Jun 25 2008

5 Common Mistakes for First-Time Novelists

This short article will help beginning novel-writers avoid five common mistakes that will usually cause publishers to throw out a manuscript.

1. Please do not have a character gaze at his own reflection in a mirror, pool or any other reflective surface. That’s a cheesy way to describe what a character looks like and will cause most professional publishers to reject your manuscript. Fortunately, there are better ways for you to establish a character’s appearance than having him gaze at himself, such as his actions, backstory and dialogue. If he nervously steps on a scale, we’ll visualize him as overweight. If he’s a boxer, we’ll visualize him as well-built.

2. Be careful with scenes that feature characters eating. Eating scenes are typically boring filler.  Every scene should either develop a character or advance the plot, but eating scenes are usually extended chats with sensory imagery mixed in.  Don’t let your novel manuscript sound like a food review.

If you use an eating scene, make it interesting by adding danger or intrigue.  Perhaps the dinner is part of some larger conflict, like a white woman bringing home a black fiancee to her disapproving family.  Or maybe someone’s poisoned the food.  As a rule of thumb, if the scene is about what the characters are eating, it probably sounds more like a food review than a story.

3. Please don’t switch point-of-view midchapter. Switching POV mid-chapter will disorient and confuse readers.  Generally, it’s smoother and less confusing to add a chapter-break whenever you want to switch POV.  If something has happened that’s important enough to make you want to change POVs, it’s probably important enough to justify a chapter-break.

4. Even if you’re writing medieval fantasy, I’d recommend avoiding melodramatic syntax and language. Phrases like “is it not?” and anything that sounds Shakespearean tend to disorient modern audiences.  You don’t have to use modern slang, of course, but you are writing for a modern audience.  So please make sure that modern audiences can easily read your book! One way you can combine an old-fashioned style with modern legibility is by avoiding contractions.  Depending on how old your readers are, you might also consider using longer sentences.

Relatedly, I’d advise against quoting Shakespeare and other classical English authors. It may come off as pretentious, particularly if your novel is written for casual and/or younger readers.

5. I recommend avoiding characters that switch back and forth between several species. These characters are often usually poorly-developed Mary Sues.

This article was the first part of a series.  If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, you’ll find the links just below.

29 responses so far

29 Responses to “5 Common Mistakes for First-Time Novelists”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 Nov 2008 at 12:41 am

    1. I only mention the appearance of my characters passively. Like: “My mum brushed some of my fringe out of my eyes” shows that the character has a relatively long fringe. Or: “Her brown eyes were lit up with happiness”, because it adds more detail to the sentence.

    2. I have a few scenes where the characters are eating, but it’s more about the conversation than the food.

    3. I always change chapters when changing from first to third person.

    4. Oh, God, please no.

    5. Doesn’t apply.

  2. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 2:26 am

    I think your approach to #1 is pretty good. I appreciate that your sentence does more than tell us that the character’s eyes are brown.

    You approach to #2 sounds workable as well.

    I’m slightly concerned about the concept of mixing first-person narration and third-person narration in a single novel. There’s probably a good reason from your perspective (something like making sure that the reader gets relevant information that the main character doesn’t have access to, I bet), but I’m not sure if the readers will get the change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book try it before.

    Oh God, no, is just what I thought for #4…

    #5 is kind of niche. Originally I had a longer explanation there, but I figured that it just doesn’t matter to enough readers to warrant that space.

  3. ikarus619xon 09 Apr 2009 at 1:00 pm

    What about the Animorphs? They change species a lot, and it works well.

  4. B. Macon 09 Apr 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Here are a few reasons that I think it works pretty well for the Animorphs.

    1. There are two strong restrictions on the morphing powers: secrecy and time-limit. So it’s well-established that the characters can’t use it whenever they like, however much they like. These restrictions are easy for readers to understand, which makes them strong and dramatic obstacles for the characters.

    2. Additionally, the characters can only morph into animals that they’ve “acquired” by touch. This reduces the potential for characters to pull a solution out of their ass. However, it does give the characters a chance to prepare for a situation by acquiring an appropriate animal. The character’s preparation can be very interesting and can help set up the main plot well.

