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Individual Writing Tips

And It Was Just Right

Twisted Plots

One Perfect Rose

Don’t Skin the Cat!

Coincidentally...

Becoming a Hero

Climbing Up to Kaboom

Rise up & Commit

Foiled Plans

Lights, Camera, Kickoff

Fixing the Most Common Intermediate Mistake

The Most Common Intermediate Mistake

The Art & Necessity of Critique

Set up & Pay Off

A POV Footnote

Single Spy to a Teeming Hoarde

Tense Persons

Villains

High Concept

Scoring in the Elevator

Show and Tell

Taking Out the Trash

Tale of Two Synopsises

Rising to the Occasion

Middle-of-the-Novel mud

Doghouse on Malibu Beach

Taking Away the Easy Button

Pitching to the Pros

Hunting for an agent

Playing for higher stakes

Exploding writing myths

Are you the next American Idol?

A Time to Write

TV or Not TV

What Colour Hat Does Your Universe Wear?

How Big a Hammer?

The Irrational Optimism of Writers

The Pesky Typo Hunt

A Point of
E-tiquette

Making Your Reader Believe

The Art and Necessity of Critique: Part 2

The Art and Necessity of Critique: Part 1

Writing the Other

Beating the evil TV

Badge & Handcuffs

The Editor is Never Wrong, Mostly

Do You Want a Cookie?

But What Do the Trees Say?

Writing the Dread Synopsis

Writing Children's vs. Adult Books

Writing tip for Summer '10:

A POV Footnote:
How many beginner mistakes can be avoided by writing in close 3rd person

In my winter writing tip, I talked about the advantages and disadvantages of 1st and 3rd person POV--and I devoted maybe two paragraphs to writing in close 3rd person POV.

However, writing that tip set me thinking about POV choices, and over the last six months I've realized that writing in close 3rd person, instead of distant 3rd person, also makes it harder for a writer to commit a whole host of beginner mistakes--so this tip is really a three page footnote to my winter tip on POV.  But footnotes aren't always something you can skip.

Distant 3rd person is when you write as the author, looking at the characters' actions and recounting them from...well, a distance:

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward the bird feeder.  "Stupid squirrels," she muttered.  The squirrel stopped and looked right at her, defiantly.  She stood, and went to get her broom to chase it away.

Close 3rd person is when you see the scene from inside the POV character's mind, heart and body:

The squirrel ambled down the fence toward the birdfeeder, as if the disgusting creature had every right to be there.  Kathy felt as if her head were going to explode.  Calm.  Deep breath.  "Stupid squirrels."  Her voice was level, almost amused.  Her anger management coach would have been proud of her.  Then the squirrel stopped and looked right at her, rodent defiance in its beady eyes.  Prickles of rage swept over Kathy's skin and down her forearms.  Screw anger management.  She stood, and went for the broom.

Close 3rd person is always longer...but look how much more impact those extra words give you. (Yes, it's a bit overwritten, but you get the point.)  And in addition to more impact on the reader, if you're writing in close 3rd person, really inside your main character's mind and skin, you're far less likely to:

*Suffer from POV drift.  If you're deeply into Kathy's anger and her struggle to control it, you're a lot less likely to go hopping into other character's heads.

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward the bird feeder.  "Stupid squirrels," she muttered.

The squirrel stopped and looked at her.  Why did the big one always try to keep it from the food, it wondered.  It had children to feed too.

Kathy saw the squirrel looking at her, defiantly, and went to get her broom to chase it away.

If you're deeply engaged in Kathy's anger, you won't be  nearly as tempted to tell the reader what the squirrel thinks.  Or to hop into the thoughts of other human characters in your scene, either.

*Have your character act (or react) without sufficient motive for her actions.

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward the bird feeder.  "Stupid squirrels," she muttered.  The squirrel stopped and looked right at her, defiantly.  She stood, and went to the telephone to call Helen and complain about the way those squirrels wiped out a whole feeder.  She could see the squirrel shoveling seed out of the feeder as she spoke.  Helen said their boss was just like that squirrel, cutting the company match out of their retirement plans.

Of course, the real reason this happens is that the author brought the squirrel into the story in the first place as a thin device to inspire Kathy to call Helen so they could grouse about the boss.  But no one fighting the squirrel vs. birdfeeder war would ever be able to chat calmly on the phone while their feeder was being emptied--and seeing Kathy do it feels fake to the reader.  The solution to this  problem, by the way, is to either have Kathy storm out, kill the squirrel with the broom (a lucky blow) and get arrested when a neighbor calls the police to report her for violating animal rights and generally acting crazy.  Kathy can then call Helen to bail her out, and on the way home the subject of the retirement plan comes up.  Or, you can just forget the stupid squirrel and have Kathy call Helen to bitch about company policy.

*Have your characters say things a real person wouldn't say.

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward the bird feeder.  "Pesky varmints," she muttered.  The squirrel stopped and looked right at her, defiantly.  She stood and went to get her broom to chase it away.

Mind, if you give Kathy the right cultural background and voice, she could say "pesky varmints".

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward her birdfeeder.  "Pesky varmints," she muttered.  Bob had built that feeder with his own hands, damnit, and she worked hard for the money to buy that seed!  The squirrel stopped and looked right at her, sassing her.  Dissing her, as the grandkids would say.  Enough!  She stood, and went to get her shotgun.

Voice, which most editors and agents will tell you is the first thing they look for in a story, springs from writing so close to your POV character that the story--even in 3rd person--comes through in the character's voice instead of yours.

*Show don't tell.  This is one of the most essential differences between close and distant 3rd person.  Look at all the bits of the second paragraph that reveal Kathy's bone deep anger--an anger that could believably result in squirrelicide.

The squirrel ambled down the fence toward the birdfeeder, as if the disgusting creature had every right to be there.  Kathy felt as if her head were going to explode.  Calm.  Deep breath.  "Stupid squirrels."  Her voice was level, almost amused.  Her anger management coach would have been proud of her.  Then the squirrel stopped and looked right at her, rodent defiance in its beady eyes.  Prickles of rage swept over Kathy's skin and down her forearms.  Screw anger management.  She stood, and went for the broom.

Compared to:

Kathy watched the squirrel amble down the fence toward the bird feeder.  "Stupid squirrels," she muttered.  The squirrel stopped and looked right at her, defiantly.  She stood, and went to get her broom to chase it away.

I have to admit, when I first hit this part of the tip I was tempted to go back and modify the distant paragraph by adding, Kathy was furious.  I didn't, because it would be cheating--my intention was to write distant 3rd person, not to write distant 3rd person badly.  And if you're writing for any age over picture book or beginning reader, almost any flat statement that a character feels some basic emotion is bad writing.  (There are exceptions, but not many.)  However, rereading that original distant paragraph, note that I had to tell readers that Kathy was going for a broom to chase the squirrel away?  In the second paragraph, I don't think there's any doubt in the reader's mind why she's going for that broom.

And notice also how much tension is generated by being able to see and feel Kathy's internal landscape.  In the distant paragraph I don't feel much suspense as she goes for the broom.  In the close one, given how she's feeling and what we now know about her anger issues, it's pretty clear that something bad is about to happen--without my having to resort to clumsy foreshadowing like, Little did Kathy know that when she picked up the broom, she put in motion a train of events...

When you come right down to it, close 3rd person is better writing than distant, on almost every level.  Because if you can write the story from inside your POV character's mind and heart, your readers' minds and hearts will be engaged as well.