Ninja Writer’s Academy: Backstory, Bodies, and Books

stocksnap_l4i1pqe99fWelcome to the ABCs of Fiction Writing!

We’re moving right along to the letter B. And B is for Backstory, Bodies, and Books.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Backstory

Backstory is what happens to your character or characters before the story starts. It’s basically everything from conception up to the point when they enter the stage of your book.

I think a good and very famous example of backstory is right there in the Star Wars franchise. You have the original three movies, where you’re introduced to a truly evil, iconic bad guy (Darth Vader.) Then, a generation later, you get the backstory in another trilogy. Watchers get to watch Darth Vader grow up, fall in love, lose his mind. All of that, everything that happened in movies 1-3 is backstory for movies 4-6.

Make sense?

You obviously don’t have to (nor should you) put all of your backstory into your book. But you should know. If your hero is afraid to fall in love, you should know why, even if it doesn’t make it into the story. If your hero’s best friend follows her around like a puppy dog, you need to know why. If your villain can’t stand to see women hurt, you need to know why.

Do this:

Pick a character. Now pick a quirk. It can be anything that makes your character unusual. Have they eaten Corn Flakes every morning for breakfast? Do they have insomnia? Have they lived alone since they were seventeen?

Now write the backstory for that quirk. It can (and really should) just be a few paragraphs. A page, tops. A couple of sentences is fine.

Bodies

One of the things that is the easiest to get caught up with in writing is describing your characters. Especially point-of-view characters. A mistake I see pretty often is dropping an info dump when a new character is introduced. Like this:

Hannah had long blonde hair. She was short and squat and all that hair made her look like a Sasquatch, though. She’d refused to cut her hair, though, because her mother had told her that short hair would make her face look fatter–and it stuck. Her best feature was her eyes. They were blue-green, an oceanic color that would have been attractive if anyone ever saw past her hair.

So, see what we have there? A big block of exposition. A whole lot of telling. And if you’ve been deep in Hannah’s POV, this pulled you right out. Because it’s very unlikely that Hannah herself is sitting there having this thought in the moment of the story.

I mean. Who thinks of their own eyes as oceanic?

There are a couple of things you can do to make this better.

  1. Only give character description when absolutely necessary. Don’t go crazy. Let the reader use their imagination.
  2. Give description as part of scene, instead of exposition when you can.

Here’s how that might work in this case.

“Let me cut your hair.”

Hannah stopped dead, a hair brush halfway through her waist-length hair. “What?”

“I’m serious. You could probably sell it. Some chick with platinum extensions would pay a fortune.”

“I’m not letting you cut my hair.”

Shannon shook her head. “Why not? You’d look fantastic.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Yes, you would.”

Hannah went back to brushing. The sun streaming in her bedroom window caught the white blonde strands. “Short hair makes your face look fatter.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“My mom says so.”

“You’re mom’s crazy. You’re too short for all that hair. It makes you look like a Sasquatch.”

Hannah put her brush down. “Jesus, Shannon.”

“I’m sorry. You know I’m kidding. But serious, let me cut your hair. It would make your eyes look fantastic.” Shannon came up behind her, bent down and wrapped her arms around Hannah’s shoulders, looked at her through the mirror in front of them. “I wish I had eyes like yours. They’re the color of the ocean when we went to Jamaica last year.”

I just spit that out, but you get what I’m talking about, right? Now, not only do we know that Hannah has long hair that’s too much for her frame and ocean blue eyes, but we learn more about her. She’s got a blunt friend who means well (maybe?) and that her vanity is warring with her mother’s advice.

Do This

Pick a character and write a scene where you reveal something about their appearance without exposition.

Books

Stephen King said: If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.

Here’s how I interpret that: If you have certain amount of time set aside for writing everyday, you need to chunk some of it to reading. It’s part of your work. It’s part of your business.

You cannot be the best writer you can be if you’re not reading. Period.

You just can’t.

I’m going to talk about reading more generally when we get to R, but I want to talk to you today about books–specifically building a writing craft library.

I’m going to share what’s in my personal craft library with you, but it’s personal. You might have other favorites and that’s okay.

My advice is to try to read at least one craft book a month. Do the exercises. Apply what you’re learning to your work. Don’t just skim, is what I’m saying. My list will get you through the first year.

Here’s my library:

Do this:

Pick a writing craft book. Get your hands on it (paper or digital, but hopefully in some form that you can keep for your personal library.) Read it. Do the exercises. Really ingest it and apply what you’re learning in your own work.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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Ninja Writers Academy: A is For Active Voice, Action, and Acts

I thought it would be fun to do a Ninja Writer Academy series: The ABCs of Fiction Writing.

