Strong ‘Voice’ in YA fantasy

As discussed here, YA fantasy is often told as though in the head and present moment of a teen character.  This character tends to be reasonably unobtrusive to allow the reader to essentially imagine they are the character, creating an immersive experience.  In extreme cases the character is little more than a shell or avatar to enter the fantasy.

(The typical POV and voice of adult fantasy is slightly different and is discussed here, and an explanation of what POV and voice means is here.)

What would a strong, obvious voice in a YA fantasy look like?   I have come up with some examples that I think illustrate how it could work.  Some of them are not YA and some are not fantasy, but they are still examples that read to me as examples of things that could be done in YA fantasy.

First up is the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud, which is actually YA fantasy.  The opening chapter is told through the first person voice of a demon summoned by the protagonist to do its bidding:

The kid spoke. Very Squeakily. ‘I charge you… to… to…’ Get on with it! ‘…t-t-tell me your n-name.’

That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew and I knew that he knew my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab – you don’t get just anybody when you call.

I chose a rich, deep, dark chocolatey sort of voice, the kind that resounds from everywhere and nowhere and makes the hairs stand up on the back of inexperienced necks.


I saw the kid give a strangled kind of gulp when he heard the word. Good – he wasn’t entirely stupid then: he knew who and what I was. He knew my reputation.

After taking a moment to swallow some accumulated phlegm he spoke again. ‘I-I charge you again to answer. Are you that B-Bartimaeus who in olden times was summoned by the magicians to repair the walls of Prague?’

What a time-water this kid was. Who else would it be?

This is a clever strategy, in that it allows the writer to go nuts with the witty commentary and giving the fantasy story an original perspective, without affecting the likability of the protagonist. The story switches between this first person narrative, and a third person perspective of the protagonist, which allows for the reader to inhabit a more emotional space with the protagonist as well.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is another fantasy with a strong voice, following a teen protagonist. It is not marketed as YA due to its extremely dark subject matter, but is stylistically very similar to YA in other respects.  Obviously part of the reason this character is interesting is shock value, and you would lose some of that by making the character’s thoughts less R-rated, but it illustrates that an unlikeable character with a strong voice can still be interesting.

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows-post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.

The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, come peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.

‘Water! Water!’ It’s always water with the dying. Strange, it’s killing that gives me thirst.

And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it.

War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing.

Lawrence has said that Prince of Thorns was inspired by A Clockwork Orange, which is also an example of a strong voice with a slightly fantastical premise.

An example of a strong YA voice in historical fiction is Catherine Jinks’ Pagan’s Crusade, which plays against the conventions and expectations of historical fiction by using minimalism:

A big man in brown, sitting behind a table. Big hands. Big chest. Short and broad. Head like a rock, face scarred like a battleaxe. He looks up and sees — what’s this? A street urchin? Whatever it is, it’s trouble. Trouble advances cautiously.

‘They said I should report to the Standard-Bearer.’

The big man nods.

‘You can call me sir,’ he says. (Voice like gravel rattling in a cast-iron pot.) He pulls out a quill pen. ‘Name?’ he says.


Rockhead smells rich and rare, like a well-matured piece of cheese. No baths for the Templars. Hot water is for girls and porridge and other soft, wet things. If a Templar wants a bath he can go and stand in the rain. That’s what God put if there for.

‘And where did you come from, Kidrouk?’ (The unspoken question: out of a slop bucket?) Rockhead is highly suspicious. You can see what he’s thinking. Just look at this runt! Spells like the Infidel, and looks like a bedouin boy. Skin the colour of braised almonds. Built like a horsewhip. Black hair. Black eyes. What in the name of God is this Order coming to? We’ll be recruiting stray dogs next.

As an adult, I think this is fantastic writing. As a young teen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It is minimalist to the point of being cryptic.  I probably mostly stuck with it because it was not a long book to stick with and because I loved historical fiction, but I would have been just as happy if not more happy with a neutral character, more descriptions, and less witty asides. The other kids at school who read it were even less forgiving than me, finding Pagan’s voice ridiculous: It was sooo stupid. Christ in a cream cheese sauce? Who says that?

Pagan’s Crusade illustrates that a strong voice narrating an unfamiliar world can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers a much more original story. On the other, you have to work a lot harder to understand what is going on. If Pagan’s Crusade was a fantasy and not about the Crusades, it would be even harder to decipher. You can bring prior knowledge of the Crusades to reading the novel, so words like Templar, Infidel, and bedouin already have meaning. If your entire knowledge of the situation had to be derived from Pagan’s narration, it could become frustratingly obtuse.

In Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, the narrator is a young British spy who has been captured by the Nazi’s, and her narration cushions the reader with more explanations than Pagan’s, and is not shocking like Jorg or Bartimaeus, but still has a sense of personality:

Von Linden has said I have two weeks and that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to.

Von Linden resembles Captain Hook in that he is rather an upright sort of gentleman in spite of his being a brute, and I am quite Pan-like in my naive confidence that he will play by the rules and keep his word. So far, he has. To start off my confession, he gave me this lovely creamy embossed stationery from the Chateau de Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Castle Hotel, which is what this building use to be. (I would not have believed a French hotel could become so forbiddingly bleak if I had not seen the barred shutters and padlocked doors with my own eyes. But you have also managed to make the whole beautiful city of Ormaie look bleak.)

It is rather a lot to be resting on a single code set, but in addition to my treasonous account I have also promised von Linden my soul, although I do not think he takes this seriously. Anyway, it will be a relief to write anything that isn’t connected with code. I’m so dreadfully sick of spewing wireless code. Only when we’d put all those lists to paper did I realise what a huge supply of code I do actually have in me.

It’s jolly astonishing, really.


I’m just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you do to enemy agents.

I have mixed feelings about how well this narrator works.  The character has views and opinions, but they are not views and opinions that give me a strong sense that she has an interesting personality.  She’s in an interesting situation to be sure, but the fact she dislikes Nazi’s could describe just about everyone.  Reading Peter Pan, being slightly defiant, and casually using ‘jolly’ tell us she’s British, but that’s about it.  The fact she likes quality stationery is also not particularly interesting.  I felt that the narration didn’t sound convincingly like what it was supposed to be, which was the narrator’s response to her captors insisting she write down everything she knew – that is, they wanted specific information for military purposes.  Were they really happy to keep providing her with stationery and time to write this meandering, insulting memoir?  It reads like the character’s internal thoughts, not what they’d actually have the opportunity to write down in this situation.

Having read the whole book, I’m aware that there are plot reasons for adopting this POV.  What there are not plot reasons for is why the writing sounds like it’s been calmly written by a writer who has time to write every thought that goes through a character’s head, and who is not being held prisoner by the Nazis.  Still, it’s worth reading because it plays with voice and POV to create an unreliable narrator and use this to effect.

Contemporary YA fiction is much more likely than fantasy or historical YA to feature characters with strong voices that are nevertheless pretty ordinary, sympathetic, relatable people. This is assisted to some extent by accessing experiences and cultural references that the reader can recognise, but it can also be done on its own terms.

For example, the very popular John Green writes in third person in An Abundance of Katherines. It is a third person with a strong sense of commentary, and this commentary doesn’t necessarily rely on pop culture references, for example:

Colin took a deep breath and slid down, immersing his head. I am crying, he thought, opening his eyes to stare through the soapy, stinging water. I feel like I am crying, so I must be crying, but it’s impossible to tell because I’m underwater. But he wasn’t crying. Curiously, he felt too depressed to cry. Too hurt. It felt as if she’d taken the part of him that cried.

He opened the drain in the tub, stood up, towelled off, and got dressed. When he exited the bathroom, his parents were sitting together on his bed. It was never a good sign when both his parents were in his room at the same time. Over the years it had meant:

1. Your grandmother/grandfather/Aunt-Suzie-whom-you-never-met-but-trust-me-she-was- nice-and-it’s-a-shame is dead.

2. You’re letting a girl named Katherine distract you from your studies.

3. Babies are made through an act that you will eventually find intriguing but for right now will just sort of horrify you, and also sometimes people do stuff that involves baby-making parts that does not actually involve making babies, like for instance kiss each other in places that are not on the face.

It never meant:

4. A girl named Katherine called while you were in the bathtub. She’s sorry. She still loves you and has made a terrible mistake and is waiting for you downstairs.

But even so, Colin couldn’t help but hope that his parents were in the room to provide news of the Number 4 variety.

