rd (he/she). But that doesn’t seem to really capture what a “viewpoint” really is. It’s a grammatical definition, and that’s it. Big deal.

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