Let’s start at the very beginning. With the letter A, of course. And A is for Active Voice, Action, and Acts. Plus, an important little bonus dose of Audacity at the end.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Active Voice

Let’s get the grammar part out of the way.

A passive voice is an ACTUAL thing. It’s when the subject of a sentence is just sitting there (passively) having something done to it.

Here are some examples of passive voice:

Beauty was kissed by the Beast.

Humbert was infatuated by Lolita.

The books were burned by Montag the Fireman.

See how that works? Beauty, Humbert, and the books are the subjects of these sentences and they just sit there being DONE TO.

Let’s make those sentences active.

The Beast kissed Beauty.

Lolita infatuated Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burned the books.

There we go. Now we have an active voice. The previous subjects become the objects and the subjects now are: the Beast, Lolita, and Motag. And they are actively acting.

They can also be present tense.

The Beast kisses Beauty.

Lolita infatuates Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burns the books.

These sentences are technically active, but weak enough to feel wishy-washy or passive-like:

The Beast was kissing Beauty.

Lolita was infatuating Humbert.

Montag the Fireman was burning the books.

Meh. Right? Use a good, solid past (or present) tense verb and most times you’ll have an active voice going on.

Do This:

You can start by searching your whole manuscript for the word ‘was’ and the verb ending “-ing.” Get rid of as many as you can. That will help you make sure you’re using nice strong active verbs.

If you have any actual passive verbs (remember, that’s the subject of the sentence having something done to it) cut that out.

Action

A couple of years ago I went to a conference where the author Walter Dean Myers was the keynote speaker.

First: he was amazing.

Second: the thing he taught that stuck with me the most was the idea of making sure that every scene in your book has an action.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy balls-to-the-wall action. You probably don’t want your entire book to be one giant fight scene, broken up with car chases and skydiving.

But if you’re going to have two characters talking to each other, make sure they’re doing something that moves the story forward while they do.

The action can tell the reader something about the character or the situation. It can move the story forward by solving a problem through action (sometimes a car chase/fist fight/skydive is necessary after all.)

Do this: 

Walter Dean Myers spoke at a conference I went to about how he comes up with 30 key scenes as part of his pre-writing and makes sure each one has an action. It’s a great exercise.

Acts

This one is pretty simple and I bet you already know it.

Every book-length story has three acts. Basically: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m not blowing you away here, right?

Usually, the beginning and end of a book are each about one quarter of the whole, and the middle is half of the story that can be divided in half.

That’s right.

Modern stories generally follow a FOUR act structure. We just call it a three act story because we always have, since cavemen pretty much.

Thinking of your long second act as two acts is useful for a couple of reasons.

It reminds you to put a climactic scene in the middle of the book, which helps make sure your second act doesn’t sag.

And it gives some structure to build your subplots around.

Do this:

Go to thescriptlab.com and read how a bunch of your favorite movies break into three acts. It helps to see how a story you can take in all in a sitting fits into this structure.

Bonus A word: Audacious.

If you spend anytime at all around writers, you are definitely going to hear some variation on this theme: I’m never happy with anything I write.

It’s almost like writers think that to be taken seriously, they have to think they suck.

The thing is though that it’s a long, often lonely road between wanting to be a writer and being published so that anyone other than your mother and your best friend can read what you write.

I’m just going to be very blunt here.

If you don’t love your story, how are you really going to expect anyone else to.

It’s okay (and maybe essential) to know that you’re still learning. It’s fair to understand that you are still a work in progress.

But for God’s sake, if you hate your work, don’t expect readers to love it.

Do this: 

Give yourself permission to have the audacity to believe that you’re talented and that you’re writing a killer story. You’re going to need it.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 3/12/17 from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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Ninja Writers Academy: Setting Development

We’re going to have a live plotting workshop in our Facebook group in December. Make sure to sign up below to get signed up!

ninja-writers-academy-setting-development

 

For the next few weeks, we’re going deeper into the basics of story elements during Ninja Writers Academy. Last week we talked about Character. Today, we’re talking about Setting.

Setting is, of course, the place where your story takes place.

You’ll probably have more than one in a novel-length work. Maybe your main character will have a literal ordinary world and special world of the story. (Like Dorothy’s Kansas and Oz or Harry’s muggle world and Hogwarts.) Maybe your antagonist has their own setting.

