The Language Quandary


Recently, I was reading a novel in which a doctor spoke English with a lovely French accent. At least that is what the author told me. Her dialogue was written in normal, modern, American English which I could read without a problem. It did not help that the main character’s thoughts were inserted to let me know that he could barely understand her. I could understand her perfectly, which removed me from the illusion of the story whenever the woman spoke.

Advice concerning use of accents often violates the maxim “show, don’t tell.” I’ve heard it often said not to imitate the way a person speaks, but just mention their accent occasionally. Honestly, if that accent is important to the character, it should be shown. This requires some expertise in the character’s first language. and it may be tedious to create a legitimate accent. The writer needs to know what English language sounds are not in the native tongue, and what the person would use to replace these. For example, “th” is common in English, but not a lot of other languages. It can appear frequently in dialog.

For example:

“The man walked to the theater with that woman. I saw them there.” 

The “th” sound can be replaced by various sounds such as d, t or z. It not advisable to change every other incident of “th” to “z,” which is the typical way that French speakers pronounce “th.”

“The man walked to ze zéâtre wiz zat woman. I saw zem zere.”

Also, “th” may not always be replaced by the same letter if a person has a French accent. The word theater is a French cognate spelled “théâtre.” This actual French word would be used even if the “th” is pronounced as a “t.”  Also, “the” might be written as “zhe” to appear more like the English word. Perhaps only “the theater” needs to be changed to provide the effect of an accent.

“The man walked to zhe théâtre with that woman. I saw them there.”

French syntax differs from that of English. So the normal order of words would change in a sentence. “I saw them there,” would be rearranged as “I them saw there,” which makes no sense to English speakers. So syntax cannot be replicated in that case. However, spoken French past tense uses helping verbs which can replace the simple past tense used in English.

“The man was walking to zhe théâtre with that woman. I have seen them there.”

Choose a few words that are spelled as pronounced by the non-native speaker and sprinkle them through the dialog. This should probably not be done for more than 10% of the words. In the case of the French accent, all you may need to do is change every “the” to “zhe.”  If that seems like too much, choose lots of French words with English cognates, such as “théâtre,” to insert with their accents and slightly altered spelling.

If the language does not use Roman letters, the internet still provides a wide range of guides to sounds found in other languages, so the spelling reflects the actual pronunciation. If you are not sure this is worth the trouble, don’t mention the characters accent at all.

Did I mention that it may be tedious to create a legitimate accent that an English speaking reader can still understand? Both pronunciation and the normal order of words in a sentence are unique to most languages. Of course, the easy way out is to say that the character has a thick French accent and then simply write in normal English. But, too much dependence on telling rather than showing is the mark of an amateurish author.

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What Rules?

Synesthesia, an immersive exhibit by Factory Obscura

It would seem easier to be a writer after gaining some reputation or a devoted group of followers. But, at that point the writer has to make the decision, “Should I keep producing what readers expect of me or allow myself to experiment. Perhaps if I create something different, it will not do as well.”

Experimentation means ignoring rules and dabbling in areas that new writers are is told to avoid.

1) Telling the story rather than writing it in scenes

New writers often find themselves in this predicament. They have a good idea and simply want to explain what happens. Then, they are prodded, sometimes roughly, into showing not telling. This translates into creating scenes occurring in specific locations and within a time limit. It also translates into more words because showing, by its very nature, is more descriptive. However, exposition can cover more ground in a story very rapidly and may work with complex situations. Exposition also allows the writer to reveal important truths about life and/or the universe in a novel.

2) Starting a story based on a vague idea rather than a well-formed plot

Famous authors have written books starting with the barest of concepts and writing to see what happens without knowing the ending. They cannot break the story into scenes because they have no summary. Events just pop into their head and they record them. This kind of book normally will take much longer to write. Suddenly the plot takes a wrong turn forcing the author into a dead-end which requires backtracking and restarting. Extensive editing is often required. This would be enough to stop an inexperienced author, but one who has the confidence gained by completing a well-received work may try this tactic anyway.

3) Creating a one-sided or flat main character

An author usually cannot get away with a too perfect character. Also, readers do not see a difficult, stubborn, and ruthless person as “strong” simply because that is what the author calls him. They expect some realism that they can relate to and admire, well-rounded characters with both strengths and obvious flaws. Characters should change and grow or devolve, and there should be reasons for this improvement or worsening. Both the protagonist and antagonist (if it is a person) should eventually suffer the consequences or reap the reward of their actions. However, a flat, one-sided character can make a point about the society in a story simply because of their extreme consistency.

