I’ve gushed many times about the awesomeness of Janice Hardy’s blog—for good reason. Her writing tips are clear and insightful. She discusses topics more thoroughly than most. And it’s a rare thing when I can’t find an answer to a writing question there.
She’s also a super-fantastic person (I’ve met her in real-life, so I can state that definitively *smile*), and I’m proud to call her one of my best-est writing buddies and an all-around friend. All that said, we kept teasing each other that we’d never guest posted at each other’s blogs.
Ha! I managed to snag her first. And she’s here with a keeper of a post on the secret to better writing (including several of her trademark zombie examples). Please welcome Janice Hardy!
The Secret to Solving 99% of Your Writing Problems — By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
I think at some point in their writing journey, every writer goes looking for the “secret” to writing. Is it the perfect writing template? A members-only plot generator? The ultimate list of words to cut from our manuscripts?
It’s point of view.
I’m a huge believer that mastering point of view (POV) will solve 99% of common writing problems. If a writer understands POV, then showing comes naturally, description is easier to write, character goals are clear, the stakes are personal, and thus stories feel more organic.
POV is all about being inside the character. To be inside a character you have to understand that character, and once you understand her, writing her becomes easier.
#1 — It Encourages Showing, Not Telling
When we tell, we’re explaining what’s going on from an author’s perspective. We describe what we see as if we’re describing a movie to a friend. We’re not inside the head of our character looking out, we’re standing behind her explaining her thoughts and actions. A solid POV keeps us from telling what’s there and focuses on what matters to the character (and thus the plot).
Let’s look at an example that’s heavy on the telling:
Jane knew it was a long jump to the roof of the ambulance, but she had no other way to escape the zombies banging against the locked door of the hospital office she was hiding in. She’d planned on using a makeshift rope from the curtains, but nine more zombies in varying stages of decay moaned from the parking lot below, reaching toward her as she tried to figure out what to do next. Missing the ambulance meant certain death, but she had no other option since Bob was depending on her and the med supplies she’d found.
Do you feel there? It’s nothing but explanation, all telling, no showing, and certainly not how Jane would describe this scene. Now let’s get inside Jane’s head and show this same scene:
Jane peeked out the window and stared at the ambulance, ten, maybe fifteen feet away. And all of it down. She’d need more than a leap of faith to hit that mark. Screw that.
She glanced at the door. Another zombie slammed against it, and a crack spiderwebbed through the glass. She swallowed and gripped the backpack full of antibiotics tighter. Hospitals used safety glass, right? Even in the offices?
“Hold it together, girl,” she muttered, yanking the curtains down. Someone else had broken the window ages ago. Had that been safety glass, too? Maybe she didn’t have as much time as she hoped.
The curtains tore easily, even if the strips were uneven. She braided them, tying the braids together and knotting one end around the radiator bolted to the floor. The rope stretched halfway to the ground, but that drop should could handle.
She slipped the backpack over her shoulders and stepped onto the window ledge, one hand on the rope, and–
A zombie pack staggered out of the hospital directly below her. One jerked and stuck its nose in the air. She sucked in a breath. Holy crap, sniffers. It moaned, turned, then looked right at her. The rest followed her scent, filling the space between her and the ambulance.
Glass shattered behind her.
She gauged the distance again. Still far. Still deadly.
Still better than the alternative.
Jane took a deep breath and leapt.
Are you more engaged now? More there? Apply a solid POV and the telling problem goes away. Forget what you as the author know. What does the character see? How does that fit into her life and her problem at that moment? How does it make her feel?
#2 — It Helps You Know What Needs Describing
POV lets us know what details in a scene are important, because the character is only going to notice and remark upon things that matter to her. After all, when someone is running for their lives, they don’t bother to notice what the drapes look like (unless they plan to use those drapes as a rope).
Jane slipped into the chief of staff’s office and locked the heavy wooden door. Frosted glass covered the top half, with the doctor’s name stenciled in gold letters across the middle: Dr. Harriet Indira. The room was fifteen-foot square, tan walls, and rich leather furniture in dark brown with gold rivets along the seams. Diplomas from Oxford and Johns Hopkins hung on the far wall, opposite the only window.
Knowing that Jane is currently running for her life, do you really think this is how she’d see this room? It’s more likely she’s see:
Jane slipped into an office. Thick door, thinner glass, but at least the zombies hot on her butt couldn’t see through it. She locked the door and forced a calming breath. Then took a shaky one. No other doors. Just pretentious rich-doctor furniture and a single, broken window. Second-story windows were very bad exits. Unless it had a fire escape?
Readers aren’t likely to care who the office belongs to, or what the furniture looks like exactly. Jane certainly doesn’t. She’s more concerned with finding an exit and escaping the zombies behind her.
#3 — It Makes Identifying Goals and Motivations Easier
POV is all about motivations, because it shows how a character sees and feels about the world. Understanding where she’s at emotionally in a scene will determine how she acts in the situation. If a character is just following the plot, how she acts doesn’t feel like it matters. Get inside her head and think about what she’d do and why. Don’t let her wander around doing things without any sense of direction.