Even a story that takes place in a limited area probably has more than one actual setting. I’m thinking about the (devastating) book and movie Room. The setting in that story is a character in and of itself. It’s a garden shed where the narrator has lived his whole life. But there’s also a truck and the narrator’s grandmother’s house.

Thinking about where your story takes place can actually give some shape to it. It’s a good way to start thinking about things like pacing and scene.

Today I’d like you to think about all the different settings that your story is going to need. Then develop at least one of them using guided free writing. (You’ll probably want to develop all of them, eventually.)

Here are the questions I use:

  • Is this the ordinary world setting for your hero, or the special world setting, or both?
  • How does the setting uniquely belong to your MC?
  • How did your MC get to this place?
  • Why is this setting important to your MC?
  • Who do they share it with?
  • How do they feel about this setting? Claustraphobic? At home? Calm? Aggressive?
  • Will they end up in this place as their new ordinary world when the story is over?
  • What does the setting look like? Use as many details as you can.
  • What does the setting smell like?
  • What does the setting sound like?
  • Is there a taste or touch sensory experience related to this setting?
  • What role will this setting play in your MC’s story?
  • How would a stranger coming into this space feel? What’s the vibe?

My Turn

Last week, I shared the character work for a new idea.

Here are the settings I think I’ll need for Will “The Face” Sorren’s story:

The overall setting is Las Vegas.

Will lives in a pretty standard Las Vegas McMansion: white stucco, red tile roof, cookie cutter.

He performs in a showroom on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

His best friend lives in a smaller, more homey home–also in Las Vegas. Maybe a condo?

Will’s grandmother lives in the same mean little Salt Lake City house that she raised him in.


The Showroom at Fitzgerald’s is Will’s ordinary world setting, but it also plays a part in the special world of the story. It’s where he plays as part of an 80s nostalgia show, and it’s his personal hell. He can’t leave, because there isn’t anywhere else for him to play. No one is offering him stadium shows anymore. Staying is killing him. It’s just big enough that when it’s half-filled, it’s particularly pathetic.

Will’s best friend, his band’s bass player, has a different view of the Showroom. It represents stability to him. A steady paycheck. The means to continue to play music instead of getting a day job. His acceptance of their situation makes things worse for Will.

Every night, Will stands on the stage and sings the same songs he’s sung for nearly thirty years. He looks out at the sparse audience an he sees middle-aged women. It used to be that the women (who were once the beautiful girls screaming for The Face) would swoon over him. They aren’t even doing that anymore. Not the way they used to.

The Showroom seats 500 at tables and chairs, not even stadium seating. Cocktail waitresses wander between the tables, bringing drinks and taking Keno bets. There’s a stage in front, a mediocre setup. The whole place smells of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The sound of slot machines and a busy casino filter through between sets.

To the people who come to see Will and the other bands play, the showroom isn’t anything special, but it’s not as pathetic as it feels to Will. It’s a date night or a place for girls night out. Somewhere to go for a little fun while the kids are home with a sitter. They like the nostalgia that irritates Will.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Setting. Make a list of settings for your story. Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about one of them. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your work for feedback.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

 

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Ninja Writers Academy: Character Development

Ninja Writers Academy-Character Development

First: Our Facebook Group project for December will be a work through of How to Develop + Test a Story Idea and the whole Writer’s Journey part of The Plotting Workshop (which I’ll make available to you for free!) If you’d like to be on the list to get more info, put your email address here:

I thought it would be fun to run a little series of Ninja Writer Academy Posts about diving a little deeper into your story’s basic elements. Let’s start with character.

Character Development seems to be one of those scary things that new writers get hung up on.

You can find complicated, intimidating character development worksheets out there. If you Google around the Internet, you’ll find plenty of experts giving you lists of things that you’re supposed to know before you even start to write your story.

I take a different tact. My favorite way to work on character development is with guided free writing. I have a list of questions that I think about while I’m considering a new player. I start with a name and a basic (very basic) description, and then just start writing.

After all, that’s what we do, right? It’s how we process. Doesn’t it make sense to process something this important to your story the same way?

Here are the Character Development questions I use:

  • What is their ordinary world like?
  • What kind of work do they do?
  • Who do they love? Who do they hate?
  • Who loves and hates them?
  • What’s missing in them?
  • What’s important to them?
  • Who has hurt them?
  • Who have they hurt?
  • What do they need?
  • What do they want?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Who is their best friend?
  • Who is their worst enemy?
  • How resistant are they to change?
  • What would it take to get them to embark on big change?
  • This is a biggie: How are they flawed?
  • What makes them heroic?

