Setting the Tone with Point of View, Tense, Narrative Distance and Voice

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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Every story has a distinct tone. Some are light hearted, while others are grim, while still others are sad and heartbreaking. The tone of the story is created by a combination of elements: point of view, tense, narrative distance and voice. Today our Ask the Authors panel discusses how they use those elements to create the tone needed for each particular story. On our panel today, Dan Alatorre, DeAnna Knippling, RA Winter, Mark & Kym Todd, Tom Johnson, Jordan Elizabeth, Margareth Stewart, Mark Shaw, Cynthia Vespia, Lilly Rayman, and Amy Cecil. 

Tone is what determines the mood of the story. Is it a humorous story with a light, playful tone? Or are you aiming to create a dark story, with scary elements? Or perhaps a sense of mystery? The tone of the story doesn’t just occur on the page. It must be crafted with precision just like all the other elements of story, and the choices the author makes will determine if they are sucessful in achieving the desired tone, and if it is effective for the story.


Who is telling the story? There are basically four different points of view the story can be told from: first person (I), second person (you), third person limited (narrator with access to a single character’s view), or third person omnicient (narrator with access to the thoughts of multiple characters). 

Do you have a preference between first person, second person, third person limited and third person omniscient, or does it just depend on the story you are telling? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of each?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I prefer writing in first person because it forces you to pay attention as a storyteller. You don’t know what’s going on in a room you aren’t in. I also enjoy third person limited, because it’s fun to be different people instead of “I“ all the time. The big advantage is, they make you be disciplined. You’re much less likely to do head hopping in first person.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I’ve dabbled in first person but I prefer third person, especially since I like telling multi-viewpoint stories. This way I can get in the heads of each character rather than one single character mindset as you do in first person.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We have a definite preference for third-person limited POV. We like the distance it gives us (and readers) from the story and the opportunities for weaving in dramatic irony. We never use first-person because it’s too intimate for the kind of stories we tell – plus it makes it harder to surprise readers without resorting to what feels to us like storytelling gimmickry.

RA Winter

RA Winter  I always write in third person limited with a deep point of view.  It brings out each character’s quirks, reactions, fears etc adding depth to the story. As far as third-person omniscient, I don’t like the distance from the characters and it’s very hard to pull off properly.  First person point of view isn’t something I read for pleasure, so I’d never try to write in that niche.  I know that it is the ‘in’ way of writing, but for some reason it grates on my nerves.  I’ve noticed that the setting, descriptions, etc, usually lack in first-person stories and other characters aren’t as developed as they could be.  I’ve only written in the second person once as a writing prompt with a crit circle.  It was too hard to get into and not for me.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak If you’re going to lie to your audience or have an unreliable narrator, do it in first person.  I write in all three.  The second-person stories kind of require some kind of hypnotic element to them, one that you want the reader to be hyper aware of.  “I’m mind controlling you, see?  Mind controllling!”  Third person stories are for when you just want the reader to sink into the narrative with as much trust of the narrator as possible.  It’s one of those things where the way you write the story should reflect the content of your story.  The contents of my stories sometimes lead me into weird POVs.  I do like books where mixed POVs are used, too–try to imagine The Fifth Season without the POVs!

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I prefer third person omniscient, that’s how I learned to write, and it has stuck with me throughout my writing career. I don’t find myself limited in scope.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart The easiest way to write is in the third person. The first person may get boring although I used that in a self-help book-guide I wrote while trying to avoid by all costs sounding egocentric. I also did some experimental writing on the second person. I tested it and it worked fine. It is a critical piece in which a subconscious voice dialogues with the main character while pointing out how she does not change her life, and keeps repeating the same mistakes. The narrative is dense in this short story called “Acid: a view from below”. I publish it for free at facebook.com/AuthorMargarethStewart. The main character is silent all the time, and the reason I used this technique was to lead people reading it to change their own. The silence holds the potential for change. My novels are all in the third person as that is the safest path. Nobody feels intimidated or bored with them and I recommend it for long novels and first-time authors.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It all depends on the story I’m writing.  I usually stick with third person because I can explain more about what’s going on, but sometimes it just has to be told in first person.  The main character wants to tell it her way.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Depending on what I want to convey with my story, depends on whether I write in the first person, or whether I write in a third person omniscient point of view.
My Unexpected series is written in 3rd Omni – with a couple of 1st person mini scenes to add a little intrigue to what is actually happening as that character is an unknown entity at that point of the story.

I have other works in progress, or in anthologies that are written in 1st person, simply because I needed to have a more in-depth thought process for the character that I follow, for example “A Reluctant Roxana: An Unexpected Short Story – Dare to Shine: Anthology” – The anthology was to raise funds for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation – a young woman who was killed for looking different in the way she choose to dress. I wanted my character, Roxana, to have some deep internalising about how important it is to be who you are and comfortable in yourself. I felt a 1st person point of view allowed for that kind of in-depth writing, something that a 3rd person would be hard to pull off.

3rd person omniscient is a great style for a lot of character and action that would get too complicated for a 1st person to follow.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I used to write in third person, past tense, but now I prefer first person present tense.  I really don’t see any advantages other than I find it easier to write.