4) Too much action, or almost no action instead of well-defined arcs in action

There is a wide range of pacing as far as action that works depending on the author’s style. The more poetic the words are, the less action is needed. The reader can enjoy the poignant prose as much as a fast-paced plot. However, we often repeat to new writers the idea that there must be a conflict and the main character needs to struggle to overcome this problem. If this kills the protagonist, the story is a tragedy. On the other hand, repeating similar actions—such as winning a fight by sheer strength—gets very repetitive unless that is the point of the story. It takes skill to have less than well-defined arcs, but it can be done.

5) Making the plot too implausible

Initially writers should consider the logic of each action and result, even for characters driven by emotion. In a fantasy world, the author lays down rules on how society runs and sticks with them but does not have to specify these rules for the readers. There should be an obvious pattern to what can and cannot happen in the fantasy realm. Throwing logic to the wind is a bold move that may catch the reader’s attention. However, maintaining this attention takes skill. Building a story based on the implausible that offers no excuses or explanation is the very root of a satire. 

So, are you ready to take the plunge and experiment with some technique that you have been warned to avoid?

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Imitative Arts

When studying theories of creativity, I encountered R.J. Sternberg’s idea that “Creative individuals, by their nature, tend to defy the crowd. They resist merely thinking or doing what others are thinking or doing.” This idea resonated with me but often does not define creativity to the rest of the population; nor is the concept of being original really understood.

Creativity requires making a product that does not resemble those produced by others. However, many people consider creativity as producing an “artistic” result that resembles some item they have seen before that has been praised for its artistry. In other words, something that is much closer to imitation. Artificial Intelligence uses work produced by others to learn how to alter successive reiterations of an image or a piece of writing. The fact that we sometimes cannot distinguish one from the other may indicate a waning desire for creative work. The new goal now seems to be a product acceptable to an audience because it is like other current art forms. The only noticeable difference may be pushing one aspect to a greater extent.

Now, we have a conundrum. There is no reliable way to quantify creativity. We could ask a large random group of people to vote on the creative aspects of a number of books. However, as the definition of conformity is preferring what others prefer, the average choice would not be based on how different the book is from others but rather how similar it is. That is why editors and publishers seek “comps” for new works by unknown authors. Bestselling books are often similar kinds of books until successive reiterations (produced by humans and not AI) blend so much that a new trend provides welcomed novelty.

Another way exists to judge writing and art. People respected in their particular fields judge the entire body of work from an extensive sample in order to rank individual works. For example, a joint study by Harvard and University of Washington tasked judges with comparing samples of visual art and creative writing by teenagers made between 1990 and 2011 to determine if creativity was increasing or decreasing. The markers of creativity were complexity, risk-taking, and breaking away from the standard mold. The conclusion? Improvement existed in visual work, which showed greater sophistication and complexity, and a decline occurred in the writing, which became simpler and more mundane.[1]

There is also a test designed by E.P. Torrance to judge the creative thinking of children (unimaginatively named the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking). The scores on this test began their downward slide in the United States in 1984. Students at all grade levels have been gradually showing less creativity since that time. This, steady decline is most evident in the ability to elaborate, or produce details that support a main idea. [2]

Is it any wonder that people are now awed by the creative products of a computer that combines and imitates the styles of humans in art and writing? Just as there is no single factor contributing to the creativity of individuals, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to judging forms of art for their originality. There are just trends that may not always hold true, because as all creative people know, rules are meant to be broken.

[1] Kelley,P. A decline in creativity? it depends on how you look, University of Washington News and Information, November 11,2013

[2] Kim, Kyung Hee (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.

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Collaborating with Other Authors

How do multiple writers work together to produce a work superior to their individual abilities?  With a great deal of struggling. Despite the idea that synergy, or combining abilities of people in groups, to produce better ideas than individuals most research on writing and other creative endeavors points in the opposite direction. Few writers enjoy creating a single work as a part of a group. Occasionally a pair of writers collaborate on a book after ironing out the details of who does what to produce a single novel. But suppose you are assigned to work with a group to come up with a plot and cast of characters for a new movie. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?