Don’t list all the questions and answer them. Please. Don’t. Just use the questions to guide you as you write a page or two about this compelling person.

I actually do this exercise with every important character in a story: hero, antagonist, love interest, mentor, sidekick, etc. I also try to do this work in no more than about 20 minutes per character. Set a timer if you have to. It can be easy to get caught up in spending hours or even days in making sure your character development is PERFECT. Don’t do that to yourself!

MY TURN

I’ve had a character on my mind for a while. Here’s how this exercise worked out for him:

Will Sorren. Age, 50. Six feet tall, relatively fit (maybe a little softer than he used to be), over-styled brown hair, highlighted. Blue eyes. Dimpled chin.

Will is an aging rock star. When he was young he was nicknamed “The Face.” He had as much attention for his looks as for his music. He used to play to stadiums full of screaming girls. Now he plays to show-rooms half-filled with the same girls, now middle-aged housewives. He can’t play new music without risking a riot.

Worse of all, he’s not aging well. The public is brutal regarding his looks. What happened to The Face memes hound him. He still has the charisma that set him apart when he was young, but he’s done a little too much to try to hold on to his looks and it shows. Too much surgery. Too much Botox.

Will is still a musician, still playing the same music that he’s been playing for 30 years. He lives in Las Vegas and makes a living doing nostalgia shows with other 80s has beens.

Will married an actress when he was still The Face. She’s aging far better than him and his jealousy of her beauty and his insecurity over the public’s fascination with his loss of beauty is eroding their relationship.

He’s never been able to internalize his success. He had one breakout song when he was twenty-two and it was in a genre outside the pure rock he set out to make. He followed the success and the fame, and wound up a pop star. He still hears his songs in elevators and grocery stores and it always makes him sad.

Will’s mother left him when he was a little boy. He was raised by his grandmother, who was brutal with him. His looks and his music were the things that saved him and when he feels like he’s lost both, he is completely lost.

Will needs to find a way to let go of his youth. He wants to get it back. He’s utterly resistant to change, even when it’s obvious that change is happening whether he’s ready for it or not.

His best friend is the bass player in his band. They’ve been friends since high school. Aaron is far more accepting of their slide from rock gods to pop stars to has beens.

For will to change, he’ll has to have a seismic shift in his perspective of himself. Think George Bailey experiencing Bedford Falls as if he hadn’t been born.

Will’s heroism takes time to come through. He starts the story hurt and stuck in a very shallow mindset.

YOUR TURN

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Character Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about your story’s hero. Or antagonist. Or love interest. Or any character that could use a little development. (Hint: that’s probably all of them!) Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your commitment. Just come on by and voice your determination to FINISH THAT FIRST DRAFT.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

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Ninja Writers Academy: Shiny New Thing Syndrome

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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ninja-writers-academyshiny-new-thing-syndrome

The Dealing with Squirrels Assignment

I posted a question in the Ninja Writer Facebook group asking what topics you guys would like to see me explore. Shiny New Thing Syndrome–the writerly tendency to get a great new idea smack in the middle of executing the last great new idea–came up from several people. I thought that might make a fun Academy post.

Or maybe fun isn’t exactly the right word.

The struggle is real, Ninjas! Seriously. This happens to me every single time. I’m super excited as I start. Act I flows like honey–not too easy, but sweet and smooth–everything is awesome. And then BAM! Two things:

  1. I hit Act II and my story slows to a crawl.
  2. Another idea–even more shiny and more new than the one I’m already working on (that may or may not have shown itself when I was in Act II of my last shiny new idea) springs up like magic.

And because I’m constantly fighting against my writer’s brain’s dedication to protecting me (and itself) from the hard work of actually writing anything, of course it seems perfectly obvious that the right decision is to drop everything and get straight away to work on that great new thing that’s going to be the thing that propels me into the career of my dreams.

Would J. K. Rowling have put of Harry Potter just because she happened to be working on some mediocre-at-best thing when the idea came to her?

Seriously.

Here’s the thing. I can almost guarantee you that in the course of writing Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling had shiny new ideas. That woman most definitely has a writer’s brain, after all. The reason Harry Potter is Harry Potter is because J. K. Rowling stuck with it and finished.

She did not succumb to Shiny New Thing Syndrome.

And neither should you.

If it’s your goal to be a working, professional, successful writer, then you have to learn how to write through the middle of your story. It might feel draggy and saggy and boring. After all, Act II doesn’t have the brand-spanking-new thing going for it that Act I does, or the sliding-into-home thing that Act III has.

Act II is hard work. Doing that hard work opens your brain up to Shiny New Things that might give you a good excuse not to write, but that will let you still feel like a writer.