    3. Since morphing is the only special power in the series, it’s easy for the readers and author to keep track of what the characters can do. I don’t think it works as well when it’s part of an ensemble.

    4. The books bend over backwards to show that the animal forms affect the personalities and mindsets of the characters, when they are in those bodies. Usually, when a fantasy character can turn into a dragon or something like that, the author doesn’t use any personality change. It makes the transformer more of a Mary Sue. It also makes the transformation feel more like flicking a switch. “I think I’ll be a dragon today!” See my comment about Jake Long above for an example of why Jake Long handled this much better.

    5. At the end of the two-hour limit, the character is stuck in his animal body forever. That adds the prospect of danger, especially after the author took the unusual step of actually turning one of the characters into a full-time hawk.

    In contrast, here are a few warning signs that suggest a shapeshifting character is not that interesting. For example, I find Beast Boy’s powers a bit dull.
    –He can shift into any animal he wants.
    –He can use his powers in public, wherever and whenever he wants.
    –There is no time limit or any other limit on his powers.
    –The change is purely physical; it doesn’t affect his personality or anything like that.

  5. Tomon 22 May 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Dory… SpongeBob… Patrick? Do I even want to know?

  6. KitKaton 18 Jul 2009 at 2:47 pm

    im writing a novel that has characters with powers in it. one way that i was getting information (that you would get from 3rd person) is because the narator is a girl with telepaty so she can hear the thougts of other people. I tend to only share the specific thoughts she hears that are important to the story or that particular scene/event. Also i was trying to figure out how to describe the look of Jacqueline (my main character) but was having trouble figuring out how… i know what she looks like and everything obviously but without using the mirror thing i couldn’t come up with a good way to even mention how she looks imperticular or as easily as the other characters. (she has long, wavy dirty blode hair, somewhat pale skin, and blue-ish green eyes if that helps).

    Also, if there is a scene where characters are eating would it be ok as long as there is an important conversation or issue that comes up in it? For example, think of a cafetiria where there are things going on and conversations going on and it’s not really focused on the food.

  7. Marissaon 18 Jul 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Hey, KitKat! I don’t think I’ve seen you around before, so welcome to Superhero Nation.

    For the appearance issue: There are plenty of ways aside from looking in the mirror. Looking in the mirror says, ‘This is what they look like.’ Readers don’t care what they look like enough to hold up the action to find out, so you have to insert it in a way that doesn’t hold up the action. Make it a part of something more important. For example, if a character has to go undercover, but they have bright blonde hair, that might stand out. In that case, they’d give a thought to their hair color, in the ‘maybe I should disguise it’ context.

    As an example from my own story, one character claims that he knows another character better than she knows herself. Her response is, to prove that his claim is wildly inaccurate, the simple, “What color are my eyes?” This is proving a point first and foremost, but it adds in the little eye color detail as a side note.

    And for the eating scene: Yeah, you’re correct there. As long as something is going on aside from eating, you’re fine. This means that no more than one or two sentences should go toward describing the food, and the rest of the scene should be the important actions or conversations going on during the meal.

  8. Near-sighted Jedion 20 Jul 2009 at 8:26 am

    I’m working on a novel too, but my heroine, Spook, has ghost powers. I made them different than Danny Phantom and gave her several weaknesses, but I really hope no one thinks I’m ripping off of DP:

    1) She has to leave her body as a spirit to use the majority of her powers. Since her body is still living, she can only stay out of it for a limited amount of time.

    2) Since I don’t want her to be invulnerable, Spook can be hurt in spirit form. She has to will herself to become intangible, so bad guys can hurt her too. Pain from injuries transfers to her physical body, so if she gets wounded enough, it can kill her. If Spook’s body dies, so does she.

    3) If she enters a haunted place, angry spirits and entities can harm her more easily than they could if she were in her mortal shell. She can also be exorcised, preventing her from entering a place again. I’m not sure whether she should be able to possess people or not.

    4) Spook can draw heat and energy from the environment and people to strengthen herself, but too much can cause lights to flicker or go out. Sapping too much from a person can give them hypothermia or make them hit the floor, limp as a ragdoll.