Brainstorming has been touted as one way for groups to multiply innovative thinking. However, group sessions produce more ideas if people spend alone time considering and conceptualizing ideas first. The best performance, as far as number and quality of ideas, occurs when there is a brief group session followed by individuals brainstorming on alone as shown by research conducted in which a whopping 23 of 24 groups produced a greater quantity of high quality original ideas when brainstorming alone, than together (Dunnet et al, 1963). In another experiment, the results of those working in isolation were consistently judged more creative. It appears as if the very presence of others decreases creative output (Shalley 1995). This may be because we are unwilling to try out new ideas and techniques that may flop in front of others.

Why does this mystique of greater creativity within teams exist despite so much evidence to the contrary? The psychological benefits of teamwork contribute to this illusion (Allen and Hecht, 2004). People with strong needs for social interaction feel more satisfied when working in a team, even if the results show lower quality ideas. People tout the benefits of being with their tribe, because inclusion in a team provides a sense of belonging. Even though these “tribes” tend to enforce similar social behavior, so that our thoughts are more restricted.  

So what works if you decide to create a novel, or movie script with another writer? It helps to understand human characteristics that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge with others.  It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of  describing what each person knows without the pressure to produce new ideas. 

A larger group of writers must take the time to provide a background for what each one contributes. Clearly defining why we know what we know is another hurdle as we base knowledge on various underlying assumptions. Some people fear a loss of status if they share their knowledge and creativity. This is a legitimate concern with no easy solution. So, a facilitator who refrains from making their own contributions can help, they may openly acknowledge the contribution of others and mediate a discussion that enables a equitable contribution from various members.

Finally, choose a variety of activities to get out of the rut of group brainstorming sessions. Let the people question and critique each other’s ideas, but not each other. Alternate between group sessions and individual activities taking place away from the presence of the group for adding to the work-in-progress. Remember, simply having others around, possibly looking over your shoulder, tends to limit creativity.

It takes more time for a group to produce creative ideas for a novel or movie than it does for an individual. However, the bonus to this method is the sense of connectedness to a greater number of people. Varying viewpoints promotes the acceptance of the creative ideas–if and when the group actually produces them.

Allen, Natalie J.  and Hecht, Tracy D.  (2004) The ‘romance of teams’: Toward an understanding of its psychological underpinnings and implications. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77, 439–461.
Dunnette, Marvin D.; Campbell, John; and Jaastad, Kay. (1963) The effect of group participation on brainstorming effectiveness for 2 industrial samples. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 47(1), Feb 1963, 30-37.
Shalley, C. E. (1995) Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 483-503.
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Are Writers Born or Made?

Start any discussions on the art of writing fiction and you will quickly find the group divided. On one side people claim it is an innate trait that people are either born with or without. But, when the authors that make this claim start creating their own books on writing that is admitting this stance is not true. Still, people exhibit varying skills with language and different comprehension of the elements that make up a story. The flip side of this viewpoint is writing itself is not innate and must be learned. The desire to write fiction and poetry seem to reveal itself early but successful writers don’t pen their first book by age twelve. There is definitely a learning curve to consider that will consume at least a quarter of a century in a writer’s life. For some it is much longer.

Even when people see fiction writing as a skill that can be taught, their methods vary for teaching it.  Despite formulas and questions to aid with producing quality fiction, the characters of this kind of writing are neither able to be defined or measured with any consistency. What is original and unique in one culture, may be commonplace in another. A goal worthy of a hero in one society, may seem a bit nonsensical to another.

Anyone in a program to develop their creative writing skills has found that some deliberate efforts to kick start creativity may fail. But, original stories may surface at other times in spite of  being stuck in a boring place among boring people. The work of the imagination is terribly unpredictable and won’t follow our schedules. According to author and editor Irving Taylor, creativity exists hidden within many people, but requires development.  “At some point, however, some conscious discipline and control is beneficial and necessary. It is difficult to know whether developing creativity is like building a muscle or following a recipe.”[1]

In my own  research, I interviewed college students studying the different fields of art and writing to identify the factors that helped or hindered their creative drive. Near the top of factors those that helped were characteristics such as “risk taking” and “experimenting,” along with “being imaginative.” However, they rated having creative friends as the most helpful. Their major hindrances to making creative work were lack of time and resources, followed by their own lack of expertise. To cultivate the skill of writing fiction it seems necessary to provide the appropriate environment: lots of other creative people, no fear of experimentation and plenty of time and resources.