Dang. Our brains are so stinking tricky.

I have a couple of tips for showing your writer’s brain who exactly is in charge here.

Set Your Expectations

If Shiny New Thing Syndrome is something you suffer from, I think you need to have a daily goal for yourself. Something that you’ll meet, no matter what. I’ve written before about the magic of tiny goals, so I’m not going to spring “write 2000 words on your current WIP every day” on you.

My recommendation is actually very simple:

Make a commitment to yourself to move your current WIP forward every day. It can be a chapter, a page, even a paragraph, whatever. Editing before you’re done with your first draft doesn’t count. You need to make tangible forward movement on your story every day during drafting.

I can almost here you saying to yourself: but my WIP really sucks! Why should I keep moving forward with it if it’s complete and utter shit and no one will ever want to read it in all the future history of reading?

My answer to that is to remind yourself that once upon a time, your current WIP started out as a shiny new thing. It doesn’t suck, no matter what your writer’s brain is telling you at the moment.

Go ahead and write that down and tape it to the wall where you can see it: My WIP does NOT suck.

Put Blythe in her Birdcage

Blythe is my inner editor.

She sucks donkey eggs.

You can read here about Blythe’s bird cage. 

My advice to you, if you have “this story sucks, why am I even doing this” running through your head like a mantra is to lock your Blythe away. Get rid of her until you need her (during EDITS, silly editor.) Do not let yourself start judging your story when you’re only halfway done writing it.

Store the Shiny New Things for Later

Lastly, I want to make one thing crystal clear.

I do not want you to ignore those Shiny New Things.

You’re going to need them! Eventually. Just not right this minute.

So write them down. Even spend a little time using the How to Develop + Test a Story Idea system of idea development on the especially juicy ones. Having them recorded will ease your poor writer’s brain and let you move onward and forward with your current WIP.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Make a Commitment!   Grab a notebook and write IDEAS across the front cover. This is your handy dandy, super duper Shiny New Thing containment unit. Commit to writing those bright ideas down and not let them stick you in a never ending loop of writing half a book and then deciding it’s crap when the next Shiny New Thing comes along.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your commitment. Just come on by and voice your determination to FINISH THAT FIRST DRAFT.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

P.S.

I’m giving away 5 FREE Spots in The Plotting Workshop. You can enter to win right here!

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Ninja Writers Academy: Third Person Vs. Omniscient POV

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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Ninja Writers Academy

Someone on the Facebook group asked for an Academy post about the difference between third person and the omniscient point of view. Since I’m in the middle of a revision on my work-in-progress from third person to omniscient, this seemed like a great time to do it.

First some definitions.

Third person point of view is a story told using the pronouns he, she, they.

If a story is told from only one point of view at a time and uses the he, she, they pronouns, it’s called Third Person Limited. There can be more than one point of view in this type of story, but generally the switch happens at a scene or chapter break. When the story is centered on one character’s point of view, the reader only gets to know what that particular character needs.

Omniscient point of view is also third person, but it’s told from the point of view of a narrator who knows what’s going on in the heads of multiple characters. Often this comes across as the story being told from the author’s point of view. Sometimes there’s an actual character, such as in The Book Thief, where the narrator is death.

The main difference between limited and omniscient third person is how much the narrator knows.

If the story is being told in limited third person, you have to stay tightly in that character’s head. You can’t share what any other characters are thinking or feeling, outside what they share with the POV character or what that character observes.

If the story is told in omniscient third person, you can share what the narrator, who is not a character in the story, knows–which can be everything. So, if you have two characters in a scene, the reader can know what’s going on in both of their heads as they interact and how each of them responds to the other.

You want to be careful, when you’re writing in the omniscient POV that you aren’t actually writing in third limited and just head hopping.

Head hopping means switching from one limited POV to another in the same scene, telling the story from first one character’s POV and then another’s, instead of from the POV of an omniscient narrator.

Here’s what head hopping in third limited looks like:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her.

“What do you think I’m doing?” She hated the way he acted like she was doing something wrong, all the damned time. She wanted to lash out, kick him in the balls, something to wipe that look off his face.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” He didn’t need to do this. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking.

And here’s the same scene in omniscient:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d losst his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her. She was so angry, she felt it vibrating in her bones.

“What do you think I’m doing?” She wasn’t going to answer to him. He could go to hell for all she cared. He felt like he was in hell, so he was halfway there. They both tightened their fists at their sides, each of them holding back from lashing out physically. She wanted to kick him in the balls. He wanted to put her over his knee.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” Enough. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking. Her hands relaxed in shocked reaction to his withdrawal. No. He was bluffing. He cared.

