#114: Exploring Third-Person Point of View

Dear Story Nurse,

I need some help loosening my grip on tight third person point of view. I write mostly fanfic, and tight third works well for shorter works, but I find that it breaks down in longer works. Most of the time, I work around it by occasionally changing POV at scene transitions or chapter breaks.

This leads to confusion for some readers because tight third, at least the way I use it, almost axiomatically creates narrators as unreliable (just in different ways) as first person POV does. First person is culturally coded as unreliable, so readers tend to question what the narrator is omitting or being misleading about. Third person, on the other hand, carries the implication that there isn’t a person withholding information or not understanding what they’re experiencing/observing.

When I write tight third, different POV characters have very different ideas about what the things they see and do mean and make assumptions about what other people think, feel, and intend. Any particular character’s section may contain major conflicts with other characters’ sections.

I like writing this way and enjoy reading things written this way, but the comments I’ve gotten have made me think about the fact that I can write tight third and first but not omniscient third or even a more distant third. I would like to figure out how to approach those.

Thanks!

—Anne (she/her)

Dear Anne,

Learning new writing skills is usually valuable (unless you’re doing it to procrastinate), but I want to caution you against thinking that you have to change the way you write because it doesn’t work for a few readers. If you’re happy writing tight third and you’re reaching at least some readers who seem to really get what you’re doing with it, it may make more sense to work on setting reader expectations around reliability of narrators in that context. For example, you can switch POV more frequently so that the differences between two people’s experiences of a situation show up earlier and establish that this is a thing that can and will happen in your stories, or have side characters argue with your POV characters about how they’re interpreting events, so as to remind readers that the POV character is not infallible. And remember that nothing you write will reach or please every single person who reads it, so you’re best off continuing to write what makes you happy.

But that’s not what you asked! So for general tips on writing looser third-person fiction, read on.

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#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

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#112: How to Get Characters out of Bed

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write plot that isn’t porn??? Sometimes the characters have got to get out of bed, or they’ll chafe!!!

—angelsaves (she/her)

Dear angelsaves,

This is a delightful dilemma. My immediate question is, what do the characters want that isn’t sex? I don’t mean instead of, but in addition to. Because even when someone really, really, really wants sex, they want other things too, related or unrelated to the sexual desire.

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#111: Habit and Quantity vs. Inspiration and Quality

Dear Story Nurse,

I was wondering what advice you have for someone who knows she produces better writing when she’s “feeling it” but can’t force herself to “feel it”.

Background: I have finished a few novels and am involved in an online workshop. My process is usually a creative phase, where I create an outline, brainstorm ideas, tinker with the structure, determine pacing and so on. I write snippets of dialog to get a feel for the characters and create a basic synopsis. I usually give myself a lot of time for ideas to gestate and only work on them when I feel good about the process. It is not part of the “write every day” regimen.

After that, the second “write every day” phase begins. So I write, every day, even when depression gets the better of me or life gets in the way. I’ve got that part down.

Then, third phase editing, which I really enjoy. I finish my projects to my personal satisfaction. I’m not looking to get published at the moment (my personal life is too fraught lately to be able to emotionally handle the inevitable rejection treadmill) so I am content with finishing solid first or second drafts to keep in the drawer for later, when I’m better equipped to tackle the industry.

My problem exists in the second phase, and it’s becoming a real hurdle.

I have noticed a quality drop when I force myself to write when I’m not really feeling it. I’m glad the words are on the page, but I know the words could have been much, much better if I had been enthusiastically and emotionally involved rather than dutifully hitting my targets for the day. The reason I persist with the schedule even if it produces sub-par work is that “inspiration” and “feeling it” are unreliable things you can’t force. I’d rather get it done than wait around for a flighty muse. But I’ve hit a point now where I feel that producing rote prose is just me creating problems for myself in editing. It’s much harder for me to improve my writing during the editing phase than it is to just get it right the first time around. (I quite literally live for the moment when all the stars align and I just get engrossed in writing to the point of intense personal satisfaction, when the hours fly by and the result turns out every bit as good as I felt it was while working on it. It’s truly like a drug for me and I crave it like you wouldn’t believe.)

I’ve tried to follow advice to get around this: write the less important parts when you’re not feeling it, save the intense moments for when creativity peaks. But that clashes with another piece of writing advice I hold dear: if it’s not important or interesting, scrap it. Besides, I like to write chronologically and not skip around too much. I really need that self-imposed structure or I’d be off writing an encyclopedia of unnecessary fluff and create even more problems in editing.

Is this a situation where I just need to “git gud” and learn to produce quality prose on demand, even if I’m not feeling very connected to the material that day? Should everything I write be super engaging to me by default and is it a bad sign when I’m not connecting? Is “write every day” just not good advice for me? Is this a case where mental illness prevents me from gaining benefit from otherwise good advice? Or is this my well-documented perfectionism sabotaging me again?