    That’s not everything, but what do you think? I would greatly appreciate the advice of experts. By the way, Superhero Nation is pretty damn funny. Good work.

  9. Tomon 20 Jul 2009 at 8:42 am

    I think that’s definitely distinct from Danny Phantom, who suffers greatly from getting new powers as the plot demands. DP also doesn’t behave like a conventional ghost, just a person with ghost-like powers, and his ‘ghost zone’ is more like a parallel dimension than an afterlife. I get the impression your ghost is more like a ghost from Supernatural than Danny Phantom.

    I also like how she absorbs heat, which is a neat explanation for why it’s cold around ghosts.

    Not too keen on the name. ‘Spook’ doesn’t sound very dramatic.

    Finally, ‘Near-sighted Jedi’ is pretty funny.

  10. B. Macon 20 Jul 2009 at 9:09 am

    Who’s your target audience? I think Spook could work as a name, but I suspect it might have issues appealing to readers older than (say) 13. If your audience is older than that, I’d recommend something a bit more serious. Or spooky! 🙂 If your target audience is younger, then I think Spook is fine.

    How many more powers are there? I’d recommend keeping the amount limited… that will help you cut down on how much time you need to explain them. It’ll also help the readers remember them.

    Sucking up heat to make herself stronger does not strike me as a very versatile ability. I’d recommend focusing on abilities that can solve a variety of problems… that’s probably particularly important in a novel.

    I like that she has limited time out of her body. That should make the action more urgent.

  11. Castilleon 06 Dec 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I had a scene in a novel where it was centered around a dinner date. I kept that interesting because that was when his senses started to flare up for the first time, and the protagonist bit knowingly into a raw steak in front of the whole restaurant.

    ….A raw steak with veins still inside it.

  12. Markon 27 Apr 2011 at 2:56 am

    Hi there, great site BTW.
    Just wanted to get a take on my POV situation if I may (#3). I’ve finished my book and am in the process of doing what I hope will be the final proofread (it’s already been test read), but it was only today I came across your site.
    Strictly speaking, my POV does switch mid-chapter. However, the way I’ve constructed the book is to have twenty-odd chapters, but each chapter is split into, on average, 3 scenes. The POV then changes between scenes, but never mid-scene.
    The scenes of a chapter are all related, and so I can’t justify splitting one chapter up into several. Plus, if I did that, I’d probably have over a hundred chapters.
    When starting a new scene, the first thing I do is strongly imply which character has the stage (as it were).
    My test reader didn’t mention anything about it (and she didn’t hold back with the feedback), but is it something that an agent would instantly reject?
    On a related note, I also have 4 POV’s (but each serves a purpose). Have I failed before I’ve begun?

  13. B. Macon 27 Apr 2011 at 5:08 am

    “Strictly speaking, my POV does switch mid-chapter. However, the way I’ve constructed the book is to have twenty-odd chapters, but each chapter is split into, on average, 3 scenes. The POV then changes between scenes, but never mid-scene.” In the three years since I wrote this, I’ve mellowed out on mid-chapter POV switches. I personally find them distracting, but you can limit the disruption and potential for confusion with a line of asterisks and an opening paragraph that makes it clear which character we’ve switched to.

    “On a related note, I also have 4 POVs (but each serves a purpose). Have I failed before I’ve begun?” This sounds like it’d be difficult to pull off well*, but I haven’t actually read the manuscript, so I’m not sure how it works in context.

    *Some potential issues…
    –Having more POVs means spending less time with each one. This will probably make character development more challenging.
    –It’s hard enough to make one character interesting. Going with multiple POVs significantly increases the risk that the story will spend a lot of time with a character (or characters) that is not very interesting.

  14. Crystalon 02 May 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I have two questions about numbers 1 and 2.

    First, is it okay to have a character glance at a mirror/reflective surface and notice something that they previously did not know? For example, if Rebecca, my MC, was walking past a mirror and noticed that her eyes had stopped glowing.
    Also, is it okay to use an eating scene as long as it isn’t really the food? For example, if I used a ‘lunchroom’ type of setting in which the characters meet up during lunchtime and chat?