As I examine the kind of instruction recommended to teach creative writing, I find that this talent is nurtured, encouraged and cultivated more than it is directly taught. The skills for creating fiction can be learned, but the drive that it takes to complete this work can also be stunted or even killed.

[1] Irving A. Taylor, A Retrospective View of Creativity Investigation, in edited by Perspectives in Creativity, eds, Irving A. Taylor, Jacob W. Getzels (1975)Transaction Publishers
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Artificial or Average

Recently I took a hiatus from writing poetry or fiction for over an hour almost every day. It wasn’t really intentional. Originally, I saw the two weeks’ work shut down at the end of the year as a gleaming opportunity for writing four or five hours a day. So, I lazed until nine in the morning, fixed a huge breakfast and read a little bit. Then I, leisurely dug through items for my winter cleaning. I have a pre-holiday ritual of dividing the necessary from the no longer needed items in my closets to remove clutter. At noon I called on friends who I had been ignoring or took extra long walks (weather permitting) and photographed whatever caught my eye. I even managed to start interesting conversations with my children during their semester breaks.

I figured that with a couple of weeks break from work, there would be plenty of time for me to write with increasing originality. But, without a tight schedule that required me to set aside time to do this, I failed to complete any creative writing. After two weeks of this existence I sensed a bland, bloated feeling that was hard to shake. I missed the daily routine in which I created prose that played with insights, imagery and new styles.

One of my tasks during this time was to gather new data on creativity. First, I reviewed what I had collected for over a decade after completing my research on creative talent development. I recalled the professors in the school of education who imagined creativity among gifted students as our best chance to correct the ills of society. A fairly tall order to be expected of students, I thought. How could students become so creative and that they could come up with the solutions to problems that we had perpetuated for centuries?

No matter how impossible the task, building creativity for the result of benefiting humankind is more palatable than the other reason for doing it. Companies want innovative workers to make money for them. I often hear that artists deserve to be paid for their creative products. I whole heartedly agree. But creativity has not become the key to growing the economy, or keeping company profits pouring in. I find an increasing embrace of the concept of creative destruction–the idea that technological innovation will disrupt economic structure from within. 

One of these innovations is the use of Artificial Intelligence or AI to do the creative work involved in visual art and writing. This was developed in an attempt to find new ways to make money by writing more books faster. At this point, authors really should not be sweating about AI taking over this task. AI technology writes in a bland style based on “averaging” the work of human authors, which has been archived on the internet. Sometimes the nonsensical results of AI writing in the middle of a bland and ordinary piece is momentarily interesting. But, the writing is never really daring. I am disquieted at the idea of a mass of “averaged” work being used to replace creative work–much more disturbed than I was as an idealistic art student in the seventies worried about being able to make a living with my ability.

I do not understand all the reasons that I have this insatiable drive to create new visual art and new writing. It doesn’t seem to be for fame or solving the latest crisis for humanity or amassing wealth. All art is essentially unnecessary, or it would not be art. However, my child is constantly sketching, painting, photographing or writing, and is currently majoring in technology and art–hooked on creativity, too. Ultimately I realize that creating makes my life more bearable, and hopefully I add a bit of joy to others by sharing what I have made.

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False Starting Advice

Sometimes, the worst advice to give a new writer is that there are rules to writing and the new writer must master these. Especially before attempting to break any of them. Not all writers are created equally. And, even seasoned authors have uneven talents. A newbie may find that they have mastered the ability to intrigue a reader through intimate details of the setting. At a small local writer’s retreat I listened to a first-timer read her piece describing a person’s possessions laid across a dresser. It drew me closer to the character who owned these item. I would have disagreed with any one that spouted the standard advice, “Don’t start a story with the description of a place.”

Another bit of advice that can be ignored, “Don’t include more than the briefest backstory at the beginning.” The flawed rationale for this rule is based on the idea that backstory stops forward momentum. There is no guarantee that a exciting first page will encourage me to to continue when the dribble of backstory keeps on interrupting the flow of the action. So, bring on the backstory at the very beginning and there’s no momentum to halt. 

At a point in the past century, novels often started with the protagonist’s childhood or the family’s background. The reader would then know the main characters before the action started. So sometimes, this is an excellent tactic to create empathy for the main character. But, at other times it causes a book to drag. Each author must decide what works for their writing. Notice there is a similar construction to both of these rules. They start with don’t and only forbid an action rather than encouraging one.