After many years of buck wild pantsing and unfinished projects, I really, truly like having actual output for a change, so I hesitate to change my process. But I’m getting sick of reading back over my work and thinking “wow, this could have been so much better if I actually gave a crap that day.”

I’d love your take on this!

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It sounds to me like the clash you’re having is a clash of priorities, where prioritizing any of writing speed, quality, and effort leaves the others wanting. In other words, it’s a classic case of the Design Triangle: “fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.”

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#110: Writing During Times of Life Upheaval

Dear Story Nurse,

For the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to develop some good writing habits, progress has been mixed (this is just for framing). But I am now rapidly coming towards the very end stages of my Ph.D. I don’t really want any additional sources of stress right now, and I don’t want to just stop writing for months if I can help it, so I declared writing habit amnesty for myself and gave myself permission to write whatever I want, and take breaks when I need to.

I know this was the right choice for the circumstance, I can pick up my more serious writing goals later, and yet I still feel guilty when I don’t write for a few days or I sit down to write and don’t Focus on my Serious Projects. And that’s after I bludgeon the brainweasels that consider a Thesis a 24/7 project.

Any tips for silencing the jerk-brain?

—Aspiring Slacker (she/her)

Dear Aspiring Slacker,

If you’re feeling guilty and anxious when you don’t write, do write but don’t work on serious projects, or do work on serious projects but not on your thesis, it sounds to me like the anxiety is not about writing but is about you generally being anxious right now. This is totally normal and understandable for someone at this stage of a PhD, as I understand it, so please start by forgiving yourself for being stressed out by a very, very stressful situation.

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#109: How to Write Smooth, Satisfying Transitions

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write transitions? I prefer airy prose and I’m often told my work is floaty. I worry that my transitions change the tone of my work or are jarring, so I was wondering if you had any tips for me.

Thank you, Story Nurse!

—L (she/they)

Dear L,

This is such an enticing question. Without seeing samples of your work, my guess is that your issue with transitions—from scene to scene, or from space to space within a scene—is that they can be grounding, reminding readers that they’re reading or anchoring a work to a particular physical space. But grounding isn’t contradictory to floaty, airy work; it’s necessary, and satisfying.

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#108: Writing Through Anxiety

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi,

I used to want to be a writer very badly. It was my childhood dream and my direction in life, etc etc. I never wrote as much as I felt I should have for the ‘title’ of writer, but I wrote poetry, short stories and started terrible novels.

During my time at university, I gave a few stories to a guy I was hoping would become a mentor, or at least some kind of writing peer. He basically ignored them, and after seeing me on campus one time after that said he assumed we would never run into each other again.

My confidence was severely knocked by this, and I decided to basically just concentrate on poetry. I struggled a lot with worrying my poetry was hackneyed, ‘too American’ as one of the people in my uni’s poetry society would have said (she assumed that certain ways of writing poetry, like in more of a slam style, was always affected, as we are British and it’s not our tradition or something?), and just generally not as good as I would have liked. I quickly shelved that too. I’ve lost the majority of my writing from that period, so I have little to check to see if I still feel it’s all terrible.

I realise reading this back I have issues with negative criticism. I had received more positive (or neutral to be honest) feedback than bad about my work up until the points I stopped writing, I just discounted it. Usually my reader wasn’t a writer/editor, or I assumed they were being kind.

I’ve recently begun writing again, trying to do five hundred words a day in a low pressure, write-whatever-feels-good kind of way. I’m writing non-fiction pieces about my life, some article style, some more memoir, and it feels good to write again. The idea of writing a story or poem though makes me feel panicked and like I’m “not ready”, and that everything I write is going to be awful.

I know that writing the terrible words is the only way to get to the good ones intellectually. Translating that into action and pushing through the emotional discomfort is proving really difficult.

How can I get comfortable – or at least not doubled over in emotional pain – with writing creatively again? Is this something I should expect to be able to do again or is this just me discovering I should write non-fiction? And also, how do I stop being so hampered by negative criticism?

Thanks so much for reading this, I really appreciate this blog!

—Writing Again (they/them)

Dear Writing Again,

Your letter reminds me a lot of #106, Writing Through Depression, except that it sounds like what you’re dealing with is a pile of anxiety (perhaps in addition to depression). It’s both undermined your ability to gauge the quality of your own work and made it very difficult for you to accept quality judgments from others: any compliment is minimized and any critique is magnified. Even the absence of meaningful communication, as with the guy who gave your stories to who then blew you off, is interpreted in the worst possible way. And you already assume that any words you write are going to be “terrible” and “awful”.

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#107: How to Write Gripping Headlines

Dear Story Nurse,

It’s a small thing, but I need help understanding how to create compelling titles.

I’ve found a job writing articles and it pays me enough to make a living. Writing as paying gig is a new development for me; until recently, I’d really only written fiction as a private and unpaid hobby. Yet now I’m reporting on local government actions, generating updates on research projects in our area, and crafting biographies on notable residents.