  15. Grenacon 23 Jul 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I avoid eating/food scenes like the plague. They feel awkward and completely out of place.

  16. J.H.M.on 15 Dec 2011 at 10:52 am

    I definitely write in a somewhat old-fashioned style, but I rarely have my characters actually *talk* in that way; unless it’s a part of their character already, it comes off as at the least a bit odd. Furthermore, I try to avoid making the language in question seem overly dramatic.

    There is a scene in the work that I am writing in which a character stares at their reflection; the implications of it are somewhat different than what you discuss, however…

  17. A11 L1V3S L0STon 17 Jul 2012 at 8:05 am

    I don’t generally avoid eating scenes, though I have only used them in two works of mine. In the first the main character is a female in highschool and I use scenes at lunch twice I think but the first time it progresses the story some, and the seconed time she looks down at people messing around at lunch just before she goes into the darkness.

    And J.H.M. I would to here about how you’re using the mirror diffrently, I may not be one of the administrators here, but I would like to hear about it.

    And how important is describing the main character? As far as I can remember, I don’t seem to describe the main character in detail. Just wanting to know if that’s a bad thing and if I need to fix it.

  18. TamarBon 08 Aug 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I’ve personally never been disoriented by viewpoint changes within a chapter. Within a *scene* is generally a no-no, but a chapter? If you’re putting text-breaks/a line of asterisks between your scenes, isn’t that enough to communicate to the reader that we’re switching gears here?

  19. B. McKenzieon 08 Aug 2012 at 5:55 pm

    “If you’re putting text-breaks/a line of asterisks between your scenes, isn’t that enough to communicate to the reader that we’re switching gears here?” Yeah, I think that would probably work (please see this comment). I would also recommend an opening paragraph which makes it clear which character is the new point-of-view, particularly if your book has 3+ points of view and/or this is the first time this character is a point of view.

  20. harryon 21 Sep 2012 at 10:45 am

    i did running man
    is that good your names are worse

  21. Calvin30on 21 Feb 2013 at 7:30 am

    Thank you for pointing these out. I have made a few of these.

    I have one scene where one of my main characters is waking up, however this scene is actually important to the plot and would be hard to remove. In the scene the character has to go through an involved routine to prepare for his day in order to emphasise how difficult it actually is to live on the moon. The purpose of this is highlight the loneliness of the character who lives in exile as the CEO of one of the last corporations. The scene is not the first scene which is much more dramatic.

    A few characters look at themselves in the mirror. I find this difficult to get around since each chapter is told from the point of view of that character, and the main characters don’t meet until later in the book. However, I will revisit these. I can do away with a few of them.

    Eating. Crap. What do I do with the eating scenes? Delete them I guess, although I don’t dwell on the fact of the eating in those scenes. I on one occasion I do, when a main character shorts corn flakes through her nose.

    Flashbacks – I have quite a few of these but they are important because most of the action occurs in Space with small groups of people. Memories ground the characters and create more interesting dialogues and interactions. I have attempted to fit these into the story by creating a common (although not overt) theme in different sections of the book, and the characters’ different memories and fantasies intersect with this theme from alternative perspectives.

    It’s and its. I know this. Spell check even knows it. Why do they keep popping up? Ugh!

    Thanks for a very useful article – I am preparing my manuscript to send out and will revisit one more time to weed some of these out.

    Question – my manuscript is 140,000 words long. Is it reasonable to assume an editor working for the publisher might help here? I’ve chopped out a lot already and asked readers for help but I find this process difficult.

  22. B. Macon 21 Feb 2013 at 8:19 am

    “In the scene the character has to go through an involved routine to prepare for his day in order to emphasise how difficult it actually is to live on the moon.” It’s plot relevant and extraordinary/distinctive. Much more promising than most of the “random teenager gets ready for school” or “random adult gets ready for work” openings I’ve seen.

