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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Make Every Scene Count: The Magician's Rule and Narration

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If you've ever dabbled in magic tricks or have a friend who has, you might have heard about the simple magician's rule, "Only let them see what you want them to see." The truth is, that rule is not limited to magic tricks. Writers use that tool daily. To write a good book, the author must tell a specific story without revealing the secrets of the developing plot. In other words, they must pick the point of view and narration that best conveys the story they want told. The best method for telling the story depends on the genre of the story and the point the author is trying to make. You can have two identical copies of the same plot, characters, and setting, but the second you choose a different point of view or narrative style, a new story is born. So what is the deal with all these different methods, and how are they best utilized?

First Person
First person is probably the easiest point of view to write and is common with stories relying heavily on emotion. In this point of view, a character in the story becomes the narrator, and everything is seen through his/her eyes. The reader is shown the character's emotions, opinions, and life events, making the story rather subjective. As such, using this type of narration leaves the author open to purposely lead the reader astray. For this reason, first person narrators are not always trustworthy. This point of view is handy for writing intimate stories, such as mysteries or romance novels.

Second Person
A second person point of view is rarely used when writing modern fiction; however it is still used frequently in television. It is equivalent to what is called an "aside," a tool used primarily in earlier dramatic plays. Asides were short speeches, or soliloquies, in which the character addressed the audience directly with his/her thoughts. A second person point of view breaks the fourth wall so to speak, just as the asides in plays did, and gives the reader some extra insight into the story from time to time. However, in modern fiction books, most authors opt out of this style of writing. Many see it as less desirable since it breaks the reader's connection with the story, rendering it more objective. However, one type of literature that is still commonly written in second person is a personal diary. When stories of this type are recounted, fiction or non-fiction, the second person narration is the most viable point of view to use.

Third Person
Third person point of view is the most flexible, and is therefore the most frequently used of all viewpoints. In this point of view, the narrator is an unspecified entity following the main character(s) as the events of the story unfold. Third person singular is most common, whereby the narrator refers to the characters in the story as he or she, but a plural third person (they) is also an option. Third person can be subjective or objective, and it can also be limited or omniscient.

Objective narrators have no direct involvement in the story and tell a completely unbiased version. They never state more than can be inferred from observable events and dialogue. No thoughts, opinions, or emotions of any kind are given about any of the characters. The narrator remains completely detached. This type of writing is difficult to master, as it's a strictly show-all-and-never-tell style of narration, but it can be very powerful when done well. Books of the thriller genre are best suited for this type of narration.

Omniscient narrators are all-knowing about all the characters. They know what every person thinks and feels, and is aware of all their motives. This narrative style allows the author to jump between each of the characters' minds throughout the story. It is often coupled with the third person point of view and can be objective or subjective.

Limited Omniscient
Limited omniscient is similar to omniscient with the exception of the narrator only having insight to a limited number of characters' thoughts/feelings. It is also usually paired with the third person point of view but is usually subjective.

Tense deals with the time of events having occurred, and diction refers to the vocabulary and speaking style used by the author in a book. Both relate strongly to the type of story being told and the author's particular writing style. Present tense, which is more common in short stories, has sort of a flattened emotional narrative style and increases distance between the author and the reader, often making the reader less sympathetic of a character. The objective feel of this tense can be to an author's advantage depending on the story, particularly if the author doesn't want the reader to take the side of the main character. This is especially true if the main character is the antagonist rather than the protagonist. I've personally written a couple of stories this way, and I can tell you that it does work well in certain situations. It's not a great style choice for every story though.

The more commonly used tense is past. It gives the reader a more personal connection with the characters, and it flows naturally. It's less choppy and awkward than present tense, making it more pleasant to read and write.

Choice of diction depends on the genre of the story, setting of the story, and characters. The most diction differences are seen within dialogue, but the narration of a story can have an unusual diction to it as well. For instance, I've read some works of fiction that take place in the southern part of the U.S. where the author chose to write with a southern diction for the whole book. It wasn't my particular cup of tea, but it worked well for the story being told. Likewise, if you're writing a book about medieval times, it makes sense to use the language that they would have used when telling the story. The same is true for non-fiction, particularly with guides and how-to books. Certain technical and slang terms would be expected in these.

Whichever tense and diction you decide to use, make sure it matches the story being told. There is nothing more annoying than reading an excessively wordy book or one that uses incorrect terms/facts for that genre or era.