And, here’s the same scene in limited third person with no head hopping:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Her fists tightened at her sides and he felt his own nails digging into his palms. He’d never wanted to hurt a woman before, never once in his life, but he found himself holding back from putting this one over his knee. Jesus, she pissed him off.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” He didn’t need to do this. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking.

So, third person limited is closer. It’s more intimate. But it also, as the name suggests, is limiting. The reader doesn’t get to know more than the character whose head the author is writing from does. Depending on how close you keep the lens, and from what time in the future you’re telling the story, the story will probably feel more immediate in a limited point of view.

Omniscient is wider and it’s less intimate. It’s told from much further away, so it can come off as distant. The reader, though, gets the benefit of knowing what the narrator wants to share about any character, even in the same scene. While it’s less immediate, there’s lots of room for reflection in an omniscient point of view. If you want to try omniscient, but want to draw the reader closer to the story and increase the immediacy, you can try omniscient present tense.

Here’s how present tense omniscient third person looks:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looks at him like he’s lost his mind. Like he is doing something wrong, questioning her. She is so angry, she feels it vibrating in her bones.

“What do you think I’m doing?” She isn’t going to answer to him. He can go to hell for all she cares. He feels like he is in hell, so he’s halfway there. They both tighten their fists at their sides, each of them holding back from lashing out physically. She wants to kick him in the balls. He wants to put her over his knee.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” Enough. He’s had enough. If she isn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’ll stop asking. Her hands relax in shock reaction to his withdrawal. No. He’s bluffing. He cares.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Try writing or revising a scene from your work in progress in third limited and third omniscient to get a feel for both. Give third omniscient present tense a try, too.

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at noon PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

Continue Reading

Ninja Writers Academy: Show Vs. Tell

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Put Me There Assignment

Ninja Writers Academy-The Put Me There Assignment

Someone posted in our Facebook group about showing and telling and I thought–what a great topic for this week’s Academy post.

Let’s start with some definitions.

SHOWING is scene. It puts the reader in the time and place of the events in the story. When you show, you take the reader to the party with you.

TELLING is narrative or exposition. It leaves the reader in their own time and place, learning about an event that took place somewhere else, sometime else. When you tell, you tell the reader about the party after it’s over.

There is a place for exposition. Sometimes you just need the reader to know that something happened, but they don’t need to actually be at that party with you. But, if you find yourself with pages and pages, or worse chapters and chapters, full of telling, it’s time to unpack some of that into scene.

This week, I’d like you to look at your manuscript. Try printing out some of it, if you can. Highlight showing in one color and telling in another. Look at the telling and ask yourself if any of it should be expanded into a scene.

Scenes usually have dialogue–either between two or more characters or interior dialogue if the character is alone. Scenes unfold for the reader as they unfold for the characters.

My Turn

I’m just going to give you an example this week.

Telling

Rob watched the ambulance leave with Mattie in it. The cop had him in the backseat, because he was brown. Guy was standing on the lawn, because he wasn’t.

Showing

Rob couldn’t see or hear what happened between Mattie and the paramedics, but when the ambulance pulled away, Guy was still standing on the grass.

“What’s your name?” He asked the male cop.

“Farmer.”

“Officer Farmer.” Rob tried to be authentically respectful, but didn’t think he quite made it all the way there. “I have ID in my wallet. In my pocket.”

Farmer didn’t move for a long moment. He watched Guy pacing the grass. Finally, he got out of the back seat of the cruiser and came around to dig Rob’s wallet out of his pocket.

He opened it and found his driver’s license. “Shit.”

“Right?” Rob said. “Want to let me go?”

Farmer uncuffed him. “I’m just doing my job.”

“And I’m the brown one. I get it.”

“It’s not like that.” Farmer walked toward his partner, then stopped and came back. “I’m not like that. Griffith!”

The female officer came toward them.

“This is Robert Huntington,” he said. “And this is his house.”

“He does not own this house.” Guy kept back, on the porch, as if he wanted to keep his claim. “Not anymore anyway. And he broke my nose.”

Griffith came closer to him. “The EMTs should have taken a look at that.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’ll need to have it set.”

“Why aren’t you arresting him?” Guy swung an arm toward Rob.

“We’ll get a report from the girl,” Farmer said.

“Where are they taking her?” Rob asked, ignoring Guy.

“UMC.” Griffith looked at Rob for a moment, then her partner. “Go on.”