    “What do I do with the eating scenes?” If they’re not critical to the plot and/or character development, cut them or rewrite them so they are. For example, if the eating scene is a setting for a major conflict between two families, it could be highly relevant. If you’re writing the scene mainly to describe what futuristic food tastes like, I’d recommend reevaluating.

    “My manuscript is 140,000 words. Is it reasonable to assume an editor working for the publisher might help here?” Unless the manuscript is extraordinary, probably not. Editors are generally leery of projects which would take a lot of work, and cutting a manuscript from 140,000 words to (say) 80-100,000 for print would be a lot of work.

  23. alexon 09 Feb 2014 at 8:59 pm

    I think someone here asked if artists ever look for writers,and as an artist myself I will answer that by saying that in most cases that would be a yes, more than you think. Unless the artist is gifted with writing abilities of their own. However, I think artists look for a particular or specific writing style that may suite their drawing style or preference. The biggest thing I am afraid of is that I meet a writer and he/she wants to do a story about finding true love, or the davinci code. Those things do not interest me and I will not spend the countless amount of hours it would take to make that comic.

    Me personally, I would like to draw a comic along the lines of Lord of the rings, or Fantasy/Adventure ( lord of the rings meets conan… cool shit) . I can envision some cool characters, and draw them but I cannot write a story that I feel would be of quality. I want to draw cool stuff, dinosaurs, dragons, beasts, warriors with big swords, beautiful woman, etc. but with a solid story behind it.

    If you ever meet an artist online looking or showing interest in collaborating with a writer ask him/her what they like to draw? tell him to give you some examples of books, movies, games, etc. that appeals to him. That will open most artists up, and you will unlock that cell where they keep all these characters that have no story but are dying to get out.

    Just my 2 cents

  24. Jean Malupaon 08 Oct 2015 at 6:04 am

    I’m here again because ALL the notes I’ve taken when I was here last time got freaking DELETED..

    All the hard work I put into summarizing it is gone..! Nada. Zilch.

  25. Veeon 17 Dec 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Hmm…I have a critique here though, based on the experience I’ve had working on the first chapter of a piece I’ve been doing this year:

    “3. Please don’t switch point-of-view midchapter. Switching POV mid-chapter will disorient and confuse readers. Generally, it’s smoother and less confusing to add a chapter-break whenever you want to switch POV. If something has happened that’s important enough to make you want to change POVs, it’s probably important enough to justify a chapter-break.”

    Mid-chapter? Really? It will always “disorient and confuse readers”? That seems a bit extreme of a statement, as I have already run into an exception! I’ve looked at my chapter several times and there’s three different POVs that SHOULD DEFINITELY stay in chapter 1:

    1.) a really brief prologue-like section that teases introduces a major secondary character, foreshadows her appearance, and indicates that DANGER DANGER DANGER (in the form of a monstrous alien serial killer!) is about to head to… [Designated Area of Space], where she’s tracked him as heading to.

    Boom, you have an instant threat and plot thread, alongside a bit of lore/setting and character introduction that immediately establishes what her motives are going to be (pursuing this guy who killed her fellow space cops). It’s like, five paragraphs though – it’d be ridiculous to separate it into its own chapter/prologue at that length! That’s not really a prologue so much as a Hook.

    2.) CLEAR scene switch, which notes the location is “Earth ([Designated Area of Space That We Mentioned Earlier]). Boom, we now realize it’s Earth that is going to be threatened by this alien guy! Stakes, they are raised. Protagonist, under implied threat before we’ve even met her! Win/Win.

    We then get a bit of POV from the primary protagonist, whom we spend a little more time on establishing of course (I mean, compared to the woman who is in the midst of her companions’ dead bodies vowing to Track The Bastard Down, because obviously that scene was less, uh, leisurely).

    Now, this section in terms of describing her or what she’s doing is short – a paragraph or so as I recall – because overly describing the protag immediately can be flowery and all she’s doing is waiting for a ride after a class. We don’t even get too far into her head yet, since we’re transitioning from a section with a very different tone, right? So instead we quickly move to first to a phone conversation she has with her mother (mom is running late and seems UNUSUALLY WORRIED about her safety, which the protagonist notes is unsettling, in how rattled she seems = yes, unusual). We gradually (and I’m told, rather effectively) slip from a wider POV to more intimate as the conversation goes on, and it starts being less pure dialogue and more the protag’s internal thoughts. We get a bit of characterization for both her and her mother here, in addition to some foreshadowing.