It’s terrifying that I’m actually doing this and also amazing. My editor/boss has helped with the structure and flow of my articles, but I still have some anxiety about my abilities, particularly when it comes to crafting compelling (and concise) titles. I know that I will not lose my job over it, but my ineptitude in this area creates a lot of noise in my head regarding my skills. That head noise puts me on edge, making it difficult to get out of my own way and do my job.

I’ve written and rewritten titles as a writing exercise. It can take me an hour to get something mediocre; my boss can create one in ten seconds. To be fair to myself, he has been doing this years longer than I have. But I don’t have an hour to spare for every article.

Is there a titling manual I missed somewhere? Am I (or my anxiety) making this too difficult? Are there less formulaic exercises I can do? Do you know of a different approach other than rewriting the same thing over and over? An internet search points me to sites relying on formulas. My editor can’t describe his title creating process other than ‘just say what it is without giving it all away’ but also to be interesting while doing so.

For further clarity, my editor prefers titles that give a hint without telling the whole story. The title can be as few as two words and usually no more than eight. Subtitles can be up to another eight to nine words.

Thank you.

—New Here (she/her)

Dear New Here,

I’m guessing from your single quotes that you’re not in the U.S., and perhaps that’s why you’re using title where I would say headline. If you’re writing articles reporting on news, they need headlines (and subheds—yes, that spelling is correct). Your searches for information on writing good headlines may be more fruitful just with this change in terminology.

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#106: Writing Through Depression

Content note: This letter and post discuss depression and negative self-talk.

Hey Story Nurse

So I’m like a sad human with Heaps of mental health problems (anxiety, depression and a bunch of less relevant stuff) and I write fanfiction off and on depending on my mood and what I’m watching.

I also sort of write original fiction, but I never even get close to finishing anything. I really want to write some things that work best in long form (like person goes “undercover” as a boy and realizes like halfway through he’s trans is the one I’m working on right now). But I haven’t done anything with it because I know I’m not going to finish it. The only thing I ever finish are short fics. So what I’ve been doing is trying to write progressively longer and longer fics to kind of get a feel for longer writing and to prove to myself that I can finish things.

However, I just started a fic that was supposed to be like up to twenty chapters long, which retrospectively is about 75% longer than anything I’d done before, but I thought it would be better cause I had it all planned out. I was super wrong. I finished three chapters and tossed it because I hate it now, like the whole premise and everything it just felt super flat. And now I feel like I can’t finish anything. Like I haven’t even been able to Try to write like anything at all (original or fic) because I feel like I’m not going to finish it and there’s no point. It’s really frustrating because I really love looking at and rereading things I /have/ finished.

I really wanna write original stuff because I have soooo many ideas, but it feels like as soon as I try nothing works right. The plot is bad, I can’t figure out how to get scenes to work together or the writing just feels flat and I lose interest super quickly. It’s super depressing and now it’s leeched into my fanfic too. :c

Please help.

—Sad Space Gay (they/them)

Dear Sad Space Gay,

I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time. It sounds like your depression is really doing a number on you. It’s really awesome that you’ve fought through that to reach out for help, and I hope you recognize what an amazing act of self-care and determination and bravery that was. Your depression doesn’t own you. If you found a way to write to me, you can find ways to do other good things for yourself, including writing.

Depression is clearly putting a distorting filter between you and your writing and making it very hard for you to accurately judge the quality or potential of your ideas and your work. I can’t treat your depression, and I hope that you’re working with skilled, compassionate professionals who can. What I can do is give you some ways to recognize, mitigate, and bypass the filter.

Important caveat: Some of these techniques will work for some people some of the time. Nothing works for everyone all of the time. Depression is a clever beast and it adapts. It also comes and goes. Something that feels easy or useful one day may be impossible or counterproductive the next. If trying any of these techniques feels bad or harmful to you, stop doing it. Only you can assess what works for you. I’m a professional in the field of writing, not in the field of mental health; I’m not prescribing anything, only making recommendations for writing techniques. If you’re at all uncertain about how or whether to proceed with any of this advice, talk it over with the people who are directly supporting your mental health. Continue reading

#105: How Much Backstory Is Too Much

Hello, Story Nurse!

My main focus at the moment is a fantasy novel. I’m only in the planning stages right now but I’m having a hard time figuring out what to do for this. My story is mainly centered on a group of people, and while they may age as it progresses, they are kids/teens. A big part of my story is about recovery and healing and such, so most of these kids have emotional wounds.

While their emotional wounds are obviously going to be present even when not outright mentioned, my question is; how much information of these traumas/wounds is enough? I fear that including too much information on their wounds may make it seem like I’m trying to force the reader to pity them, and that too little will leave the reader confused and in the dark.

How much is too much or too little? Any suggestions on how do I show their wounds and provide details without waving a neon sign?

Thank you,

Struggling (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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