Writing conventions change over time. If I follow a current one when beginning a lengthy novel, it may be passé by the time I finally get the piece published. It doesn’t hurt to know current grammar and usage rules. But even these do not have to be followed to a tee. Writers should use them as needed for clarity. Trying to keep track of additional fleeting trends and unnecessary rules while writing will only stifle creativity and productivity.

I recall a well-meaning reviewer striking out every single “that,” even ones that were necessary and also insisting on removing all passive tense verbs despite the lack of a better way to restate the sentence. In each case the bad advice was based on unnecessary rules. A few days later, I overheard one writer gripe to another about people currently not knowing how to write correctly. She referred to poor grammar and over-use of filler words. The second writer replied, “That may be a problem, but the lack of good content is far worse. You can always fix grammar and tighten up the language. You can’t fix the lack of content.”

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The Monstrous Part of Writing

The introduction of writing into the state educational achievement tests resulted in a plethora of writing models. One teacher supported the “Six Plus One Trait” writing model with a kind of fanaticism. Others plugged a device called the “freeze frame” after the cinematographic technique. This consisted of a few sentences of  lush description, which should make an essay more appealing. We encouraged students to focus on writing a dramatic scene for one particular brief period of time. Only writing consists of more than a lot of beautiful phrases strung together.

Other well-meaning educators championed the “Hero’s Journey” model to add excitement and entertainment to the everyday accounts of teenagers trying to score well on these tests. So, some students assumed writing a good narrative essay would be easier if they could just make up information. I let them try until they stumbled over the difficulties of creating their own plots. I expected many students to depend on these modules and formulas to make writing easier.

However, I was perplexed when attending my first group of adult writers and discovered that a large portion of their discussion dealt with building stories on similar frameworks. There were sets of questions to be answered to create stories, then, came guidelines for writing to the beats. Soon, I realized  that some authors write books clinging to specific formulas so that they can produce enough to keep up with an audience who want a steady diet of a specific genre. They want to build a loyal readership through constant feeding. Readers who prefer easily consumable literature have always been around. It is the books that they consume that go out of print quickly.

Obviously, some people have been writing memorable books for centuries. Still, new trends keep occurring. Do old ones get boring due to duplication? Imitation may be the greatest form of praise, but it may not be the greatest form of writing. Ideas that work well for some authors may fall flat for another. That is the problem with the passion for the “latest thing.” Writers need to consider whether or not the current popular topic, technique or style is going to work for them. They should not be searching for one idea to use and then abandoned, but ideas that can be used interchangeably over time—creating stories by piecing them together.

Recycling ideas in any creative endeavor is similar to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster—parts of old theories and notions are stitched together in new ways. Sometimes the result is ugly enough to be frightening, but that is no reason to give up. This constant revamping of writing models might not be necessary if we would learn to add fresh ideas to the old one while they are still living, rather than killing them off with the death knell of “a writer should never….”

So my dilemma remains. Should I lean on formulas as a structure to build my written work, with the goal of making it acceptable? Or should I launch out into the unknown, gathering bits and pieces of what I have lived, what I have read and what I have imagined. The second seems more nebulous. It requires that I run finished work through the gauntlet of all those rules that writer’s are warned not to break. But, in the end I know there are no sure formulas and no sure rules. Perhaps that is the most monstrous part of writing.

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Did You Really Mean What You Said?

Dialogue in writing differs from real conversations. Fictional characters rarely ramble on for pages, circumventing what they really want to say with phrases that sound good but have hard to pinpoint meanings. Most of the uh’s, um’s and pauses in conversation are stripped from the dialog. Readers expect a pause to be important. When a character is silent while searching for words, he may be hiding the truth. If an author writes “He stopped and rubbed his chin,” then the readers should pay attention. Perhaps, the character is fabricating a story, and the next few words out of his mouth will be an obvious lie.

If the author doesn’t condense the content of dialog, zealous editors may remove repeated phrases and filler words. This attempt to make the dialog more concise also removes some of the personality from the speakers. Real people have their pet words and favorite phrases. These are not considered a problem in other media. Think about catch phrases repeated so often in particular TV shows that the memory of the character’s voice still rings in our ears. It’s much harder to recall repeated catch phrases used by characters in books because there are not that many. Instead most authors offer up a single memorable quote by the main character.