    Right after this, when we’ve slid smoothly into Primary Protag’s teenaged POV, we arrive at seeing her crush show up while she’s waiting for her mom, and she has a giddy-scary-please-don’t-embarrass-yourself-omg-he-noticed-me interaction with him, regretfully turning down the ride because she knows her mother would flip her lid if she rode home on this boy’s motorcycle with him, etc., but quickly and giddily texting her friends right after he leaves…

    …and then we get snippets of all three of our Central Trio’s personalities implied in the way they exchange those brief messages, establishing them a bit before two of them have even appeared, and with one of them expressing a notable lack of enthusiasm about the boy in question (foreshadowing that she, who has become the Secondary Protagonist, has her own Misgivings/issues regarding the boy in question, among other things). This is… a lot of stuff to pack in actually, but it’s actually less than 1500 words IIRC, even WITH the conversation with her mother in there, because a lot of it is dialogue and a lot of it is implied/subtle/won’t be fully teased out until later. But there’s enough to notice one of her friends is not enthusiastic and doesn’t want to hear about it, which implies some nice underlying issue or interpersonal conflict right off the bat (and also indicates our protag is not perfect, because she clearly has some interpersonal goof she’s made there even if she doesn’t realize why yet).

    3.) somewhere in here is another CLEAR scene switch to the same boy…and he’s clearly having thoughts that indicate he doesn’t care one whit about the girl but he has some very nasty Plans that would include stalking her (he gloats about how “easy” it’ll be because she clearly likes and trusts him, and knowing “schedule details” is handy). This section is WAY short, like three or four sentences, just enough to be ominous as heck.

    Here’s the thing, and it’s twofold: first, those other POVs are really short, so they don’t justify by length being their own (let alone opening!) chapter, I feel. But more importantly, if those other two POVs weren’t in there, it would almost entirely be a chapter of a teenage girl giddily/excitedly gushing about/obsessing over her crush, whom we know nothing about, and NOTHING HAPPENS. We NEED those other POVs to show that that Something Is About To Go Horribly Wrong, and make the reader realize there’s a reason to worry about this poor kid.

    The conversation with her mother is not quite enough; the pseudo-prologue helps tell you exactly what kind of story this is going to be and what the future stakes might be, giving an IMMEDIATE hook, while the section with the boy’s POV clearly shows the danger of her trust for him that works well in conjunction with her one friend’s unenthusiastic text message (the message on its own might just be “your friend is sick of hearing about this, kiddo”, but becomes more interesting/gains new implications with the added context of him genuinely being A Very Bad Man behind the charming facade – her friend seems to be trying to put the kibosh on it, is this because she subconsciously noticed a red flag or two, or for other reasons? etc)

    I’ve got like four people beta reading this thing and ALL of them have agreed “Yeah, it’s way more interesting when you have that sinking feeling something’s about to happen to her and it could come from at least two obvious directions, neither of which she’s aware of yet.” And again, foreshadowing-wise the conversation with her mother helps on that front, but it’s not nearly as effective at foreshadowing it and varying the tone as showing those other two POVs is.

    In fact, I was *warned* by my primary beta reader that I was VERY good at capturing the girl’s mindset and while I and my beta know she develops into a much more interesting and compelling character and has challenges and matures and nearly freaking dies in the course of the story…OPENING with that, with no other tones used first? Nah, man, that’s…almost nobody wants to read a story that OPENS with that, because it could be ALL that, right? And who’d be interested in that? Your opening sets the tone for the work, it provides a hook, and opening with a bored teenager getting excited when her crush shows up, but then having to turn down his offer of a ride…that’s…that’s not a hook, lol. That’s like the opposite of a hook, nothing of Dramatic Interest happens there, and we have no reason yet to have Worry for this character.