Apart from the modern plumbing, you could use this passage in a fantasy novel, and it would not obstruct the reader from enjoying the story.  It has a sense of personality, but the personality works to draw the reader in through relatable observations, rather than to create a sense of separateness between the narrator and the reader.

POV and Voice in YA Fantasy

The overt or sneaky reconstruction of the past from a wise, well-informed, writerly narrator is the standard in classic fantasy, but YA fantasy tends to avoid this approach.

(To recap, you can get up to speed on what POV and Voice mean here, and you can read my discussion of POV and voice in classic adult fantasy here.)

Examples of Present Tense First Person:

YA fantasy is commonly written in present tense first person, which is very unpopular in adult epic fantasy, though often features in adult urban fantasy.

The opening of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games begins:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my other’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat…

The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson also adopts a first person present tense voice:

We run.

My heels crunch sandy shales as my legs pound a steady rhythm. With every fourth step, I suck a lungful of dry air. My chest burns, my thighs ache, and the little toe of my left foot stings with the agony of a ripped blister.

Ahead, Belen glances over his shoulder to check on the rest of us. His boots and his tunic and even his leather eye patch are tinged brownish orange with the dust of this desert plateau. We’ve fallen too far behind, and it’s my fault. He checks his stride, but I wave him on.

Even when it’s not in first person present tense, it has an immediacy and tends to stick closely to the perspective of one character:

The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer adopts a first person retrospective, opening in first person past tense with the main character in mortal peril, then jumping back to perhaps a year previously (also first person past tense) and telling the story forward from there. Despite the story being told in past tense, the narrator’s observations are very much what a teen would think in the moment.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore uses third person past tense, but it holds very closely to the perspective of Katsa, and what she would feel and think as the story unfolds.

Whether in first person or third person, or present or past tense, popular YA fantasy tends to be written in a particular kind of voice. It is a relatively ordered, unobtrusive voice that offers minimal witty commentary. This makes it very similar to the traditional fantasy 3rd person voice, but is what some people describe as ‘deep POV’ or ‘close POV’. That is to say it strips away all the polished asides that the POV character would not know or think, and focuses on what they would know and think in the moment.

An ‘avatar’ for the reader?

These popular YA fantasy novels are written to allow the reader to step into the POV character almost like an empty vessel, rather than presenting a very strong sense of character. It is often said that Bella Swan (of Twilight) is an exceptionally bland character, and I would agree, but I think its also evident that the tweens and teens who are devoted Twilight fans don’t see her that way. Rather than seeing an absence of character, they see Bella as a relatable character.

In fact, Bella is so bland that Twilight constantly begs the question of why any of the other characters have the remotest interest, let alone obsession, with Bella, who is possibly one of the most boring people ever imagined on paper.  Her personality is so absent that it would be more accurate to describe her as an avatar rather than a character.  The kind of ‘character’ you get in porn.

In fact, once you start thinking of Bella Swan as an avatar in the tween equivalent of an erotic fantasy, Twilight makes a whole lot more sense.  It’s basically the fantasy a tween girl has when she hangs that poster of her favourite poster / movie star and dreams of what it would be like if he turned up at her high school and felt the same way about her.  It also explains why Twilight converted so well into 50 Shades of Grey.

You can gather that Katniss (of The Hunger Games) loves her sister Prim and is a fighter, but her opinions and preferences about everyday things are kept very muted. When the Fire and Thorns trilogy starts, the character of Elisa is an insecure, devout nerd who loves pastries and is jealous of her sister, but then she undergoes some experiences which make her a bit more self-aware and for the rest of the story she becomes more of the everywoman, although she is brave and intelligent.

The character of Elspeth in Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody (first person, past tense but told as if from the present moment) always has an element of being prickly and reserved character, and for all the admirable qualities we see her develop as she grows up, she remains an introvert with an insensitive streak, but like Elisa and Katniss these qualities only tend to occasionally pop up in interactions with others. They don’t dominate her ‘voice’.

If you think of the unobtrusive reflective narrator of classic fantasy and stripped away all their adulty observations, you would be left with what the young protagonist is observing as they lived it, which is basically the YA approach. The downside of this is that making the unobtrusive narrator double as the actual voice of the protagonist makes for a pretty bland central character.  It means that the attraction of your story has to be entirely in external events happening to the character.  The character can’t make very many interesting dramatic choices because then the character starts to intrude into the narrative.

Is YA ‘thin’?  Or fantasy-without-the-boring-bits?

If you are an adult or a fairly avid fantasy reader, you may think this approach loses something–YA feels thin and immature.  However, if you find reading adult fantasy as interesting as listening to your parents’ friends lecture you on the best way to minimise their tax and get more roughage in your diet, then YA fantasy becomes fantasy-without-the-boring-bits.  (If you have suffered through The Wheel of Time‘s descent into a bloated mess, the YA approach has a definite appeal.)

Adult fantasy written about teen characters could often be subtitled: ‘the mistakes and fleeting joys of childhood, as explained by an adult who now knows better’. By contrast, a YA writer aims to write something that could be subtitled: ‘come hang out with this teen character because what’s they’re up to is super interesting’.

It is a challenge to get across the sense of a believable and very different world from a limited, single POV.  To make a story in this limited POV convey the nature of the world, the main character’s story has to be driven by and revolve around the nature of the world, which tends to lead to a lot of ‘chosen one’ narratives. This in turn sits very strangely with the main character being so unremarkable.  Luckily there is usually a prophecy or something around to explain that the protagonist was chosen, irrespective of personality or other inherent qualities, which is typically Cause Magic.

The Chosen One Cause Magic story does have a major limitation: there are only so many times this one character with their particular abilities can be the chosen one and save the world.  Contrast this to an interesting detective character who can be called upon to solve many murders.  A fantasy protagonist who defeats the Root of All Evil doesn’t have much else to do, or not anything to top that anyway.  Attempts to create a new, direr evil tend to just not make much sense (eg. The MatrixMagician (Feist)).  A Chosen One series can extend over several books, if you can divide the Chosen One’s task into discrete sub-tasks (eg. in Deltora Quest, there are seven gems to find, and the characters spend a book looking for each one; or in the Death Gate Cycle, there are four worlds and we know the characters are going to have to visit each of them before they have everything they need to Face Evil).


What about you?  Do you prefer adult fantasy or YA?

Next up: what would it look like to write a fantasy story in a strong character voice?

POV and Voice in Classic Fantasy

If you don’t know what POV and voice are, here is a quick recap.

I am writing a YA fantasy and have been experimenting with whether it should be in first or third person.  While I’m thinking about this, I thought it might be a good idea to have a look at how POV and voice is used in some classic adult fantasy novels, YA fantasy novels, and YA novels generally.  This first post outlines some examples and observations about the use of POV and voice in traditional fantasy.

Fantasy and the sneaky tour guide:

Fantasy generally uses some kind of device to assist the reader to ease into and orient themselves in the unfamiliar fantasy world.

Most blatantly this is portal fantasy (where a character from this world discovers a gateway to another world), so you literally transition there and then have someone who can explain everything to you in terms to which you can relate. The portal fantasy is the 20th-21st century version of a ‘boys own adventure’ story (which, in the US, evolved into the ‘Western’), except instead of Englishmen heading off to explore ‘strange and savage lands’, you have someone from ‘our world’ (meaning the society you presume your reader will be from) dropped into other worlds.

With a portal fantasy, you have the option to write in first person or stick to a single POV character (the person travelling through the portal) and your story will still be easy for your reader to follow. Tolkien showed people you could have the benefits of a portal without an actual portal by creating an imaginary Englishland (the Shire – which is basically a quaint pastoral village), from which the characters could easily set off on their adventure to exotic lands, and conceal the ‘tour guide’ function in wise old people who can explain things to the fish-out-of-water Englishy folk, and a disguised third person narrator.

The POV in The Hobbit has an actual omniscient narrator of the traditional kind that actually discusses what it thinks of Bilbo’s actions. But in The Lord of the Rings, the omniscient narrator is much more sneaky and unobtrusive. The narrator is still there – it just operates by controlling the story and your gaze, and filtering your experience through its choice of words, rather than declaring itself and its views didactically. It slips in to give you ‘fun facts about the world of X’ or ‘did you know there’s a story behind the way they’re eating eggs?’ and ‘if you look to the left you’ll see a great panoramic view of the valley’, except it does so in a way that it seems almost as if these thoughts just happen to occur to you or the character while you’re there.

This ‘hidden narrator’ makes your experience of the story much more structured, and adds layers of knowledge neither you nor the character would really have. For example:

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a King crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both elves and men.