Of course, the voices of characters in books do not ring in our ears. We’ve never heard them and can only imagine their sound. The timbre and tone of their voice exists in descriptive words and dialog tags, which have become increasingly unpopular. Some writers are dispensing with those completely. Eliminating dialog tags is not a current trend. The oldest example I’ve encountered is the narrative poem called Song of Songs–better known by the title which indicates the attributed author, Song of Solomon. Because it is not easy to read a piece that switches between unidentified people, translators normally include the name of each speaker before their verses.

If well written dialog is not like real dialog, what standards can a writer use to gauge its quality? Sections of conversation often carry the same expectation as scenes in a story. What characters say reveals their traits and motives. Of course, everything characters say cannot be taken at face value. Hints can be provided to show a lack of truthfulness, such as a hesitant voice, a shifting gaze, or another person calling them an outright liar. It is much harder to depict deceitfulness in a character who never says anything.

Dialog also relates conflicts and these conflicts may be the impetus that moves the story forward. People in the story do not have to constantly carry on arguments. A few well-placed frowns, irritated sighs, eye rolls, or sarcastic words can work just as well to reveal tension. This tenseness will not remain constant through a conversation. It may build up, or if the conflict is already evident, it may diffuse the anger. The main idea is to show change.

It would seem if one character receives complements from the others in dialog, that character is the likable one. But, that’s not what really happens. We know why we lavish praise on others in real life–to get them to like us, or to convince them to give us what we want. Don’t veer from the purpose of real conversations even though these are not replicated exactly the same in fiction. The dialog is more concise in books than in real life, but the motives behind the words are often the same.

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Adventures in Forbidden POVs

Currently I am reading a novella by Virginia Woolf called To the Lighthouse. It intrigues me because it broaches the problem of flat female characters found in many early twentieth century novels. Woolf reveals what’s going on in their heads. They’re not always thinking about what man will make a good catch. This novelette is also written in a form of stream-of-consciousness, which means the author head hops between characters within the same scene. At least, Woolf gives us the benefit of using punctuation and paragraphs in her writing unlike some of James Joyce’s work.

When someone says never to head hop, the person repeating this often retold nugget of wisdom is obviously not talking about famous authors. Rather this the kind of advice is aimed at current authors who wish to become famous, or people who want to get their first book published. Despite the confusion that can occur with head hopping, it shouldn’t be forbidden. It can be done in a manner that supports the quintessential part of the story. Virginia Woolf has shown me that it can work.

Recently, I noticed the encouragement to write in what is called deep POV. Every time a person speaks their thoughts appear prior to the verbal conversation instead of a dialogue tag. Sometimes that interrupts the conversations, making them tedious to read. It takes some skill to pull it off. If authors push deep POV farther and let the reader know both people’s thoughts before they speak, that is essentially head hopping. Eventually the advice not to use deep POV may start circulating, too.

There is another technique called authorial intrusion, in which the author inserts his or her own ideas as if talking to the reader. There is also the literary form of an aside that is used in theater, in which the character addresses the reader in the manner the character Jane Eyre addresses the reader in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Of course, both of these techniques break the fourth wall and may be labeled as “never to be used.” But, they have been successfully used by authors as varied as C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka. The authorial intrusion often provides a thoughtful insight concerning a complex point.

Everyone knows about the first person and third person point of view. So what happened to the second person narrative, which is written from the “you” viewpoint? Although we frequently use this construction in conversation, it almost sounds insulting in writing. Imagine reading the following:

You creep towards the front of the school, clutching your backpack in your hand. You scan the entry way for any sign of Derrick. You sidle around the side of the building to the gym doors just to be safe. In your gut you know you are a coward and wonder how long you can keep avoiding him.

We tend to take the second person “you” personally. In which case reading about a fearful character from that viewpoint might not click. However, it has been done in poetry, short fiction, and novel form. The most notable novel is Bright Lights, Big City by the American Jay McInerney which appeared in 1984. The main character (referred to as you) is tired of the New York City rat race and attempts to escape his life in the fast lane. This book was popular in the ‘80s, so a lot of people identified with that same dilemma and were not insulted by the second person POV.

People are often unwilling to take risks when writing, but I am glad that at least a few authors have risked their writing careers. I welcome more creative attempts at using forbidden techniques.

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