Today I want to talk about a story's point of view from a nuts-and-bolts technical perspective. I don't mean in the broad strokes of the narrative voice: first person, second person, etc., or whether the viewpoint character is outside or inside the story. These aspects are viewpoint 101, if you will, and any decent book on writing fiction will give you this kind of information; I've recommended some at the end of this post.
What I'm focusing on here is the line-by-line detail of how you transition between dialogue and action when writing scenes involving two or more characters.
The Rules of Point of View
Most stories usually include characters other than the protagonist/viewpoint character. Part of your job as a writer is to make it clear which character is doing and saying which things. This isn't an arcane and mysterious art; there are rules which can help you improve the clarity of your work, and it's these rules I'm outlining below.
In order to keep things simple, I've made an assumption in all of the examples I've given: that the viewpoint character = the protagonist. If you're not sure what this means, here's a quick rundown. The protagonist is the person the story is about. The viewpoint character is the one who tells the story. They don't have to be the same person. For instance, you could write a story about John Sheppard (protagonist), as seen through the eyes of the Marines on the Atlantis expedition (minor characters' viewpoint). miss_porcupine's story, Just Like the Richard Gere Movie, does exactly this.
Introducing the ProtagonistWhen starting a scene, give the name of your viewpoint character as soon as possible.
Preferably, introduce your main character in the first or second paragraphs so that the reader can recognise him or her for the rest of the story. I don't mean you should dump a whole heap of description or backstory into the first line; I mean use the character's name or, if you can't use the name, give some easily recognisable handle: a simple pronoun could work (eg. she, I) if it won't later be confused with someone else. (If you don't know what a pronoun is, I've discussed that in the section on Action Attribution, so scroll down.)
Another thing to note is that if you give the name of a secondary character before that of your protagonist, the reader will assume that secondary character is the protagonist. Don't be coy about this kind of essential information -- give it to your reader so that they can get on with enjoying the story.
This story of mine starts by briefly setting the scene, and then goes straight on to introduce the viewpoint character. By the second sentence, you know this is a story about "Rodney".
Seventeen hive ships only six weeks away, coming up dark behind a trail of metal-dense asteroids.
It wasn't the payoff Rodney had expected when they'd sent out the flowerburst of deep-space probes. The increased sensor range and precision were meant to buy them more time, not less; more warning, more information on potential weaknesses, more opportunity to prepare, more chance of winning.
(From part one of The Relative Merits of Wanting and Getting by cupidsbow)
Sometimes authors never give the name of their protagonist. This can be a really interesting effect, but more often than not it just leaves the reader annoyed and confused. Is it John? Or Rodney? Wait! "He" has a knife... is it Ronon? Carson about to operate? Gah! *hits back button*
A successful example of delaying the name of the main character is cesperanza's story, Amnesiac. Due to the premise, giving the protagonist's name in the first paragraph would undermine the central theme of uncertainty. Even so, cesperanza makes sure that the opening gives the reader enough to be able to mentally tag "him" as a recognisable person. "He" has a history, scratched hands, a gun, and he's as confused as we are. The reader is carried along on the protagonist's journey of finding out who he is.
When he lifts his head, there's dirt and twigs and a splintered tree, and his hands are all scratched up and oh, hey, a gun, so he quick-rolls into a sitting position and does a fast-sweep of the area, except these aren't the right kind of trees, so this isn't Nicaragua anymore. Still, he's wearing some sort of fatigues, so he's somewhere all right, probably doing the same old, same old, and he's sure it will all come back to him any second now.
Corollary: If you're changing viewpoints from section to section in your story, indicate it by giving the name of the new viewpoint character as soon as possible; preferably in the first line of the first paragraph of each new section.
In The Relative Merits of Wanting and Getting, I flipped to John's point of view half way through. This is the opening of part two; note that John's name is the very first word.
John knew there was something wrong when Rodney didn't turn up for dinner. Well, his gut had been convinced for a lot longer than that; John had been feeling edgy since the VR device had refused to disengage. But the first tangible proof that something was seriously wrong was when Rodney didn't turn up for dinner.
Dialogue AttributionBreak for a new line when a new character speaks.
Something new writers often have trouble with is attributing speech -- that means indicating who is saying what. Usually "he said" or "said Jane" is all the attribution that's needed. It's simple and doesn't distract the reader. However, there are some other ways you can attribute dialogue, so that your writing doesn't feel too repetitive. I'm not talking about descriptors like "the tall man said." *shudder* No, it's much simpler than that.
Believe it or not, sometimes a line break can be enough!
The line breaks in this sequence make it quite clear that John is speaking in the second paragraph, even though there's no attribution.
Rodney stood there in a rumpled t-shirt and a pair of bleach-stained boxers and blinked at him. "Oh, Jesus Christ," Rodney said, wearily shoving a hand through his bed-flattened hair. "Haven't we finished this conver-" but John pushed him back into his room, and the door closed behind them.