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. … [It goes on, so I’ll skip a bit].

So it was that Frodo saw whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Luthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undomiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother’s kin, in Lorien… [etc]

Whose POV are we in? It’s kind of Frodo’s and not Frodo’s. The writer is describing where Frodo is looking and some of his thoughts (‘Frodo guessed…’), but having Frodo know Elrond’s face has in it ‘the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful’ is a bit of a stretch. When we get down to Arwen we get a full diversion into information about what Arwen has been up to, which is odd, because in the previous paragraph Frodo describes her like he doesn’t know who she is.

To illustrate the point, if you were strictly in Frodo’s limited POV, it would more be like this:

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a King crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and Frodo knew he was considered mighty among both elves and men.

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so.

You wouldn’t know who anything more about the mysterious woman, because Frodo doesn’t. If you want the reader to know, you’d have to inform Frodo. eg:

“That’s Arwen, daughter of Elrond,” Sam said.

As soon as you pare it down to what Frodo could really know in limited POV, the ornate, old-fashiony language starts to stick out oddly. This is because limited POV comes across as a representation of the character’s thoughts, even if it’s in third person. The flowery language seems weird because it’s hard to imagine Frodo (or anyone) thinking or speaking in those words. It’s a ‘written’ voice, rather than one of speech / thought.

This is the voice of someone who likes old-fashionedy language and has had some time to reflect and compose their metaphors. It has the personality of someone who feels that the world has become a bit ugly and detached from its natural roots, who revels in the language of old epic poetry, and believes there is a moral order to the universe. It reads like it’s written by someone who likes beautiful arrangements of hymns in echoey Cathedrals, but also doesn’t mind an Irish jig and a pint. It is a voice distrustful of technology and industrialism, and not remotely interested in efficiency. It is preoccupied with but ambivalent about violence, at once hating it and yet unable to see how it is not a necessary evil.

In short, this voice is Tolkien himself.

However, Tolkien obviously felt compelled to explain the POV and voice he was using, because near the end of the book he gives an explanation: Here Bilbo’s hand ended and Frodo had written:


(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.) Together with extracts form Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell.

(This explanation doesn’t entirely make sense because exactly the same narrative voice continues after this point, even though the last pages are allegedly written by another person whose worldview and level of education is very, very different.)

But, ignoring that, it actually is a pretty good explanation of the kind of POV and voice that has come to be standard in modern fantasy writing. That is to say, most modern fantasy is written in past tense, in a single voice, as though events are being reconstructed by someone who has been lucky enough to obtain detailed accounts from all the main characters about what they went through, but has also done their research, and so has also acquired photographs of locations, snippets of folklore, and the kind of historical data that helps to make sense of the story.

All fantasies must give some thought as to how they will help the reader understand and appreciate what is happening.

Overt narrator for comic effect:

In The Once and Future King by T H White, a retelling of King Arthur which is more or less contemporary with The Lord of the Rings, the author creates a narrator that literally translates things to his audience (which is presumed to be his English contemporaries):

“Don’t mind at all,” said Sir Ector. “Very kind of you to say anythin’. Much obliged, I’m sure. Help yourself to port.”

“Good port this.”

“Get it from a friend of mine.”

“But about these boys,” said Sir Grummore.

“How many of them are there, do you know?”

“Two,” said Sir Ector, “counting them both, that is.”

“Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?” inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. “Long way and all that, we know.”

It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.

Although present, the narrator in The Once and Future King has the unusual characteristic of sliding into the actual language of different characters in the narration, which is done in a way that it is not confusing, but more like a comedian doing impressions:

In the afternoons the programme was: Mondays and Fridays, tilting and horsemanship; Tuesdays, hawking; Wednesdays, fencing; Thursdays, archery; Saturdays, the theory of chivalry, with the proper measures to be blown on all occasions, terminology of the chase and hunting etiquette. If you did the wrong thing at the mort or the undoing, for instance, you were bent over the body of the dead beast and smacked with the flat side of a sword. This was called being bladed. It was horseplay, a sort of joke like being shaved when crossing the line. Kay was not bladed, although he often went wrong.

When they had got rid of the governess, Sir Ector said, “After all, damn it all, we can’t have the boys runnin’ about all day like hooligans—after all, damn it all? Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age. When I was their age I was doin’ all this Latin and stuff at five o’clock every mornin’. Happiest time of me life. Pass the port.”

Sir Grummore Grummursum, who was staying the night because he had been benighted out questin’ after a specially long run, said that when he was their age he was swished every mornin’ because he would go hawkin’ instead of learnin’. He attributed to this weakness the fact that he could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand leaf, he said. He thought it was leaf ninety-seven. He passed the port.

Sir Ector said, “Had a good quest today?” Sir Grummore said, “Oh, not so bad. Rattlin’ good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pité choppin’ off a maiden’s head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran.”

As can be seen in the first paragraph, the narrator himself usually speaks in an educated but pared back style, but in the paragraph about Sir Grummore he adopts Sir Grummore’s patois to give a clearer sense of the character.

Looking at T H White’s and Tolkien’s excerpts side by side highlights the differences in their voices. T H White’s voice is dry, funny, and to the point. Tolkien’s voice wears its shining idealistic heart on its sleeve. T H White’s voice has a Seinfeld-esque type eye for everyday vanities and everyday language. Tolkien has a cheesy love for nobility and beauty. (I’m a Tolkien fan, but outside your local Society For Creative Anachronism, waxing lyrical about fair maidens and the nobility of one’s brow is the stuff of comedy.)

Speaking of comedy, a witty, present narrator works quite well for comedy, but can become a challenge if you want to convey tension, horror, excitement, romance, or basically any strong emotion. The pleasure of reading T H White or Terry Pratchett is primarily cerebral.

This doesn’t mean that it can’t be deep or profound, but it does mean that it holds you at a nice, safe distance from your own emotions, so that you’re always kind of conscious that you’re reading the story and not actually there. If you want to create a more immersive experience, you have to tone down the clever commentary and get your voice out of the way so the reader can start experiencing the world vicariously.

Unobtrusive narrator becomes standard in adult fantasy:

The fantasy writers that followed Tolkien adopted the ‘sneaky tour guide narrator’, but gave them a more contemporary voice, avoiding obtrusive olde-worlde purple prose.

For example, here is the opening to David Eddings’ book Pawn of Prophecy:

The kitchen at Faldor’s farm was a large, low-beamed room filled with ovens and kettles and great spits that turned slowly in cavernlike arched fireplaces. There were long, heavy worktables where bread was kneaded into loaves and chickens were cut up and carrots and celery were diced with quick, crisp rocking movements of long, curved knives. When Garion was very small, he played under those tables and soon learned to keep his fingers and toes out from under the feet of the kitchen helpers who worked around them. And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long- handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off into sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.

The center of the kitchen and everything that happened there was Aunt Pol. She seemed somehow to be able to be everywhere at once. The finishing touch that plumped a goose in its roasting pan or deftly shaped a rising loaf or garnished a smoking ham fresh from the oven was always hers. Though there were several others who worked in the kitchen, no loaf, stew, soup, roast, or vegetable ever went out of it that had not been touched at least once by Aunt Pol. She knew by smell, taste, or some higher instinct what each dish required, and she seasoned them all by pinch or trace or a negligent-seeming shake from earthenware spice pots. It was as if there was a kind of magic about her, a knowledge and power beyond that of ordinary people. And yet, even at her busiest, she always knew precisely where Garion was. In the very midst of crimping a pie crust or decorating a special cake or stitching up a freshly stuffed chicken she could, without looking, reach out a leg and hook him back out from under the feet of others with heel or ankle.

As he grew a bit older, it even became a game. Garion would watch until she seemed far too busy to notice him, and then, laughing, he would run on his sturdy little legs toward a door. But she would always catch him. And he would laugh and throw his arms around her neck and kiss her and then go back to watching for his next chance to run away again

He was quite convinced in those early years that his Aunt Pol was quite the most important and beautiful woman in the world.

The objective of this style is to give the impression of being in a character’s POV without a narrator, but to still be able to slip the reader useful bits of information.

It is different from first person or close third person.  The character of Garion himself did not think, as a child, that he was ‘quite convinced in those early years’ of things. These are reflections of another person who is writing about Garion from a more knowledgeable perspective. The vocabulary is simple, but Garion, who can’t be much older than a toddler in this passage, did not have a vocabulary that included words like ‘cavernlike’, ‘bemused’, or ‘negligent-seeming’. They are words chosen to give impressions of Garion’s experience; glimpses, not a truly sustained and limited perspective of being inside his head. It’s more that you feel you are floating in the middle of this kitchen, observing the bustle while exchanging notes with someone about memories of what it was like growing up there.