He took his wallet back from Farmer and fumbled Frank’s keys out of his pocket.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick a an expository piece from your work in progress and open it up into a scene.

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at noon PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

Continue Reading

Ninja Writers Academy: Voice

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Who’s Telling This Story Assignment

Ninja Writers AcademyThe Who's Telling This Story Assignment

I know we’ve talked about point of view and tense before, but I want to spend some time today talking about how those things contribute to voice.

Tense and point of view give your reader a sense of who is telling your story and from what distance.

For instance, a story told from an omniscient point of view (this is someone outside of the story relating it to the reader, a god-like narrator who has access to any character’s thoughts and experiences) in the past tense from a point in time far removed from the events tells the story with a wide lens, from a far distance. It’s like sitting around a campfire and being told a story.

A story told in the first person, present tense has a much narrower lens, right? It’s like the narrator (who is the protagonist, usually) dragging you through the events of the story with them, as they are happening.

So, take The Book Thief. It’s told from the omniscient point of view of death from a distance of decades after the events of the story.  It does feel like you met death one day and he’s all–hey, let me tell you this story about this girl. It’s moving and it draws you in, and it’s powerful. There’s lots of space for reflection, because there is so much space between the story that’s being told and when it’s being told.

Then take The Hunger Games, which is told in first person, present tense. It’s so immediate that the reader barely has space to breathe. You feel it right down to your toes when Prim’s name is called at the very end of chapter one and when Katniss yells “I volunteer as tribute!” you’re right there with her.

This week, I’d like you to take a look at your Work-in-Progress and think about the tense and point-of-view of your story, and think about whether or not it reflects the voice you want to employ to tell your story. If you’re not sure, play around, change the tense for a scene or two. Come on over and share a piece of your writing that really shows off your voice.

My Turn

My work in progress is called The Undergrounders and is a Robin Hood retelling set in modern Las Vegas. It’s told from a third person point of view, alternating between the point of view of Rob and Mattie (my Robin and Marion characters.) It’s told in the past tense, from a distance of a few months after the events of the story–so fairly close.

Here’s a scene from Mattie’s point of view, the way it is now in my manuscript:

Mattie eased her father’s bedroom door closed, holding the knob until it latched into place. She resolved, for the hundredth time in the last several weeks, to make him go to a doctor.

She wished she could remember better the last time he’d lost himself this way. She was only six when her mother died. Back then it felt like she’d lost both of her parents.

She knew now that he’d become addicted to the opiates that controlled the pain from his back injury, and that while he struggled with his addiction, Jack took care of them both.

Jack Huntington saved them by moving them into a villa at The Nott and moving with Robin into the villa next door. He’d always been Mattie’s hero. He brought her dad back to her. And now they were both gone.

She couldn’t decide if what was happening to Frank now was a relapse into his addiction, or something else. She didn’t know which to hope for. He could recover again, if he’d relapsed. At least it would be the devil they knew. If he was sick—she shook her head, unable to even follow that thought through.

Every time he slept, she had a surge of hope that he’d wake up and be her dad again. Her real dad, not this alien who had taken over his body.

She was afraid of what the doctor would find wrong with him. It could be something terrible—even worse than addiction. A brain tumor or cancer or some freak mental illness.

Here’s the same scene, re-written so that it’s told in the present tense from the first person point of view:

I ease my father’s bedroom door closed, holding the knob until it latches into place. I resolve, for the hundredth time in the last several weeks, to make him go to a doctor.

I wish I can remember better the last time he lost himself this way. I was only six when my mother died. Back then it felt like I’d lost both of my parents.

I know now that he became addicted to the opiates that controlled the pain from his back injury, and that while he struggled with his addiction, Jack took care of both of us.

Jack Huntington saved us by moving us into a villa at The Nott and moving with Robin into the villa next door. He has always been my hero. He brought my dad back to me. And now they are both gone.

I can’t decide if what is happening to Frank now is a relapse into his addiction, or something else. I don’t know which to hope for. He can recover again, if he’s relapsed. At least it would be the devil we know. If he is sick—I shake my head, unable to even follow that thought through.

Every time he sleeps, I have a surge of hope that he’ll wake up and be my dad again. My real dad, not this alien who has taken over his body.

I’m afraid of what the doctor will find wrong with him. It might be something terrible—even worse than addiction. A brain tumor or cancer or some freak mental illness.

Can you see the difference in voice between the two scenes? With two point of view characters, I probably won’t use a first person point of view in my final draft. (I’ve seen that done, but I have never liked it.) I’m not sure if I’d like third person, present tense either for this story. I like having some space for reflection.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick a scene from your work in progress and play around with the tense and point of view. Is it portraying the voice you want it to? 

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at noon PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link

Continue Reading

Ninja Writers Academy: Dialogue Between More Than Two People

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Three’s a Crowd Assignment

Ninja Writers Acadmey-The Three's A Crowd Assignment

Continuing our little series on writing dialogue, I thought that this week we’d talk about writing a conversation between more than two people.

There are some special considerations to keep in mind when you’re writing dialogue that involves more than two people. Attribution becomes more important. When two people are talking it usually looks something like this: A, B, A, B, and so on. Two people generally take turns talking, which makes it super easy for the reader to keep track of who is saying what.

But, add in even one more person and suddenly things are way more complicated. Because three people don’t usually take turns the same way. A three-way conversation doesn’t usually look like this: A, B, C, A, B, C. It’s more like A, B, A, B, C, B, A, C, B, C, B.

You’ll need to attribute more often. You can do that with simple attribution: “Dialogue,” she said.

Or with a beat: “Dialogue.” She did something.

Or with one character saying another’s name, which is something that happens more often in natural dialogue when there are more than two people involved.

Often there is a focal character in any round of dialogue. One person who both (or all) of the other characters are talking to. The cadence would look like this, then: A, C, B, C, A, C, B, C, B, C — and so on.

I will pretty much always fall on the side of less wordiness, so my advice is to use as few words of attribution as you can get away with. If you have three people talking to each other, but two of them have a back and forth, the reader should be able to follow that without attributing every line. Beats should always do double duty, attributing AND somehow moving the story forward with character or plot development.

My Turn

Here’s a little bit of dialogue from my work in progress, a Robin Hood retelling. This is a confrontation between my Robin, Marion, and Guy of Gisbourne characters. Robin and Mattie arrive at Locklsey, Robin’s childhood home, and find Guy living in it.

This is a good example, because you can see how Guy is the center of this conversation. Rob and Mattie take turns talking to him. It’s more important for me to attribute Rob and Mattie’s lines of dialogue than Guy’s, because he’s speaking every other line. There’s also a part where Rob and Guy have a back and forth, which doesn’t need as much attribution.

“Stop it.” When Guy bucked again, Rob let go of one of his arms long enough to slap him across the face, once, hard. “Why do you have to be such an asshole?”

The slap did the trick. Guy went slack. Rob looked at him through a breath or two, then started to get up. As soon as he had his feet under him and was baring his own weight, Guy pushed him with both hands and sent him sprawling.

“Enough!” Mattie put herself between Guy and Rob again. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What do you think you’re doing, Guy?” Rob asked when they were both on their feet. Guy fought like he was protecting his home.

“Jack left this place to Philip. And Philip gave it to me.”

“What are you talking about?” Rob looked around, desperately trying to bring up something. Some memory. Anything that would verify to himself that Locksley was his to fight for. “The will was just read an hour ago. How long have you been here?”

“Your father left it to rot. I’m the one who’s brought it back to life.” He reached a hand toward Mattie. “I was going to show you. Soon.”

“Guy.” Mattie took a step closer to Guy, but stopped when Rob shot her a look. “You had to know this place wasn’t yours. Not really.”

“Jack left it to Philip.”

“Does that even make sense to you?” Rob asked. “My dad’s only been dead for twenty-four hours. Did he know you were living here?”

“You don’t deserve Locksley. You don’t deserve–” Guy shifted his gaze to Mattie, then launched himself at Rob again.

Rob was ready, even desperate for it, but Guy’s next shot was interrupted by Mattie when she stepped in front of him.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Write a piece of dialogue that involves more than two people. Pay attention to how you keep who is talking straight.

Come by Facebook and tell us about your MC’s clan. I’ll be out of town tomorrow again, so office hours are TODAY at 5 p.m. PST.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link

Continue Reading

Ninja Writers Academy: Writing Beats

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Little Things Assignment

Ninja Writers AcademyThe Little Things Assignment

Last week we talked about attributing your dialogue. Today I want to go a little deeper into the idea of using beats to enhance, direct, and clarify your dialogue.

A beat is a small bit of action that is attached to a line of dialogue. Instead of writing ‘she said’ or ‘he asked’, a beat not only lets the reader know who is speaking, it builds the scene by giving the reader a visual. A beat can also help with character and setting development.

It’s always a good thing when your writing is multi-purpose. A straight up attribution does one thing: it tells the reader who is speaking. Nothing more, nothing less.

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