"You can't marry Katie."
Rodney arched an eyebrow. "Actually, no, I can, I really--"
(From Fat My Dust by cesperanza)
Here's a sequence in which one character is babbling while the other is thinking. The line breaks make it quite clear which is which.
"I mean. I don't have to. It's just a thought. I've still got plenty of work to do if--"
The Chiefs of Staff would not be impressed. War hero or not, there's a real chance John would be asked to retire if he says yes to this. If he and Rodney do this.
"--and the deadline for the new ZPM Mark II project is just around the corner, so really--"
John breathes in. Rodney smells of sex, and his hair is sticking up in tufts; the bit of his face that John can see is blotched and puffy, and he's still clinging to John as though afraid he might disappear at any moment.
John knows just how he feels.
"--maybe it's better if we stick to the original plan. I mean, there's nothing wrong with waiting another few--"
But what it really comes down to, if John's honest, is that he's never chosen the job if it means leaving a man behind. And this isn't just any man; this is Rodney.
"--no point rocking the boat--"
Closing his eyes and swallowing hard, John presses a kiss to Rodney's temple. "Yeah," he says, "you could," ignoring the way his voice comes out hoarse and uneven. "You could come with me. Good idea, Rodney."
(From Home Fires (The Making Warmth Remix) by cupidsbow)
Exception: You may occasionally see a writer give the dialogue of two characters within the same paragraph in order to give a sense of both speaking or acting at the same time. It's a great technique, but shouldn't be over-used.
The only example I can find right now is this one of mine, which isn't the best I've ever seen, but it gives you the idea.
"Isn't that the best thing ever?" Rodney says, as John lets Rodney's hand fall and fists his shirt, roughly pulling him closer even as he answers, "No."
(From A Change of Seasons by cupidsbow)
Never go longer than three exchanges of dialogue without attribution.
I'm using "attribution" in the broadest sense here, so any of the techniques I discuss above and below would count. For instance: she or he "said"; line breaks; one character can call the other by name; characters can have obvious speech patterns (eg. Rodney McKay's "Oh, please!" is instantly recognisable), or an impediment ("st-t-tuff that!"); dialogue can be in a question/answer sequence (the reader expects an answer by a different character than asked the question). The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to keep track of which character is speaking.
The most important thing when attributing speech, no matter what techniques you use, is clarity. Clear attribution makes it so much easier for your reader to follow what's happening. They should never have to re-read a scene to figure out who is saying what.
In this extract, the dialogue is attributed using various techniques. See how many you can spot, and compare them to the list I've given below.
"Well," Eco-Guy said. "That was different."
"Different?" Rodney said, wondering what wasn't different about the situation. Waking up in a cage? Being lured into the jungle for hot sex with a woman who was actually a Goa'uld? Getting kidnapped by fanatical jungle guerillas who worshipped said Goa'uld?
"Yeah. Never been shot with an actual zap gun before. I kinda like the no bullet-holes part."
Rodney rapidly revised the man's IQ down to something in the mid-fifties. "Zat gun," he corrected, figuring there was no point in being pedantic about classified information when they were about to be implanted or dead in the very near future. "And of course it was different. Unless you make a habit of being kidnapped by aliens."
"Aliens?" the guy said, not looking all that surprised. "Huh. Guess that explains it." Then he held out his hand, as though they were in some normal place rather than caged like two sacrificial goats. "John Sheppard."
Rodney ignored the hand. "Dr. Rodney McKay."
(From Jungle Fever by cupidsbow)
- "Eco-Guy said" attributed to a character the narrator has invented a name for; line break
- question; "Rodney said"; line break
- answer; line break
- a linking description which uses Rodney's name; "he corrected"; line break
- "the guy said"; a linking description that segues into an introduction of the character's name; line break
- a linking description which uses Rodney's name.
You can increase the number of lines of dialogue in a row which don't have "he/she said" attributions if you use combinations of these various other cues. In the following extract there are three lines with no attribution or description attached, but they either logically follow on from a question, or use a character's name.
"I noticed that, Rodney!" Somehow Sheppard managed to corkscrew away from another salvo, but as he pulled out of the turn the whole plane juddered, and a warning light flicked on for the right wing. "Okay, this isn't working. We need a Plan B."
"Do you have parachutes?" Rodney asked, clutching at his seatbelt with both hands.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Do you know how to use one?"
"Great. Sounds like we have a plan."
Rodney would have protested, but at that moment Sheppard turned the plane on its side and flew it into a rocky chasm that was so narrow Rodney could probably have jumped across it from a standing start.
"This'll only buy us a minute. You need to get geared up, McKay."
(From Jungle Fever)
Corollary: Don't put the wrong character's name after a piece of dialogue. This is a very, very common mistake! Most often, the mistake happens when an action by Character A is linked to a piece of dialogue spoken by Character B. This can nearly always be fixed simply with the addition of a line break.