This is also a great example of the pseudo-portal fantasy device. Here, we open on a domestic scene that most of the audience would recognise. It’s a kid at home watching Mum in the kitchen. Ok, they’re using fireplaces a bit more than your Mum might have, but most of us could relate to being very young, looking up to our Mums as being beautiful, amazingly competent, and almost omniscient. Once the reader is comfortably oriented, the writer will start the adventure, and all the new places will have to be explained to Garion, who will know no more about what’s going on than we do.

A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin starts in a less familiar place, but by giving the impression of the perspective of a young boy as reconstructed through a past tense, third person voice, is able to convey the unfamiliar scene in a way that is fairly easy to follow:

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and he dressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged and greasy.

The breath of man and horse mingled, steaming, in the cold morning air as his lord father had the man cut down from the wall and dragged before them. Robb and Jon sat tall and still on their horses, with Bran between them on his pony, trying to seem older than seven, trying to pretend that he’d seen all this before. A faint wind blew through the holdfast gate. Over their heads flapped the banner of the Starks of Winterfell: a grey direwolf racing across an ice- white field.

Bran’s father sat solemnly on his horse, long brown hair stirring in the wind. His closely trimmed beard was shot with white, making him look older than his thirty-five years. He had a grim cast to his grey eyes this day, and he seemed not at all the man who would sit before the fire in the evening and talk softly of the age of heroes and the children of the forest. He had taken off Father’s face, Bran thought, and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.

The narrator’s voice is very well hidden behind Bran’s perspective. But its presence becomes apparent when you start to think about what would be different if present-tense 7 year old Bran really narrated the story himself. He would be more present on the horse and in his body. There would be a lot more cluttered, random, childish thoughts, not this mature focus on key political details of the landscape and characters.

Would a 7 year old think that a familiar man looks ‘older than his thirty-five years’? Unlikely. When you’re seven, a thirty- five year old is just old, and a man you see every day just looks as old as he looks. In real life, you’d be pretty impressed if a teenager came up with the last sentence, let alone a 7 year old boy. But Martin gets away with it because there is a convention that fantasy (and much other fiction) is written in this way. The character’s ‘real’ thoughts and experience come to us reworded, touched up, photoshopped, and edited for effect by the writer. This approach makes the experience more accessible, aesthetically engaging, and dramatic.

Overtly first person memoirs:

A similar effect is achieved by using first person and a polished past tense as though the character (now, conveniently, a gifted writer) is writing a memoir. This offers the opportunity to recreate a sense of the historical language such a person might have used to write their memoirs. For example, here is an example from The King Must Die: A Novel by Mary Renault:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

Our house is Hellene, sprung from the seed of Ever-Living Zeus. We worship the Sky Gods before Mother Dia and the gods of earth. And we have never mixed our blood with the blood of the Shore People, who had the land before us.

My grandfather had about fifteen children in his household, when I was born. But his queen and her sons were dead, leaving only my mother born in wedlock. As for my father, it was said in the Palace that I had been fathered by a god. By the time I was give, I had perceived that some people doubted this. But my mother never spoke of it; and I cannot remember a time when I should have cared to ask her.

When I was seven, the Horse Sacrifice came due, a great day in Troizen.

It is held four-yearly, so I remembered nothing of the last one. I knew it concerned the King Horse, but thought it was some act of homage to him. To my mind, nothing could have been more fitting. I knew him well.

Much fewer fantasy stories overtly indicate they are memoirs, because saying so tends not to add a lot to a fantasy.  It limits you from showing other viewpoints, and tends to diffuse tension by constantly reminding you in the middle of a scene of mortal peril that the character must end up doing all right. It also means that you inevitably start with sitting in a room, writing, which is not exactly the most riveting kind of beginning.

However, it can be done well.  Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is an example of a story told as an overt memoir:

My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper. I have spoiled another leaf of the fine stuff, in what I suspect is a futile endeavour. I wonder if I can write this history, or if on every page there will be some sneaking show of a bitterness I thought long dead. I think myself cured of all spite, but when I touch pen to paper, the hurt of a boy bleeds out wiht the sea-spawned ink, until I suspect each carefully formed black letter scabs over some ancient scarlet wound.

Both Fedwren and Patience were so filled with enthusiasm whenever a written account of the history of the Six Duchies was discussed that I persuaded myself the writing of it was a worthwhile effort. I convinced myself that the exercise would turn my thoughts aside from my pain and help the time to pass. But each historical event I consider only awakens my own personal shades of loneliness and loss. I fear I will have to set this work aside entirely, or else give in to reconsidering all that has shaped what I have become. And so I begin again, and again, but always find that I am writing of my own beginnings rather than the beginnings of this land. I do not even know to whom I try to explain myself. My life has been a web of secrets, secrets that even now are unsafe to share. Shall I set them all down on fine paper, only to create from them flame and ash? Perhaps.

My memories reach back to when I was six years old. Before that, there is nothing, only a blank gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me. Sometimes it seems too complete, and I wonder if it is truly mine. Am I recalling it from my own mind, or from dozens of retellings by legions of kitchen maids and ranks of scullions and herds of stable boys as they explained my presence to each other.

Even though this is really well-written, and Robin Hobb is my probably my favourite fantasy writer – when you get right down to it I’m not sure that adopting the first person memoir style adds something important.  Fitz’s reflections of how secret and dramatic his life has been read a bit like one of those TV teasers where they try and make it look like something Incredibly Exciting is going to happen in the reality TV show after the ad break, whereas if it really is exciting I’d rather they just got on with it and showed me the exciting thing.

I suppose the memoir voice is used to add some reflections about the nature of memory, which are nice, but not uncuttable.  The memoir voice is used to show this is going to be an adult story despite the story initially being about a child.  However, as the excerpt from A Game of Thrones shows, you can start in a child’s perspective and it can still be completely clear that this is an adult story, but Hobb’s approach drives this home clearly.  I think probably the main thing the POV adds is to orient the reader that this is going to be a tragedy, and probably span many years.

I think it’s worth noting that this is a function of the memoir style – to signal that the perspective and insights will be from a mature adult, even when the subject matter is a child’s experiences – because I think it explains why YA tends to use a very different kind of voice.

Which brings me to the next one of these posts: POV and voice in YA fantasy.

What is POV and Voice?

POV stands for ‘point of view’. It is your imaginary vantage point. It’s where your imaginary camera is located, although it is a special camera that records smells, sensations, and sometimes people’s thoughts, as well as sight and sound.

POV is your vantage point.

Grammar gives you clues to the POV. If you are in first person (I walked) then you know your POV is inside that character’s head. However, it is not the grammar itself that creates this effect, it is what information your camera is picking up. You can convert a passage written in first person to third person (he walked) by changing the grammar and it still feels like you are in the person’s head. So, despite what you were told in high school, POV is not just a matter of whether you use “I” or “she”, but rather recreating a particular vantage point from which you are telling the story.

FYI, second person (you walked) does exist but is rarely used. If you are writing third person, you have various options.

You can write from inside the character’s head, which mimics first person just with slightly different grammar. You can write from just over the character’s shoulder (you see what they see but not their internal thoughts). You can write from over the character’s shoulder and occasionally dip into first person with or without some kind of formatting clue like italics. You can write like an intelligent fly on the wall, observing events but from no particular character’s perspective. Or you can be fully omniscient, popping in and out of characters’ heads at random.

You can also have a particular POV not just in place but in time. For example, you can write a fictional ‘memoir’, looking back and telling us what happened. (‘When I was a child, I used to catch the bus.) Alternatively, you can position yourself in character’s present, experiencing events unfold without foreknowledge (‘I swing my schoolbag onto my shoulders and climb the steps of the bus.’). Often this will be indicated by tense, but not necessarily. You can write in past tense but limit your observations only to the present moment, thereby having a present-day POV despite the tense. (‘I swung my schoolbag onto my shoulders and climbed the steps of the bus.’)

Whatever POV you choose, it is generally a good idea to be consistent, otherwise the reader will find it jarring, and it may look like you don’t know what you’re doing. You will also find that some readers are a bit fascist about POV and believe there are hard and fast rules that you cannot head-hop, and cannot slip in omniscient observations if you are in close third person.

This is not true.