    The pseudo-prologue being the opening however, puts an ominous spin on it, indicates that there WILL be action/adventure/danger at some point, and being a more mature character’s POV makes it much more palatable as THE opening. In fact, I’ve been told it was the number one thing that actually helped balance out the Excited Teen Girl being “channeled really well”, because it shows that I’m not, you know, writing in only that tone, but am capable of more than that, so that it becomes CLEAR that the Excited Teen Girl section is purely an In-Character Stylistic Choice, which is temporary. And also, again, the implied imminent danger suddenly makes this Normal Teen Girl’s very normalcy and happiness become tinged with Fridge Horror elements of “well THAT mood/innocence/naivete isn’t going to last…”

    And that super short segment from Mr Up To No Good? Not only is it too short for its own chapter but it foreshadows the villainy of the second and more important antagonist – the boy she has a crush on, naturally, because her luck is exactly that bad. Additionally, not only does it again show that the tone of the work is varied but also BLATANTLY shows that the Primary Protagonist is making some huge, clearly dangerous mistakes right off the bat even *before* a Big Scary Alien manages to arrive, by trusting and idealizing what turns out to be the public face of a Very Bad Man. So we know that even though she’s happy and excited, she’s also naive and putting herself at unintentional risk, because she’s a poor judge of character and of course the natural implication in all of this is it’s going to bite her in the ass relatively soon.

    Now, there is a fourth segment from her mother’s POV before she arrives to pick her up where her mother, a homicide detective, is rattled about the details of the most recent murder from a serial killer they’ve yet to catch, because his latest victim shares traits with her daughter (including part of her name), despite that not quite fitting the profile of his previous victims, so it feels quite a lot like the murderer knows details about her family and is taunting her with them. She has no “proof” of it, but her gut says it’s a message and now she’s worried about her daughter’s safety – explaining the nervousness of her previous call. It is a fourth POV which seems like a bit much for one chapter on the face of it, but for a laundry list of reasons I’m strongly tempted to keep it in the same chapter, not least being I can end the chapter on an ominous note (instead of just kind of…ending) that would leave a perfect transition to her daughter’s POV as the second chapter opening (and THAT section would wind up with them arguing and then whoops, suddenly we got an alien invasion on our hands and left is right and up is down and everything is life or death).

    But the other two POV shifts? No question. No contest. It’s a way better chapter for including those. There is no doubt in my mind that it’s better for including them, and they are necessary. It NEEDS those POVs to balance it tone-wise, and to provide actual Hook elements and establish some stakes. I’ve tried it both ways; it’s better with them in than out. It’s actually, I’m told, finally GOOD with them in; or more specifically, it’s the kind of good that would *hook* the kind of reader who likes SF stories about alien invasions and space cops and etc, as opposed to potentially turning them off with overwhelmingly Too Much Teen Girl Crush Nonsense in the first paragraphs. Ya know? While still establishing character relationships and current status before everything goes pear-shaped on them.

    HOWEVER…I do agree that multiple POV in the same chapter is ONLY workable with a CLEAR scene shift. You need to know exactly whose head you are in, at all times, and preferably where you are, too, otherwise it would be confusing and therefore distracting to the reader. So, you can do this mid-chapter, but not mid-scene. My advice is not to be afraid of multiple POVs in a chapter so much as stick to one POV per SCENE, even if you’re tempted to write from multiple characters’ POVs; stick that in a scene break or chapter break if you really want to show both perspectives to show where they’re differing or clashing.

    It’s also MUCH easier to do when not doing First or Second Person narration. Mine is written in Third Person consistently: even when the POV is intimate (i.e. in a specific character’s head a lot), it’s always some variant of Third Person. Second Person would be pretty much impossible to do this with under most circumstances and First Person would be confusing because you’re using the same “I” pronoun for the narrator. Third Person above all others allows smoother POV shifts for a multiple-POV work.

    Whew! This was long. But I hope it’s helpful food for thought.

  26. Veeon 17 Dec 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Also (separated out because the other comment was long enough as it was and this is on a different point):

    While I don’t quite “disagree” I think the advice is oddly worded on the food scenes thing. Mostly because of this – “but eating scenes are usually extended chats with sensory imagery mixed in”.