The pharmacy door was busted open, the drawers ransacked and empty. She swore and moved on to the nurses’ stations, checking every cart and drawer she passed. At a broken vending machine, she paused to fish out a candy bar stuck in the back, then continued her search for antibiotics. They had to be there somewhere. Bob didn’t have much time left.
Suddenly, a moan echoed in the hallway.
We can see Jane is looking for antibiotics for Bob, but does this feel at all urgent? Does it make you care as a reader or even want to know if she finds the medicine? Probably not. It’s just a basic description of the scene: Jane searches the hospital for antibiotics and runs into zombies. It doesn’t feel like she has a goal here that matters to her. Let’s give her one.
The pharmacy door hung open. No. No, no, no no! Jane darted inside. Drawers yanked out, empty. Refrigerators lay on their sides, also empty. She dropped to her knees and picked up a box with Amoxicillin printed on the label.
The box crumpled in her hands.
There had to be more. In patient rooms, nurses’ stations, hell, even lockers. She’d settle for a bottle of Advil if it brought Bob’s fever down.
Jane rose and moved into the hall. Hospitals had a lot of floors and looters couldn’t have emptied them all. She’d find it somewhere, even if it–
A zombie moaned up ahead, just around the corner.
She backed away. I don’t have time for this, Bob needs me.
The zombie lurched into view.
We don’t need to see a long, protracted search of the hospital to know Jane will search every inch of this place. We can clearly see she’s there to find antibiotics for Bob, and nothing is going to stop her. Not even zombies.
#4 — It Creates Higher Stakes
A solid POV forces us to become the character, if only for a little while, and lets us ask why she’s risking her life or family, or whatever it is that fits the plot. Most of what we ask our characters to do no sane person would comply with. So why is this person willing to act? What about her is making her choose this path? If you can’t find a reason for her to care, then you know where to start looking to raise those stakes. Get inside her head and uncover what she does care about.
Jane crept into the abandoned emergency room, eyes alert for zombies. She avoided the broken glass and pools of dried blood and made her way to the pharmacy. It was a long shot, but Bob’s fever was getting worse and if she couldn’t find him some antibiotics he’d probably die. Her chest tightened. She couldn’t let that happen. No way. They had things to talk about. Things to finally admit to each other.
So Bob’s in bad shape and will die without antibiotics. So what? Do we feel Jane’s fear or worry here? Sure, she says it’s bad and she doesn’t want it to happen, but there’s no real emotion backing it up. This doesn’t strike me as a woman who’d risk being eaten by zombies to save a man who hasn’t even told her he loves her yet. Let’s try hearing from her POV and how she really feels.
Jane crept into the emergency room, pausing in the shadows just past the reception desk. She sniffed. No corpse stench. No faint shuffling sounds either. Hospitals were never safe, but this one didn’t look ready to kill her. At least not yet.
A photo taped to the desk caught her eye. Average guy, toothy smile, short on hair. He was smiling down at a cute woman in bright scrubs like he’d just won the lottery.
Bob smiles at me that way when he thinks I’m not looking.
Her chest tightened. Not right now he didn’t. He just thrashed in his own fever sweat, barely conscious, slipping away with every labored breath.
She pulled the photo down and stuck it in her pocket. Now, where the hell did these people keep the antibiotics?
There’s more revealed here by what isn’t said, and the subtext raises the stakes far higher than stating them outright with little emotion. The hospital isn’t safe, but she’s going in anyway, expecting something to try to kill her. Bob is smiling at her when she’s not looking, so we know he’s hiding his feelings. She keeps a photo of a total stranger because it reminds her of Bob, who might not survive and she has no photo of him and can’t get one (it is the zombie apocalypse after all). Is there any doubt that she has similar feelings and will do whatever she has to do to save Bob?
Next time you’re having trouble with a scene, put yourself in the point of view character’s head. Look out through her eyes and see the scene as she would. Think about the feelings and emotions she’d have and how those emotions would manifest themselves. Determine what matters to her and why, and how she’d reveal those things.
Then go back to the scene and experience it, not just write it.
Point of view has its fingers in pretty much every aspect of writing. If all you’re doing is relating facts about a scene or story, it can sound flat, even empty. But if the scene is described how the character sees it and feels about it, it comes to life. There’s a soul behind the words. A personality. A point of view coloring every word.
Point of view turns writing, into stories.
Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER (A), BLUE FIRE (A) and DARKFALL (A).
She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
Yay! Thank you for such a great post, Janice! I agree completely that understanding and properly using deep point of view solves many of our writing problems.
Sometimes it’s not just about showing. Janice’s “before” examples on tips #3 and #4 have showing and some lines that might be internal thoughts. It’d be easy to think we were “deep enough.” But Janice’s examples show how much more engaging stories can be when we go even deeper, like with those goals and stakes in the “after” examples.
All that said, a few stories might not be appropriate for deep point of view, but the vast majority of stories benefit from a deeper experience. So in general, these are tips we all can apply. Thanks again to Janice for her fabulous advice!
Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)
Do you struggle with deep point of view? Are some areas easier for you to implement deep POV than others? What are your favorite ways to use deep POV? Do you have any tips to add? Do you have any questions for Janice?Pin It