There is no ‘rule’ against head-hopping, just as there never really was a rule against splitting infinitives. However, there are conventions and expectations. In many kinds of fiction, head-hopping is not in fashion and you will piss many people off if you do it. But more than that, it is hard to do head-hopping well, and if done poorly it is hard to follow, dilutes the sense of each character’s personality and perspective, and suffers from association with being a ‘rookie mistake’ that new writers make when they don’t know what they’re doing or can’t think of a more clever way to show how a non-POV character is reacting.

So, if that’s POV, what is voice?

Voice is the personality of the writing, expressed through the style of the language and the opinions of the narrator.

A narrator who begins: ‘I stared at the casket with the dull knowledge that I should probably feel something, but feelings had gone away.’ has a very different voice to the narrator who begins: ‘I love a good funeral .’

Even when a specific character doesn’t narrate, a sense of voice comes across through what is and is not observed. Is this a voice that notices the tragic beauty of a sunset, or one who jogs on to make sure they are home for the 6.30 news while neurotically wondering whether everyone she passes thinks her outfit is too frumpy, or one that immediately assesses the five best locations for a sniper?

Voice can also be expressed through stylistic choices. Is the writing clipped and controlled or do the thoughts jumble into one another? What does the vocabulary and sentence structure tell us about the narrator’s education and knowledge of the world? Is the voice a ‘written voice’, carefully composed, or does it have the spontaneity and immediacy of speech or thought. You can write some or all of a novel in emails or letters, or even text messages, and these choices lead to adopting different voices.

For a discussion of how POV and voice are used in fantasy, I have posts on:


Outline -> Scenes

I’d finally figured out a long summary / synopsis of my story.  I felt like I had it all figured out.  I started to write, then I got stuck.

It turned out that my outline explained what was happening well, but I had not worked out how to tell that story solely through dramatic scenes.  There were some scene ideas that had sprung into my head fully-formed, and that was great, but often the outline gave more general explanations of why things were happening, or statements like “G & B meet and are attracted.  It is very romantic.”

These statements are functional in an outline, but then I sit down to write and think – what on earth are they going to do?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I don’t want it to be this:


My latest task has been to convert the first half of my outline for book 1 into specific scenes, each allocated to a POV character, and so I have been giving some thought to this process.

What does a scene involve?

The difference between a clear scene and mere outlining of your plot is that a scene involves specific things visualised in a specific place, so that you could theoretically pick up a camera and film a scene, and you’d know where and what you were filming.

It is the how, what, where, and why of a moment unfolding in time.  It is the difference between ‘A & B meet’ (outline),  ‘A and B meet at an art gallery’ (the hint of a scene but still pretty much just outline), and ‘A is displaying her art at an avant-garde gallery opening in her last chance to get a break before she’s broke.  She finally get a patron,  and also meets B, who is posing as a work of ‘street art’ to get free canapés’ (scene).

Scenes have to accomplish more than be specific:

  • to be justified, they have to also involve a change that impacts the plot (if you write genre fiction, you will be advised to cut any scene which does not have this quality);
  • to be dramatic, they have to have stakes for the main character and involve a change that advantages or disadvantages the character;
  • they immerse you in the experience of being there by involving most of the five senses of the POV character and being limited to that character’s viewpoint and knowledge;
  • a mood / tone for the reader (eg. funny, scary, romantic, melancholy, exciting, eerie etc.);
  • they have a setting (time and place, sense of space, lighting, temperature, cultural context, significance to POV character); and
  • your characters arrive at the scene in a particular mood, in a particular state of physical health, wearing particular clothes, and with particular objectives (for their day/life, not because they realise they are in a scene, obviously).

Devising scenes to work together

It gets more complicated.  When you end up telling these scenes in order together, you want them to vary dramatically, visually, emotionally etc.  If you have some breathless action scenes, you’ll want to intersperse them with some scenes for everyone to catch their breath.  Your characters should have reversals of fortune – mix up the scenes where things go well and things go badly.  If you have multiple POV characters you want to make sure all of them stay in the story, that the timelines for their scenes make sense and fit together – that is to say, you’ll want to think about continuity.

You’ll probably want to include some early scenes that foreshadow later scenes so that your story builds in a purposeful way.  Hopefully your outline gave some thought to the general structure, but likely there’ll be some gaps, particularly in terms of what specifically happens to advance the subplots.

My process

I first sketched my scenes on Scrivener (which has recently been upgraded and now allows you to arrange your virtual index cards along different plot lines – I have done 3, one for each of my POV characters):

Scrivener layout.jpeg

Each of these ‘cards’ has a more detailed scene or notes attached to it.  I had a number of false starts where I developed some subplots that turned out to be overly complicated to illustrate some minor points.  I have a ‘plot heavy’ story where I’m trying to advance the stories of three main characters, so I needed to make sure that most of my scenes did double or triple duty.  I had to abandon some scene ideas which merely advanced a single aspect of the story.

I chucked down ideas I had for scenes which sounded interesting.  Then to devise the remaining scenes, I jotted down what situation the characters were at the start of this section of the story, and then what situation they were in at the end.  This gave me a bit of a road map of what I was aiming for.  I made notes of anything they had to accomplish in the middle, then I came up with ideas for specifically how they could accomplish those things that seemed en route from their starting situation to their end.  It took some trial and error.

Then I refined what I had on Scrivener by transferring summaries of each scene to physical index cards, fixing details as I went.  I laid these out in order (the colours indicate the POV character, and the shorter first column is a brief opening when the characters are younger):25443023_10157060748553569_328478798931880242_n-1.jpg

Next I blu-tacked these to the wall behind my computer, arranged chronologically and by character:25550480_10157063481503569_2559499043439235188_n-1.jpg

I then added smaller cards to note where the subplots appeared.  I colour coded these using washi tape (which is basically thin, decorative masking tape you can get in a variety of colours and patterns).  The cards with the yellow bands running along the top is a sort of uniting subplot around the family’s political situation.  Here is a close-up:


The events on the cards take place over a couple of years.  This meant I would be going through changing scenes, and the characters would be ageing noticeably (being children), so I devised an impromptu calendar (numbered for the years of the current King’s reign) and made a little chart showing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and how old each of my main characters are as the years turn:


This then allowed me to quickly add notes tracking the season and how old the characters were in various scenes:



The idea of laying it out like this is to help me easily see how the scenes fit together.  I can   consider each subplot separately and check it has a logical progression.  I can check continuity issues when I’m switching POVs and moving forward through time.  A novel is such a big project it can be easy to get lost in it, whereas here I can easily see where everything fits.  If I don’t get all these scenes written over the next couple of weeks, it gives me a clear map that can keep me on track even around all the other distractions of life.

Why ‘omit cliches’ is not complete advice: Book Review

I recently read The Children’s Bach, a novella by Australian author Helen Garner.  This is a very ‘literary’ portrayal of a surburban family facing a disruption.  I have to give it 5 stars for the prose: it is full of gloriously observed details and striking verbs.  However, I found it extremely frustrating.  It is a 2 star book for me overall.

As a writer, what was interesting about it is that it took two pieces of sound writing advice and applied them in ways which, in my view, they undermined the effectiveness of the writing.

Advice: carry a notebook everywhere and jot down your thoughts and observations

Clearly, Garner is the kind of writer that carries a writer’s notebook everywhere.  It’s highly unlikely that anyone could, simply sitting at a computer, randomly come up with the range of carefully observed details of life that this novel contains.  This is the strongest part of the novel in my view, so this advice has not done her a disservice.

However, it does feel a lot like she has bullied all these randomly observed moments into a narrative and tried to give them post-hoc relevance. The result is a bunch of striking descriptions, many of which unfortunately do little to probe the complexities of the realities of domestic servitude, the book’s apparent subject.

It is not carrying the notebook that is the problem, I think, but that the writer’s notebook can be an internal hall of mirrors.  You see it, you write your reflection on it, your reflection captures and reinforces your first instincts and prejudices and seems to confirm them.  Carrying a writer’s notebook is an excellent piece of advice particularly for writers who are trying to find their voice and their own perspective.  But it will only give you back what you put into it.  So unless you stretch yourself to learn about the perspectives of others, to stretch yourself and put yourself in their heads, to research, it will not capture any of those things.

I do not feel that Garner did much researching or listening to other people’s points of view in preparing to write this story.

On the other hand, there is much name-dropping of Educated Cultural References, but not in a way that probes into them or connects them to anything. Rather, the name-dropping is reminiscent of the narrator in American Psycho, whose monologue is peppered with references to designer labels because these are cobbled together to form the facade of a ‘successful Wall Street trader’, to show how this role is a performative one, the realisation of a social expectation, and such markers of success tell us little about what kind of human being the person really is. In The Children’s Bach, it is not a character but Garner herself who litters her observations with such references. The point of view moves fluidly in and out of characters’ heads so that their personalities blur and their subjective perspectives are drowned beneath Garner’s own detached perspective.

Advice: omit cliches

At one point in this book, a character giving artistic advice says:

“Look, I’ll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows ‘It always happens this way’ or ‘I went in with my eyes wide open’. Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don’t. Between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.”

As another reviewer said, this reads something like Garner’s mission statement for the book.

The problem is, cutting cliches is all well and good provided you convey any critical parts of the story in a non-cliched way.  Otherwise, you have just omitted critical parts of the story.

This reads like a book written by a person who either does not feel love or compassion, or who feels that such emotions are themselves cliches.  Apparently, Garner was able to think of many non-cliched ways to describe people being selfish and detached, but whatever observations she may have had on love and happiness did not make the cut.  The result is a book in which the prose is vibrant and evocative, but also where every character appears to be a psychopath. #priorities

The women in this story are all treated like anthropological exhibits, to be catalogued and observed from the outside in order to make them fit the author’s nihilistic world view. The treatment of a disabled child, whose point of view is assumed not to exist at all, is particularly telling. Any suggestion that the child (who is capable of walking around and expressing emotion) has a point of view is quickly derided by everyone as ‘being Romantic about it’. When the babysitter suggests thinking about throwing him under a bus, the child’s mother agrees that she’s thought about doing it many times.

This is presented a bravely honest observation. Uh… no. The primary carer of a moderately disabled child thinking about escaping the relentless burden of that work by throwing the child under a bus would be a bravely honest observation. But such thoughts do not exist in isolation. They are tangled in amongst love, complexities, guilt, not to mention social expectations a primary carer parent would feel in that situation. A person who secretly has fantasies of escape or admits them under pressure is one thing; a mother who casually agrees with a new babysitter about the desirability of throwing her child under a bus, and expresses no love or affection towards her own children at any point in the story is in a whole different category. Like, a diagnosable category.

Instead of throwing the child under the bus, the characters rid themselves of a rabbit. The rabbit tries to cling to safety. They tip it out to die and walk away feeling lighter.

No one in this book thinks about the future or the consequences of their actions. Indeed, no one really thinks about anything. They just feel (but only neutral or miserable feelings), float, and do.

Why this book didn’t work for me

I won’t spoiler what happens, except to say that the simple plot of the book culminates in this line:

“This was modern life, then, this seamless logic, this common sense, this silent tit-for-tat. This was what people did. He did not like it. He hated it. But he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back.”

I am so very sick of this narrative. It reminds me of reading Anne Rice at fifteen, and feeling so very grown up that my understanding of morality could transcend conventional bounds, and the preachy simplistic rules we were given as children. It reminds me of alt-right ‘red pillers’.

The gist of the narrative, for those who are unfamiliar, is that at some point everyone realises that the world’s pretty shallow and awful, and everyone in it is shallow and awful, and freed of that terrible baggage, they now enter a world where hurting people doesn’t really matter any more, and we are freed from guilt about our actions.

This is the well-developed morality of the teenager who, having realised that Disney presents a distortion and their parents are fallible, assumes society knows nothing and stomps off to their room, leaving everyone else to do the dishes for them. Responsible people are a total buzz-kill.

Perhaps when this book was written in 1984, it was feminist simply to focus on a small-scale domestic drama in this way. Perhaps… but to what end?

Female empowerment and sexual liberation? For a novel about female sexual empowerment, the women appear to get little to nothing out of sex. Sex acts and sexual behaviour are not described, but are implied to be for the benefit of men, with the women getting no apparent pleasure out of them. But I suppose this logically flows from the fact that-like robots-none of the women appear to want anything, or aspire to anything. The characters appear to sleep with each other out of sheer boredom. #girlpower

The simplistic choice Athena makes in this story is one shorn of any real dilemma that most real women would have in that situation, and accordingly has little to say about what binds women into these family structures that restrict their choices. Love and attachment play a pivotal role in those structures, so Garner’s artistic omissions fundamentally undermine any kind of coherent feminist critique of Athena’s situation.

Visualising my WIP

I keep thinking my WIP is so much further along than it actually is.  I keep writing words, but it’s like they pour into some black hole of completed novel underestimation.

For a more realistic view of where I’m at, I colour coded the chapters on Scrivener into three categories: first draft written (dark pink), first draft partially written (light pink), and first draft in synopsis (white), and it came up like this:

TLT ProgressI had actually written Part 1 in its entirety, but once I got to the back end and also started getting some feedback, I realised certain things had to change, so I’ve removed the words that will no longer work (they’re safely tucked away), and interspersed what’s left with notes about what will need to be written as a replacement.  The complete Part 1 I think should be a little under 30k.

Part 2 is pretty close to finished.  It just needs some minor tweaks.  Part 3 should be roughly as long as Part 2, so that’s only about half done.  Part 4 has a lot of short chapters, because they start getting shorter as we get to the finale, so I’m going to guess I’m aiming for 30k there too.

This started off as such a simple story, a fairytale for my daughter about three sisters working together to survive a deadly Labyrinth.  But turns out I am incapable of not complicating things.  Now it’s a crazy, 500 page, action-packed, YA mystery puzzle adventure about the politics of fear.  It’s still for my daughter, just for when she’s a bit older.

In other efforts at keeping the story straight, I have done this to my study wall:

TLT wall


That’s all the key points in my story laid out chronologically, with the stories of the 3 protagonists and the subplots running horizontally through.

Here’s a closer shot of the first bit.  I’ve stuck in images where I’ve been able to find any that help me visualise the characters / settings / moods:

TLT Wall 1


What about you?

Do you do anything to help you visualise or track your writing?



Creating a 3 Act Structure from Scratch (Pt 2)

This is the second part of a ‘how to’ on creating your own outline with a 3 Act Structure. You can find the first part here, which dealt with getting started and creating Act 1.  In this part we are going to work out how to take your story to the midpoint.


To illustrate the process, we are creating an example story as we go along.  I don’t promise it’s a brilliant story, but it will illustrate the 3 Act Structure.

Previously, we created endearing bogan siblings, Sarah-Jane and Joe.

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe

For those of you who aren’t  Australian, fiction featuring endearing bogans is an Aussie Tradition, like Vegemite and the ritual sacrifices needed to appease drop bears.

We mapped out Act One.  In this Act, we decided we will learn about Sarah, a shy receptionist who fears creativity. But Sarah’s life gets shaken up when she finds out her brother Joe has terminal cancer.  They both need money.  Joe wants the money to win back the love of his estranged teenage son, who now lives with his cashed-up stepdad. Sarah wants the money to pay for some experimental new cancer treatment for Joe. Having discovered the Nobel prize for literature comes with a pretty substantial prize, they decide to write a novel together to win it.  How hard can it be?

We also know that by the end of our story, Sarah will have discovered her inner creativity, left her receptionist job to run her own cupcake business, and Joe will have passed away but Sarah will have come to terms with his death and have the novel to remember him by. We know that at the start of the novel, Sarah starts to bake because Joe’s sick and that’s what their mother used to do for them when they were sick. Her initial cupcake attempts are inedible.

Where to next?

What the 3 Act structure looks like

Let’s pause a moment to look at what we’re aiming for.

Here are the classic three acts set out in terms of the space they take up, showing where key events in our story should fall:

3 Act Structure So Far

We’ve got an idea of key events at the start, the end, and at about the 25% mark.

You will sometimes get advice that you must have key events in your story in the places specified or you will never get published / be rejected / crawl into a hole and die.  Is this true?

For novelists?  No.

The three act structure is an industry standard for screenwriting. Screenwriters are stuck with pretty rigid running times for their stories (about 100-130 minutes), and this spacing works for them. It gives them up to half an hour to establish and define the characters and central problem (Act 1), about an hour for fun and hijinks as those characters try to deal with the central problem (Act 2), and then up to half an hour for a finale and to wrap things up (Act 3).