    And? Like, okay, yeah don’t “make it sound like a food review” but – that’s not what you’re explicitly criticizing in that sentence. In that one, you seem to be almost criticizing the idea of having “sensory imagery mixed in with chats” between characters?

    One of the things I had to learn as I’ve gone along is to NOT just write scenes that are almost all dialogue, though! You have to space it with some narration or it’s going to read too much like a shooting script and not prose. You can maybe get away with this in comic scripts if you’re greatly trusting your art team, but in pure prose, one should…well, don’t describe every single action, but don’t do pure dialogue either. Use the actions to bring out the flavor and meaning in the dialogue, has been the advice I’ve received. And that can easily include handling or eating food.

    As you note, it’s about the dramatic potential of the scene and not the food itself – but the sensory components CAN be well used. For instance, if two characters are arguing, maybe one of them “tears off” bites of their food in agitation instead of normally chewing, or maybe a character learns horrible news and suddenly the food seems to lose all flavor, etc. I would never say that mixing in other elements with “extended chats” is automatically a bad thing – because dialogue can be used well for dramatic tension, but rarely should be used by itself in prose, and never for an extended period with no narration.

    Rather, I would focus advice-wise more on the “unless that food is poisoned, it’s not ABOUT the food itself, it’s about the characters” aspect. Because I don’t think people should be afraid of using narrative description of character actions in any context; it’s more that that they need to be aware that they shouldn’t stick in frivolous details, because modern readers tend to hate flowery unnecessary details, but appreciate subtle cues and visceral descriptions.

    A great example of this might be the Hunger Games; the lavish displays of food aren’t “about” the food porn, and nobody really remembers the descriptions of the food itself in the books. Rather, it’s the contrast between the indulgent opulence of the Capital and the desperate poverty of the Districts like 12 that people remember, which is exemplified by the ridiculous food culture of the former. Readers might remember how in book two, for instance, there was a lavish feast that Katniss was forced to attend where she found out Capital people regularly gorge themselves to the point of vomiting and then eat MORE at such events; it’s not the food at the feast we remember, but the shocking contrast in practices, and how appalled Katniss was at hearing that they wasted food like that by literally deliberately throwing it up to eat more than they needed, while places like District 11 or 12 are borderline starving to death. (She herself subsequently loses all appetite in that scene, as I recall, and you could see why)

    But really, this isn’t just food-specific; you could have made it about clothing/dressing scenes, or cool cars, either. ANY extraneous detail – that is, any detail that isn’t being used to further the actual meaning or themes of the work, or plot-relevant, or aiding characterization – can slow down the movement and rhythm of the plot, making it a bad idea.

  27. (o_n')on 18 Dec 2016 at 9:20 am

    Vee: Please, step down from your soap box, it is not personal critique of you, or your work.
    These are general advices, not master list of everything you should do and magical you get a publication.
    Setting a location and/or date can make same effect as chapters can, but it is something I would be more careful about in novel than in short story. Personal I don’t like clear scene shift, it makes easily very transcript like, but done right it is more a journal or diary. I am too not biggest fan of mutible povs, but I am not saying you should totally avoid it with all cost, but it does reguire some experience with writing.
    it is all about your experience, maybe you have great experience with it. It is my impression that many inexperienced writers try mutiple povs without knowing how to work with it. Inexperienced writer, mutible povs is so easy to throw in discard pile at editor’s table. But that is another story.

  28. Nixon 19 Dec 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Ref: Vee, 17 Dec 2017 – Multiple Point of View.
    Of all the writers I have read, there is only one who can handle multiple POVs not only within a chapter but, from paragraph to paragraph, without losing clear narration.
    Phillip K. Dick.

  29. Kivon 13 Mar 2018 at 1:49 pm

    1: Only happens once, because Liz is an amnesiac and doesn’t know what she looks like.

    2: There’s never really a legit meal scene, the characters just sorta eat whenever. And I try not to focus on the food.

    3: Consistently Liz’s 1st POV perspective

    4: Doesn’t apply (thank God)

    5: Doesn’t apply

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply