Determining the Person

Before you write a story, you must know which ‘person’ you will write it in. This isn’t as simple as “Oh, well, I wrote a story in third person last time, so I’m going to write in first person this time.” It might work out that way for you, but when you approach a new story, you must listen to your characters. Listen to the voice of the story.

I once co-wrote a story with a young writer, and our story was written in third person. As we wrote more and more, I coached her in different aspects she needed to improve. One day she revealed something to me, “I hate writing in third person. I only ever write in first person.” On the surface there is nothing wrong with a preference of person. However, if that preference gets in the way of your practice of the other persons, then it’s a problem. It’s part of the Playground Experience to play with different persons.

Let’s recap on the terminology of persons in writing:

Person: The narrative point of view in which the entire story is written. There are three kinds of ‘persons’—First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

First Person: I, me, my, and mine, such as I watched the meteor shower last night.

First Person Plural: We, us, and ours: We watched the meteor shower last night.

Second Person: You and yours. You watched the meteor shower last night.

Third Person: Elizabeth, Samuel, he, his, him, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their: Elizabeth watched the meteor shower.

Third person is the most popular choice for writing novels. First person is more common for shorter pieces of fiction—especially flash fiction, but it is gaining popularity with novels.

Second person is the least popular for two reasons: it is commonly tied into present tense, which is an uncommon tense to use for writing, and it can come across as accusing the reader of actions they’d rather not do. It’s almost like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books or short videos. The last thing the reader wants is to die or get hurt in the story, but when you don’t fully understand what’s happening in the story, you can’t make choices wisely.

For instance, there might be a simple sentence in the story that reads: You went to the fridge and grabbed the milk carton. The reader might dislike milk and argues, “No, I didn’t! I’ll have the orange juice!” This pulls the reader out of the experience of the story and therefore breaks the connection.

Some people might like this, but most of us don’t, so when we see a book is written in second person, we put it down. Our life is dramatic enough. We don’t need a book on something we’ve never done but written as though we did do it.

However, every writer should practice writing second person just as a skill to have. The best time to use it is when writing stories in the form of letters although I have read some extraordinary stories written in second person in which I completely forgot they were written in that person. If a story is well-written, the person really won’t be noticeable.

Now, back to first and third person. The main difference is the limitation of POV. In first person, the point of view is limited to the character narrating the story because we as individuals cannot read other people’s minds. Third person, however, can be all-seeing, all-knowing, and wherever you want whenever you want.

These two should be distinctly different.

Or should they?

Yes, first person is limited to a single individual’s interpretation of events and people. Unless you’re a narrow-minded and lacking an imagination (in which case you really shouldn’t be a writer), you can read people—their facial expressions, body language, the aura around them—and determine their motives. The more you know about them and their background and dreams, the more you understand them. Even if you can’t pinpoint their agenda precisely, you can still get the feeling, “This person is up to no good.” Now, apply that to your writing:

I watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling my stare—she caught my gaze and smiled thanks.

How did the narrator know Elizabeth felt his stare? Have you ever stared at someone long enough that they finally turn and lock eyes with you? You never approached that person and asked, “Did you feel my stare?” You know the weight of stares, and you know it is an actual feeling. Apply your knowledge of life and your experiences to your story, and it will broaden your abilities especially in the otherwise limited first person narration.

Now, taking the same paragraph, but let’s switch it to third person.

Samuel watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across the sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling his stare—she caught his gaze and smiled thanks.

There lies the trick. Switching first person to third person without disrupting the flow of the story. When you can do this, you will fully understand both persons, but you can develop each to your preferred writing voice and style.

As an exercise, write a story you never plan to publish. Experiment using each person in the course of the story, but do so in a carefully constructed manner—not merely switching persons because it suits you. Plan it, and then achieve it. I once wrote a novella that went from third person to first person to second person back to first person and finally to third person. Sure, I likely will never publish it, but writing it helped me better understand the differences and similarities with each person.

Someone might tell me, “I can’t write in third person! I like first person better!” Having such a preference is fine and acceptable. Your writing style might consist mainly of first person or third person, but don’t think that you ‘cannot’ write one of the other persons especially when you might called upon to do so.

Remember, most people are comfortable with writing in first person because it is closest to what they wrote in their journal/diary prior to story writing. You shouldn’t eliminate third person until you have at least tried it and mastered it enough to be comfortable with it. If it’s not your preference, that’s fine, but at least you know you can do it.


Origin of the Narrative

Last week, we discussed the narrative—the telling part of the story—and I explained how necessary it is. Now we’re going to take a step back and determine its origin—not the literal origin but rather its beginning with each writer. So, where does the narrative begin? Lets consider the general beginnings of a writer.

As a young person, your parents or teachers probably encouraged you to keep a journal. This is usually the first introduction a young person has to writing. It is a ‘safe place’—someplace you can go and tell all your secret thoughts, dreams, desires, fears, and failures without being rejected or discouraged. You begin by recounting your day and how the events unfolded. You capture snippets of conversations you truly had or overheard, and you draw (sometimes literally) pictures of things you saw or imagined. Journal writing is very sacred, and they might never be read by anyone other than yourself all your life.

Then as you get older, you might dabble with poetry—maybe as homework assignments or as mere experimentation for yourself. It’ll likely appear in your journal here and there. The key with poetry is its profound depth of emotion. It is raw—very close to you, and it might be rare for you to share them with anyone. You don’t want people to know that side of you or all those secret thoughts or feelings in those situations. No, you have a persona to present, so you lock them away—howbeit in immortal ink on paper.

After much reading with adventures alongside the books’ characters, you decide to channel your experiences through story form. How do you do it? You choose a storyline that captures your attention—something like a character stumbles upon the truth that fairy tale characters are real and are part of another secret government agency, and everything unravels as the main character (the MC) tries to determine truth from fiction, and so forth. All right, so you have the story, who will be the MC? If you’re a guy, you’d likely decide the MC to be male. After all, you don’t want to mess up writing a female character! The women will likely butcher you if you mess up any representation of them. Women, the same applies for you. You’d likely create a female MC. If you’re young, the MC will likely be around your age—probably a teenager.

So you have the story and the MC, now you have to decide the proper ‘person’ for your story (first person, second person, or third person). Now, up to this point, you’ve only written in your journal with the focus being on all your experiences in life. Naturally that is written in first person, so you’re comfortable with it. That is likely what you will choose as the person for the story, so the story will be primarily from the MC’s point of view (POV).

So what does all this have to do with narrative? It is essential to a story that the narrative be invisible. This means the author must not be noticeable. There are times when I read a story, and I know the author is writing fictional tales of their life. To be honest, I don’t care about the author’s life story (unless I bought the book understanding that is what it is about—in which case, it’d better be non-fiction). I’m an author, and personally I know how boring a writer’s life can be. Who wants to read about someone sitting at a computer writing? There are only so many ways that can be done and redone creatively before it gets boring.

When the author decides to go on an adventure but under the guise of a character, it sticks out. For instance, I mentor young writers all the time, and their first few stories are always about a character of their gender and age carrying out the story. The character has the same personality and habits as their author. This is most evident when the story is set in a different era, and the characters talk with modern dialect when there are no time-travelers.

Author-based characters borderline ‘Mary Sues’—the ‘perfect’ character, who ends up being the most loathed character in the story as well. Why do these characters become ‘Mary Sues’? They’re based on the author, and as a human being, we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to be fooled or make a fool out of ourselves. We don’t want people laughing at us but rather respecting us, and we don’t want to lose. Therefore, the story becomes stilted because it is compromising for a single character, and that is unrealistic. As authors, we strive in making our characters’ lives miserable.

Is it wrong to have a character or narrative based on the author? No. Many books are published where the author is the obvious narrator. The problem? Writers do this when they’re at the beginning stages of their writing and have little experience. This is comfortable for them because of their experience with journal writing and such. When I see a narrator like this in a story, I put the book down. What impresses me more is when the author is completely invisible—when I don’t notice the narrator, and when the characters are so unique and individual that they capture my attention completely and yank me into the story.

“Okay, so how do I make sure I don’t write an author-based narrative?” Since characters and narratives are closely linked together, in order to ensure your narrative is invisible, put distance between your characters and yourself. If you’re a guy writing a story, make your main character (MC) female. If you’re female, then make the MC male. You might wince at this thought, but surprisingly oftentimes men write better female characters than women while women tend to write better male characters. Why? Because in the end, both men and women are people. Down at their core and values, they all have the same struggles, fears, and desires.

When your MC is the opposite gender, suddenly there is a distance. You don’t worry about what people will think of you or if they’ll think you’re the character. Instead, you know that character isn’t you, and you will be more receptive to listen what that character says and show what that character does without fear of you yourself being judged. Once you develop this relationship with your characters, it’s easier to write those characters of your own gender because you have already established the necessary distance between your characters and your own person.

Another way to keep the narrative invisible is to use third person rather than first person because it offers yet another distance. Is it wrong to write first person? No, but it is the person most commonly used by novice writers because of the transition from journal writing to story writing. To become more experienced with writing, you should experiment with all different persons (including second person) until you find which one you are most comfortable with—the one which best shows your story.

When writing, don’t sit there thinking, “Must make my narrative invisible. Must make it invisible. Is it invisible?” Don’t worry about it. Don’t fret over it. All this information is necessary to have in the back of your mind, and when the moment comes, you’ll have it right when you need it. So keep writing. Be mindful of what I said, but don’t fret.


Necessary Narration

Narration—a part of writing no one discusses, tries to teach, or dares to craft. All writers are left to their own devices when it comes to narration.

What is narration?” It can be identified as internal conflict, passive thought, recollection of the past and prediction of the future. This is where telling sneaks in, and that is why most teachers, mentors, editors, and fellow writers overlook this. The rule is “show—don’t tell”, but everyone knows this secret sin where telling lurks embedded in the story structure.

Consider this example taken from our discussion of Movement in Description:

He didn’t care to get up and turn on the news. The car chase he barely escaped was bound to be on every channel, and Rex didn’t want to see how close the CIA came to catching him. He only had enough time to close his eyes, catch a nap, and then head out again―hopefully leaving town for good.

This is telling. The contraction ‘didn’t’ is used as well as the verb ‘was’ and ‘had’. This paragraph is important to get into Rex’s mind and understand his situation. It’s not descriptive because it doesn’t show anything, and there is no movement or physical action. It’s not dialogue because no one speaks. It’s narration.

So what’s the big deal about narration if everyone does it?” The ‘big deal’ is the simple fact that if the narration—much like description—is written wrong, it bores the reader, and they will skip the chucks of paragraphs. You never want this to happen!

All right, so how do we write so the reader doesn’t skip?” Excellent question, but the answer is elusive. I have no answer—no formula for you to follow, but I’m going to introduce an idea: permission to tell.

Show—don’t tell: I’ve been saying this repeatedly in everything I’ve written, but this is the exception! Go ahead. Use contractions, use helping verbs, passive voice, poetic flare, but most importantly channel emotion into the words.

When you’re writing a death scene, the narration is the most important part of the scene! There isn’t going to be a lot of dialogue. There won’t be a lot of action. However, there will be a massive amount of emotion, and this is the place for a downpour of emotion. If you’ve ever been in that situation, reach back into your memory and remember what it felt like. Take those memories and apply them to the scene. Here’s an example:

Luther shook his head and immediately began pumping on Caden’s chest to keep the blood circulating. “Come on, Caden. Don’t you dare die on me.” He pressed over and over again.

True, once upon a time, Luther had been jealous of his younger brother’s unique ability to switch places with people, but he never wanted him to die. Luther knew he had been stupid calling Caden in on this mission. He knew no one had located the shooter, so how could he have expected Caden to switch places with the unseen individual? Caden realized this, and he took the only course of action possible in this situation―the only action no one considered because they had hoped for an alternative.

Frustrated tears slid down Luther’s face as he tried again and again to keep life in his brother’s body.

That middle paragraph is telling. It has the helping verb ‘had’ in it multiple times. This is a window into the character’s mind, his thought process, his reasoning, and as a result we can feel his emotions—his grief, frustration, fear, and regret. If I left that paragraph out, here is how it would read:

Luther shook his head and immediately began pumping on Caden’s chest to keep the blood circulating. “Come on, Caden. Don’t you dare die on me.” He pressed over and over again.

Frustrated tears slid down Luther’s face as he tried again and again to keep life in his brother’s body.

Sure, it might show the emotions but not at the depth as the first version did. You can’t relate to the character, but you feel like you’re standing at a distance just watching—not experiencing it. This is why these narration sections are important. Several times I’ve co-written with fellow writers but more in a roleplaying manner where each of us have our individual characters who interact with one another. Oftentimes as they wrote, they only included the physical actions of the characters, and finally I had to bluntly tell them, “Listen, I don’t like your characters. They’re flat. There’s nothing connecting me to them—no reason for me to care whether or not they fail. I need to get inside their head, need to feel what they’re feeling. Once I’ve done that, then I’ll be able to care and not want to let them go.” What I meant was the narration part of writing was lacking, and once they realized that, they started writing it and instantly depth was add. This is why narration is a fundamental part of writing.

However, there is a proper place, time, and way to use narration. My mother gave me a book to read from a bestselling author, whose books have become movies. She pointed out one section and asked me to read it. I tried, but I hit the brick block of narration and couldn’t continue. It was too formal, too dry, dull and lifeless. I felt like the narrator was telling me what was happening as if the narrator and I were standing at a distance observing the character rather than the characters feeling and thinking.

Narrators should be invisible. Often these paragraphs are seen as necessary, but they frustrate the editors because they break the ‘show—don’t tell’ rule. The editors know the narration tells, and the information in the paragraph is important, and there’s no other way to share it. Since it is a necessary evil, the editors do what they do best—edit it to its bare bones; all that’s left is a lifeless shell that had its soul sucked out of it. Leave only the important details—almost like journalism.

This breaks the rhythm of the story, drains any color, stops the scene like pausing a movie to explain what’s going on, and yanks the reader out of the story.

The worst part is authors allow editors to do this because they think the editors are supposed to be omniscient in all things writing. Thinking this way excuses the author of his true responsibility to the story, and the editors apply their formula to every story, and out comes a well-baked traditional apple pie.

Put it this way: Authors, if you’re writing for the sake of sharing the story with the world rather than writing for wealth or fame or a place in history, then you know how difficult your characters can be. If they don’t want to do something you planned, they won’t budge. They’ll give you Writer’s Block before they do anything. And if you do make them do what they didn’t want to do or say, then they’ll kick and scream through the rest of the story, and you’ll feel exhausted and discontent with the story. It’ll feel like a waste of time and a waste of words for you.

If our characters—nonexistent people in our heads—can be so influential when it comes to the story, why do we authors—living, breathing individuals—just go with the flow of traditional publishing and allow anyone to change anything any way they want? Your story was written the way it was because it demanded to be written that way! If anyone suggests a change, you need to be ready and willing to put up a fight—of course, consider what is being said and weigh whether it’s worth a fight. It might be a matter of miscommunication where your editor and you are saying the exact some thing but can’t understand one another.

To recap, narration is important. Listen clearly to the characters during these parts, and let them write it. When it’s time for the editors to take a look, you need to know why you wrote what you did the way you did and be ready to defend it while being open to suggestions.

In the end, the decision should be yours.

The Adverse Adverb

An adverb modifies the verb. It is a word that describes how or when something was done–most commonly recognized with the ending ‘ly’ but not always. 

Growing up, I heard the saying, “Don’t use adverbs,” so I avoided them as best I could. It wasn’t until I listened to Stephen King’s audiobook ‘On Writing’ that I finally understood.

Adverbs exist for a purpose. So far, in the two paragraphs above, I’ve used three adverbs—‘commonly’, ‘always’, and ‘finally’. You might ask since this post is about avoiding adverbs, why am I using them? To prove a point. That point is the proper place of adverbs such as conversational blog posts or casual essays. Such easygoing writing styles are informative and bring the reader in by sounding like a friend.

Adverbs have an important role in communication. What I propose today is the role of adverbs in short stories and novels—works of fiction. This is where the rule “Don’t use adverbs” comes into play. The most typical use of adverbs is tied with dialogue. For instance:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix said angrily.

Now, I’ve already mentioned the use of ‘said’, but where does that leave the adverb ‘angrily’? After all, it tells us how he spoke. It tells us how he spoke—doesn’t show.

What does it show us about his character? All right, he’s angry, but that doesn’t narrow down anything since everyone gets angry. He could be a hot-headed drunk whose wife just confronted him about his drinking:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix threw his bottle across the room and ignored when it shattered against the wall.