For better or worse, novels are not restricted to 100-130 pages (which would be a novella), which gives you a variety of options for spacing your acts if you choose to use a three act structure. For example:

* tell your character’s whole life in 4 parts (childhood, youth, middle age, old age) with each part adhering to a mini 3 act structure;

* a stretching of the three act structure over 300-500 pages, with more complexity (subplots), leisurely detail, and/or intermediate challenges along the way;

* 30 pages or so at the start and end for the first and final act respectively, but a much longer and more complicated middle section;

* a first book which is in 3 acts, but which also doubles as most of the first act of a larger story, as the resolution of the first book raises a new problem which demands a particular course of action (typical structure of a trilogy).

Rather than sticking rigidly to the screenwriting formula, novelists can just take it as a starting point, then see what pacing feels right for their story. If the story is slowing down or getting boring, you either need to shorten that section, or add more complexity and moments of interest within the space you have. If things feel rushed, you either need to lengthen it and expand on some aspects what happen, or simplify what happens within the space.

But for now, let’s use the screenwriter’s structure as a guide to further develop our story.

Step 5

Identify some information you can withhold from the reader which prevents your character from initially seeing the true nature of the central problem.

You know how I said we had Act 1 worked out? I lied. But it was for a good reason, so bear with me.

In our story, Sarah-Jane knows the central problem she has to deal with from the outset, namely that her brother has cancer. Sure, she could still learn that it’s advancing a bit faster than she thought or something, but her fundamental understanding of the problem is pretty much correct.

This is not going to work.

What is supposed to happen at the midpoint of a 3 Act structure (that’s in the middle of Act 2), is that the character learns something which fundamentally changes the nature of the problem she’s facing. For example, Sarah-Jane could learn that Joe’s apparent cancer is actually the first stage of a contagious world-wide epidemic, and she actually has to save the world.

No one believes this is Sarah-Jane.
This is not Sarah-Jane and does not fit in our story.

That could be a midpoint for another story, but not this one. Here that would be ridiculous.

This is where people trying to plan a 3 Act structure come unstuck, because it’s very difficult to think of some fancy new interpretation of the problem that doesn’t completely derail your story. In mystery thrillers, the classic one is that you expose a double agent: the wise mentor your characters were relying on to guide them in solving the problem is secretly working for the enemy. Or dies. Neither of those ideas are going to work in this story either.

mr darcy proposes
Also not in our story. Sadly.

In Pride and Prejudice, rather than expose a secret enemy, the enemy is exposed as a love interest (but in a context where a happy relationship seems impossible).

A revelation that enmity is built on sexual tension is not uncommon for a midpoint, but I’m not keen on it for our story. Even Joe and Sarah-Jane aren’t that bogan.

So what then?

The problem is that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle, one where we assume we’ve got the Act 1 locked in. But our first act gives too much information too early.

What Sarah needs to discover at the midpoint is the true problem, which is that her brother is dying of cancer. The story should actually look like this:

3 Act Structure so far v2

Step 6

Develop a different reason for your character to commit to the course of action you decided on at the end of Act 1.

We now have to rejig Act 1. Sarah-Jane still needs to commit to writing the novel with her brother, but she has to do so for other reasons. Reasons that are compelling but a bit less intense than the real reason we’ll discover at the midpoint.

Because we have already spent some time developing our story, we have some substance to work with even if we take out the cancer. Her brother could still tell her he needs the money to repair the relationship with his estranged son, and that he needs Sarah-Jane’s help. It’s just that we’re going to have to come up with a different reason why she feels compelled to help him, because she no longer knows about the need to raise money for cancer treatment. Again, it’s conceivable that they could just be motivated by the money, but it’s more compelling if there’s an obvious price for failure.

muscle car crash

Perhaps Sarah owes Joe. Perhaps he let her borrow a customer’s fancy car to dash to the shops and she crashed it. He needs the prize money for the novel to pay back the loan he had to take out, and she needs to help him atone. In this version, the kick up the bum for Sarah is the car crash.

Now our story looks like this:

3 Act Structure so far v 3

You may wonder why we went to the trouble of developing Act 1 if we were just going to completely change it.

It’s true, you could have done the midpoint after Step 1. However, at least speaking for myself, I find the order I’ve used a more organic process for understanding the characters and how they would react. Do whatever works for you.

Step 7

Develop the first half of Act Two.

3 Act Structure v3 SA

At the start of this section, Joe and Sarah-Jane have committed to writing a novel together. Joe is doing it to win back his son’s love and to raise money to pay back a bank loan, Sarah-Jane to atone for crashing Joe’s car and to pay for the bank loan he had to take out. At the end of this section Sarah-Jane will discover that Joe has a more pressing need for the money than bank loan, and a more urgent need to impress his son, because he is dying of cancer.

This means this section needs to accomplish two things:

  • the characters should try (with limited resources / experience that lead to as many setbacks as successes) to achieve the goal they think they’re there to achieve; and
  • plant clues about the true nature of the problem that will be revealed at the midpoint.
Knows she’s better than Sarah-Jane.

So, for example, on the first point Joe and Sarah might decide to enrol in a writing course, but it is full of upper middle class mummy bloggers who are snobby towards Joe and Sarah-Jane, leading to Sarah-Jane getting into fisticuffs with the head of the PTA in the parking lot, which ends up posted to Youtube. Not a resounding success. Although maybe they write it into their novel.

We know that Joe and Sarah-Jane’s novel is not going to win the Nobel prize, so we don’t need actually need them to believably be heading towards being great writers, just for them to share experiences which will develop their relationship. And in the writing class scenario you create stress on the characters to struggle and react.

With respect to the clues, you need to give the reader fair warning that All Is Not As It Seems, but you don’t want to make the answer obvious, so you need to encourage them towards one or more misinterpretations of those clues.

Maybe Joe’s acting oddly. Sneaking off. Sarah suspects that what he’s not telling her is that he’s on again with his ex, his son’s mother, who Sarah hates. She suspects he really wants the money to win his ex back, and that’s why he’s paying more attention to the sone too.

Mislead the reader early with a detail that supports this theory, eg. Sarah discovers two wine glasses, one with lipstick marks, in Joe’s bedroom. Joe ducks questions about them.

Sarah becomes more suspicious (she pops round for a surprise movie night when Joe said he’d be home and discovers Joe is out, then he lies about it, leading Sarah to wonder why he would lie to her unless it’s to cover up the one thing she’d object to, namely getting back with his ex), and eventually confronts him. He swears he’s not seeing the ex. He doesn’t tell her the real reason, though, which was that he was staying overnight at the hospital for cancer-related treatment. Later she finds out he definitely has seen his ex (not thinking about the fact he would see the mother of his child from time to time, or maybe he had a single drunken shag). She’s furious. She lays out all his erratic behaviour and the lies. Then we learn the real explanation is the cancer.

Given Sarah-Jane crashed his car, we’re going to have to make it believable that she’d be so furious without just being a busybody. So maybe the ex is Sarah’s childhood best friend who Sarah feels only used her to get close to her brother, and who then ditched Sarah’s friendship, and ultimately ditched her brother for an attractive psychiatrist twice her age. That’s an understandable reason for Sarah to worry about him seeing the ex, despite her need to make amends.

In this story, the unfolding mystery of Joe’s erratic behaviour provides the tension which will carry us through to the midpoint. In other stories, the mystery will be much more subtle and the tension will be created more through a sense of how the characters are progressing towards their chosen goal.

We now have a workable outline for the first half of our story.

Was this helpful?  Do you have any questions or suggestions?

I hope to get a chance to write up the next in this series of posts soon.

Creating a 3 Act Structure From Scratch (Pt 1)

mcgyverSo, you’ve heard of the 3 Act Structure.  Someone’s told you it’s a good idea.  Whether that’s true is another question.  For now, let’s look at what the 3 Act Structure is, and how you can use it to map out a story.

Usually when someone explains the 3 Act Structure, they do so by dissecting a familiar film or novel.  The problem with this approach is that it’s hard to replicate when creating your own story from scratch.  It’s like giving you a tour of NASA and then asking you to build your own rocket.

When it actually comes to writing your own story, you’re going to have to Macgyver it from two paperclips and some chewing gum you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

With that in mind, here’s the low-budget, built-from-the-ground-up process for cooking up three acts when starting from absolutely nothing.

You, at the end of this process. Also Sarah-Jane. But we'll get to that.
You, at the end of this process.  Or just eating delicious cake pops.  Also Sarah-Jane. We’ll get to her shortly.

Decide on a Story Concept This means you need a character, setting, conflict/struggle, and an angle.  Call it a logline, one sentence summary, or premise, if you like.  For example:

A shy girl from the suburbs struggles to write a novel in a month.