This is what it looks like when it's wrong:
Rodney nodded. "I hate minions."
Casting Rodney an appraising look as he picked up his torch and pack, Sheppard said, "I bet you have minions."
"Yes, and I hate them. They're all morons." Sheppard snickered a little, then winced and stopped, lifting a hand to his wound.
Because Sheppard's name comes right after the dialogue, it looks like he's speaking it, when clearly it's Rodney's reply. This is how it should be laid out:
Casting Rodney an appraising look as he picked up his torch and pack, Sheppard said, "I bet you have minions."
"Yes, and I hate them. They're all morons."
Sheppard snickered a little, then winced and stopped, lifting a hand to his wound.
(From Jungle Fever)
Action AttributionTrack the sequence in which you've used pronouns.
A pronoun is a dedicated word for talking about people or things when you don't want to use a proper name. The most common in English are:
Singular: I, you, he, she, it
Plural: we, you, they
Additionally: her, hers, him, his, it, its, who, whose, and so on.
If this list confuses you, go out and get yourself a really good book on grammar. It will help you understand the different parts of English and how they go together. You can find recommendations for some books on writing below.
The first use of a pronoun after a name should usually map to that name (eg. John raised his hand).
However, in a complex action sequence, you might describe two or more people's actions in a single sentence or paragraph. When this happens you need to carefully track who each pronoun is mapping to.
I've mapped out all of the pronouns here, so that you can see how they're working.
Annotated Original He [the established protagonist: John] glanced over at the doorway, his [John] stomach doing a slow roll of anticipation, and thought, Come on, come on, come on, Rodney! [the "Rodney" here is thought, not action, so it doesn't interrupt the narrative use of pronouns] The waiting was always his [John] least favourite part of these kinds of situations, and he'd [John] kind of expected Rodney [any "he" following this would refer to Rodney] to be here by now. But then, John [re-establish viewpoint] had been walking pretty fast, and Rodney was probably trying not to attract attention, so of course he'd [Rodney] lag a little behind. Besides, it gave John [re-establish viewpoint] a moment to get himself [John] together, because the look on Rodney's face back there in the mess... it had made John's [re-establish viewpoint] skin feel three sizes too small and he'd [John] barely been able to keep in the need to reach out and touch. He [John] quickly ran his [John] hands up and down his [John] bare chest and sides just to ease the tightness. This was going to be so fucking good. He glanced over at the doorway, his stomach doing a slow roll of anticipation, and thought, Come on, come on, come on, Rodney! The waiting was always his least favourite part of these kinds of situations, and he'd kind of expected Rodney to be here by now. But then, John had been walking pretty fast, and Rodney was probably trying not to attract attention, so of course he'd lag a little behind. Besides, it gave John a moment to get himself together, because the look on Rodney's face back there in the mess... it had made John's skin feel three sizes too small and he'd barely been able to keep in the need to reach out and touch. He quickly ran his hands up and down his bare chest and sides just to ease the tightness. This was going to be so fucking good.
(From Windfall by cupidsbow)
Another thing to watch out for is if you introduce a major topic/person/theme, which the reader will then try to map all pronouns to. For instance: Characters A and B are talking about C. If you're not careful, the reader will think all the uses of "she/her" refer to C, rather than A or B, just because C is the main topic of the paragraph.
As with so many other mistakes, this can also be done deliberately, primarily if you want two characters to be talking at cross-purposes.
The central plot-point of the story "A Two-Player System" has John talking at cross purposes with Radek about Rodney. That confusion is echoed in this sentence, in which the pronoun "his" could potential belong to either Radek or Rodney. The reader assumes Rodney, as he is the source of John's confusion, despite being absent from the scene.
"I didn't even know that you and he," Radek made a vague hand gesture, which must be some kind of science semaphore code, because it looked a lot like something Rodney would do, and made no more sense to John than his [Rodney's] hand waves usually did. "If we were to ... play, you and I, would that be with or without him?"
(From A Two-Player System by Kyn_Moonlight)
After WritingFinally, always get your beta-reader to pay special attention to bits where you break the rules.
Your style as a writer will arise from the ways in which you use, and choose to break, the rules of grammar and the conventions of fiction. All of these rules can be broken to good effect, but only if you know what you're doing and why.
Reference Books on Writing
In a previous post, I've recommended several Books on How to Write. I've also found a new one that I'm loving so far:
- The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing by Hazel Smith
It not only runs through the basics, such as point of view, but then shows you how to twist these conventions, in order to create new styles and techniques. Awesome!
That's everything I can think of for the moment. If you have questions about anything I've said here, drop me a comment. I'll do my best to get back to you quickly, but I'm off to visit my folks' farm for a week and internet there is slooooow.