Or he could be a determined detective in the interrogation room as a difficult suspect twists the truth to probe at the detective’s dark past.

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix narrowed his eyes on the suspect in the center of the room, but he forced himself not to uncross his arms and strangle the man.

Anger is an emotion. Everyone responds to emotions differently. Showing the body language of the character through that emotion solidifies that character in the reader’s mind.

Another common use of adverbs is to describe an action such as: He tiptoed quietly into the room. ‘Tiptoed quietly’ is redundant, so the adverb ‘quietly’ is unnecessary. Have you ever tried to tiptoe loudly?

Is there ever a right time to use adverbs?” Of course. There are always exceptions to the rules, but it depends on the context. Just as it is with ‘telling’, you must know which adverbs you are using and why. If you can’t justify it, and if you can easily take it out and the sentence still gets your message across, then the adverb is unnecessary. However, if it is very important to show how a character did something because it intensifies the scene in simple ways, then leave it. Consider this:

Felix hesitated in the doorway of the hospital room then slowly stepped inside the dark room.

In that sentence, I could have taken out ‘slowly’, and the sentence would read fine. However, leaving it in, places an emphasis on the action and hints at his great reluctance to enter the room because he feels responsible for the patient getting harmed in the first place. When an adverb is the only word that can get the message across clearly and simply, then use it.

Let’s Talk About Telling

 “Show—don’t tell.” Everyone focuses on the ‘showing’ part because it is natural to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. However, to avoid something, you must know exactly what it is you are to avoid. Being unaware of the boundaries of telling and showing is like swimming in the ocean and pretending there are no great white sharks, humpback whales, and other breathtaking and unimaginable creatures in the depth below you.

What is telling? How can you recognize telling in your own writing? Thankfully telling is easy to identify. Pick up a story—could be yours or anything within reach. Study the sentences. Do they include any of the following words (outside of dialogue)?

Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

Have, has, had

Do, does, did

May, might, must

Can, could

Shall, should

Will, would


Except for the last word in the list, all these are helping verbs. They make the passages passive instead of active. In and of themselves, these words are not evil. No need to blacklist them. They exist because they have a purpose and a proper place; we simply need to rediscover that purpose and that place.

When writing anything, you need two ingredients to form a proper sentence: a subject and a verb. In essays, articles, letters, and copy, any form of verbs can be used. However, stories or poetry contain movement to convey the story or the image, and action verbs are best suited for such movement.

Example 1: Mary was walking down the street when she noticed the approaching storm.

Revision: Walking down the street, Mary noticed the approaching storm.

Example 2: It had been a long time since Nathan last spoke with his brother.

Revision: Years passed since Nathan and his brother last spoke.

There are many ways to revise in order to eliminate helping verbs from sentences to make them active rather than passive. It is good exercise, and it stretches your writer’s mind to set such limitations and force yourself to get creative.

Should helping verbs be completely forbidden in novel writing? If only it were that easy, but no. Writing is much more complex than to allow such a simple solution. There are three steps to determine whether to tell a sentence or show it:

          1. try to show it, but if it interrupts the flow of the writing and is awkward then
          2. determine whether the sentence is absolutely necessary. If it is then
          3. write the sentence telling.

The key is being aware of what you are showing and what you are telling.

“When I’m writing, do I have to be so strict and thorough with everything I do?” —short answer: yes. Every word, every sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a meaning to be structured the way it is. If you cannot explain the reason, then it is unnecessary.

Am I giving license for everyone to justify writing errors that are obviously wrong just because they don’t want to go back and fix things? No. A true writer will seek to understand his own reason for writing the way he did and be willing to explain it. “What was your purpose with this?” someone might ask a writer, and if the writer gives an answer, the person might be able to say, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then maybe you should rephrase this because that’s where I get confused.” And the writer should consider this advice.

Later I’ll talk more on how to edit cinemagraphic writing, but first as you begin to write cinemagraphically, I would encourage you to exclude those listed words from your writing. Once you have mastered the ability to show without them, then you can slowly allow those words back into your writing vocabulary.

EXCEPTION: Using helping verbs in dialogue is the only exception. Dialogue is a different creature than narrative, and each character has their own unique voice. If you attempt to eliminate passive voice in dialogue, you run risk of losing your character’s voice altogether.

Next we will discuss the last word on that list—’said’.