I’m going to use that because it’s simple, and I’m guessing most people reading this blog can relate.  If you want to develop a story concept you like better, and are not sure how to start, here’s a process you can step through.

Step 1

Picture your main character at the start and end of the story and ask: What’s changed?

Did she succeed in writing her novel?  Perhaps she’s changed internally?  Realised that she doesn’t need a novel to make her happy?  Or perhaps it’s the opposite.  Perhaps she didn’t realise how much she needed to write this novel, and it unlocks part of her she didn’t realise existed?

Perhaps it brought her new friends?  A new lover?

Maybe not.  Maybe you want to write a tragedy about how a writer was so obsessed with writing she failed to make the most of her last month with her cancer-stricken brother, and does not realise she’ll regret it until it’s too late.  Or maybe it’s a bittersweet story, one where they write the novel together, opening up to each other and finally leaving something precious to remember their time together.

The possibilities are endless.  You choose whether the ending will be happy or sad.  Victorious or tragic.  It doesn’t matter, just so long as something’s changed.

In fact, there actually have to be at least two changes:

1) an internal change for the main character, and

2) an external change of their situation.

The internal change means your character develops, that he or she has a Character Arc.  The external change means that stuff must happen.  Stuff Happening is what fills all those pages in the middle, and the Character Arc gives it the human interest factor.

Here’s what we might come up with for our premise, with internal matters marked with an (I) and external situation matters with an (E):

3 Act Structure Start EndNawww.

Identifying what changes between the start and the end of the novel already tells us heaps that we didn’t know about the main character, and identifies stuff that has to happen along the way.  She’ll have to start that cupcake business, her brother will probably need treatment, will probably get sicker, and at some point he’ll die, and there are going to be scenes of them writing together.

Structuring your story around changes to the main character ensures your story is character driven.  It’s different from just thinking of your plot as solving a problem (eg. there is a bomb and someone must defuse it before it destroys the city).

Step 2

Picture your character at the start of the story.  What is going to happen to kick them up the bum?

At polite dinner parties, this is known as the ‘inciting incident’ or the ‘opening event’, but here at Compulsive Writer we like to tell it like it is, and bum kicking is what it’s all about.

Sarah-Jane could go her whole life being the receptionist of Dullsville.  Your job is to be the Reality TV Producer who steps in with a challenge or opportunity that sets events in motion.

Sarah-Jane, hating her boring corporate life

Like what, exactly?

Well, you could send in an alien invasion, or have her encounter a handsome bank robber who sweeps her off her feet.  These are undoubtedly events which will shake up her boring life, but they are not good choices because they have nothing to do with your planned story.  By all means, go the bank robber idea if you love it, but if so, go back to Step 1 and revise to identify changes that might come about as a result of a novel-length relationship with a bank robber.

A glaringly obvious choice here is that Sarah-Jane discovers her brother’s cancer is terminal.  Glaringly obvious to you, that is, not to the reader, as they do not have a copy of the outline that we wrote in Step 1.  All they get is: “Poor Sarah’s brother has cancer… what is she going to do?”

Kicking your character up the bum should happen early.  On the first page, if you like, but at least in the first few chapters.

Step 3

Brainstorm how your main character(s) will react to the inciting incident and why.

What would Sarah-Jane actually do?  We don’t know a lot about her yet.  We know she likes baking.  Maybe she’d soothe herself through a flurry of baking.

What else?  She’d probably visit her brother.  That’s good.  We need to bring him into the story early cause he’s a major character, and this is the time to flesh out the kind of people your key characters are and how they relate to each other.  Given that you really have two characters responding to the cancer situation, you might want to think about how their reactions could differ, as this will highlight their personalities and generate conflict.

For example, maybe Sarah-Jane is new-Agey and her brother wants trusted science only.  Or perhaps she wants him to go for one more round of chemo and he’s had enough.  Or maybe he’s a blokey bloke who doesn’t even like to think about doctors.

Picture your character’s house, living arrangements, wardrobe, job, and manner of speech.  What would fit with their different reactions to the cancer?  Alternatively, what do the places and characteristics you imagine tell you about the kind of reaction they’re likely to have?

Has something happened to them in the past that affects their reactions?  Don’t get distracted with random backstory, stick to incidents which changed your characters in a way that matters to the present dilemma.  For example, if Sarah-Jane is new-Agey thanks to a hipster ex she has not quite got over, that might be relevant, because it affects what solutions to the cancer problem she presents and why.  The fact Sarah-Jane had a cat named Blossom when she was six is probably not.

Think too about introducing other elements that will be important throughout the story – like the cupcake shop.  How will that start out?

Maybe Sarah starts baking in response to the cancer because that’s what their mother did for them when they were ill, and she wants to fill that mothering role for Joe (he has a name now).  She’s new at it, so maybe her baking is terrible.  How does Joe react to her rock-hard cupcakes?  To the ones where she accidentally grabs the salt and uses it in place of sugar?  Perhaps he builds her confidence and endears himself to the reader by unfailingly eating them without complaint, no matter how rubbish they are.

You can do your brainstorming by jotting down dot points, drawing mind-maps, bouncing ideas off a friend, writing snippets of scenes–whatever works for you.

Step 4

Decide how your character will resist, then commit to a particular course of action for dealing with the problem as they now understand it.

This solution is not for everyone.

Finding out about the cancer is a problem, but your characters can do anything about it, from moping in their rooms to jumping off a cliff.  Walter White chose to start manufacturing meth.

That’s not what Sarah-Jane and Joe are going to do, though, because becoming ruthless drug barons did not feature anywhere in our Step 1 vision.  (Remember, you can change your mind at any point, but you need to go back and revise Step 1 to fit etc).

Your notes for Step 1 are the clue which will lead you to the answer.  Our notes say that we want our characters to decide to write a novel together, and that somehow this will lead to a cupcake business.  All we have to do is work out why.  Why do any of these things in response to a cancer scare?  Why together?

Here’s a first option:

Joe, a mechanic, tells Sarah he wants to write a novel and he wants her to help him.  He can’t touch-type and she can.  Also he envisions her helping creatively.  Notwithstanding it’s the wish of her dying brother, she’s too underconfident about her creativity to like this idea.  Eventually she agrees, but maintains she’s strictly there to type and bring the cupcakes.

That commits Sarah to a course of action, one she feels daunted by, but to me this does not seem quite right.  There are a few problems: a) it’s too open-ended a challenge, there’s no way to really tell if she’s failing or succeeding, and b) it requires the characters to already have the insight to realise the novel will help them bond, which gives them less room to grow.

The course of action your character commits to should:

* be challenging

* have stakes (a price for failure)

Why?  Because then the reader can invest in caring about the problem and keep track of how well they’re doing, creating a sense of progression.

To add some stakes into our scenario, let’s say Joe’s writing the novel for a competition with $100k prize money (where is this writing competition and how can I enter?)

That’s a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s compelling.  Money’s just money unless you really need it, and what does Joe need it for?  To pay for something on his bucket-list? To raise money for treatment?  Hmmm…

Ok, here’s a second option, building in stakes and challenges ahead:

Joe, a mechanic, is estranged from a teenage son who now lives with his mother and her wealthy new partner.  He desperately wants to be able to pay for special things for his son before he passes away from cancer.  He has discovered that the Nobel prize for literature pays 8 million Swedish Krona, and is convinced he can win it.  How hard can it be to write a novel?  He wants his sister Sarah to help him, given her superior touch-typing skills.  For her part, Sarah also agrees the plan is feasible, but she doesn’t agree the money should go to her spoiled brat of a nephew.  She wants Joe to spend the money on a fancy new treatment for cancer available overseas.  She helps him in order to try and save his life.  Also, she insists on bringing him cupcakes, which she’s baking cause their Mum, who’s no longer with them, used to do this for them as kids when they were sick.  They’re terrible cupcakes, which she and Joe both know, but she feels obliged to keep doing it anyway.

Much better.  Although I’m starting to think that Sarah-Jane and Joe look more like this:

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe
Joe and Sarah-Jane, staying classy.

And that’s ok.  Your story can and will evolve through this planning process.  That’s half the fun!

Now we have a specific course of action and a specific price for failure. As you can see, the plan your characters come up with does not have to be a brilliant one, it just has to be convincing that they would choose it.  As a bonus, we already have some fodder for conflict between Joe and Sarah-Jane from the start.

Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve just got the bones of Act 1.

Let me know if anything was confusing or if you have any questions.  Comments always welcome!

Next Up: Midpoints, Why is Act Two So Long, and Other Important Questions.

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