Have you ever written a story in one POV and then later rewritten it in a different POV to see if it worked better? Did it? Why or why not?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I started one story in one point of view and then rewrote it to change the point of view. I did it because I needed to be able to be multiple characters in the story, and I thought that worked best in third limited versus first. And it worked out really well because the story was a big hit.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Actually yes, twice. I started my Demon Hunter series in third person then decided to switch and tell it from a 1st person perspective because I wanted it to be Costa (my main character) telling his own story. When I started writing Lucky Sevens the opposite happened. I began with Luca “Lucky” Luchazi telling his story in 1st person and decided it didn’t work. So halfway through I switched to 3rd person and added in a multi-viewpoint approach. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to 1st person as its not as fun for me to write in.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Sure. And it’s why we answered the above question like we did! We think we lived-and-learned from the experience.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak If I have, it’s been long ago that I don’t remember.  I’ve tried two different 3rd person tight POVs before, but not lately.  I tend to have pretty specific reasons why I pick a character and a voice before I sit down to write.
Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture No, never, I stay with the form I’ve used from the start.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I haven’t done that yet, but I have taken a story told entirely from one POV and added in another chracter’s POV.  It made the story feel more well-rounded.

Most fiction is written in third person, allowing the author to define who their narrator is, and whether they are omniscient, having access to the thoughts and actions of all or at least several of the characters, or have access to the thoughts and ideas of one specific character. In the first person, the protagonist becomes the narrator and the story is told from a single point of view. The most prevalent example of this that comes to my mind is Hunger Games, and even though well done, there were places where the first person felt awkward.

Do you prefer to write in first or third person? Why? Or does it just depend on the story? How do you decide what POV to use?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Readers want to climb into your story and get lost in the fantasy. They don’t necessarily want to be the main character. That’s why third person is so appealing. However, certain types of stories lend themselves very well the first person. Humor, for example. Or when the author is intentionally messing with you. Ishmael was not the main character of Moby Dick; he was the narrator. He was a small player. I used that device in my book The Navigators to great effect; as you go along, you’re thinking the narrator is just a nice, quiet guy and all of a sudden you get surprise after surprise because he’s being surprised – and he pulls a few surprises. That makes it fun for me and the reader. Other books like Poggibonsi are written in first person because I wanted “you“ to be all these things and find yourself halfway through kind of rooting for the bad guy and then put yourself back out of it.

But I don’t like first person present tense. I do this, I do that. Can’t stand it. I like first person past tense: I went here, I went there – as if you’re sitting down at lunch or over a cocktail with somebody who is telling you their story. They are saying, then I did this, then I did that. First person present? I run, I jump – no thanks. I have read several books that are written that way and the first few chapters are almost impossible for me to get through. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.

RA Winter

RA Winter My first draft is usually in present tense as I work my way through the story but I change it to past tense.  Present tense for me just doesn’t work and the voice becomes passive. I’ve also notice that while trying to write in the present tense that I will automatically switch tenses and that leads to reader confusion.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Depends on the story.  I like to mislead the reader, but I also like to be fair about it.  If you see me writing in the first person, you are 95% guaranteed an unreliable narrator.  I’d say that’s 100% for second person, and maybe 50% for third.  The third person narrators tend to be less unreliable, too.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Third person, always. I agree, first person can feel awkward at times, and I prefer to broaden the view, so to speak.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan While I’m brainstorming, I try out different ideas in my head.  One or the other will always stick, and the story starts playing out.  I’ll hear it in third person or first, and I just go with it.  I’ve only had to switch once.  GOAT CHILDREN was originally third person and my original editor had me change it to first person.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I use both first and third, depending entirely on what I am trying to get across to the reader.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Basically the answer to this is noted in all the questions above.  I prefer first person, because it is easier, but in some stories, I’m required to write differently because of the story or the particular character.

Seldom do you `see anything written in the second person, because it’s hard to do. This technique decreases the narrative distance between the reader and the character, because the reader is placed within the story in a way. Essentially the reader becomes the character, using ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘her’ or ‘him’. I tried it once, and it’s a very difficult thing to do well. It usually comes off feeling rather awkward.

Have you ever tried to write anything in second person? What did you find most challenging about it?

Dan Alatorre 

Alatorre I don’t mind writing things in second person, because it’s like anything else; you have to practice it for it not to be awkward. If you don’t like it or you’re not practiced at it, it will be awkward to write and therefore it will be awkward to read. If you work at it, it can be very smooth, and a very satisfying reading experience. I don’t prefer it, because I think the types of stories I tell work best in other deliveries.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy French authors pretty well worked second-person POV to death in the 50s and 60s, and there’s not much unturned earth left in this POV, so far as we’re concerned, within traditional narratives. So we’re content to let video games and choose-your-own-adventure stories keep this technique.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I feel like using second person increases, rather than decreases, the narrative distance. It’s begging the reader to scream, “Don’t tell me what to do!!!” I write a number of stories in the second person. What you have to do is give the reader a story that they’re feeling especially cynical about, something that they want to react to in a negative manner. If you write a story from a bad guy’s point of view as they justify themselves, then a second-person narrator can sometimes be very effective. Another technique is to address the story to a universal “you,” an impersonal “you” that the reader won’t take personally at all, much as in this paragraph that you read just now.

Also? If you’re going to write a choose-your-own-adventure type book, you have to do you. I love Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be and Romeo And/Or Juliet.

A story can be told from a singular perspective in the first person or with a limited narrator, or it can be told through the eyes of multiple characters, with an omnicient narrator. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Multiple points of view offer the author more options as to how much to reveal to readers and open up opportunities for subplots to be played out more fully, whereas a single point of view can create a more focused story. Multiple POVs may be necessary when the reader needs information that the protagonist isn’t privy to. (Super hero comic books use this technique to increase tension, by making readers privy to the perils the victim to be saved faces if the hero is not sucessful.)

Do you prefer single or multiple POVs? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre If you can have multiple, have multiple; it’s more fun. I prefer multiple POVs as far as what I write because it gives you the ability to get a scene to a very dramatic point and then jump away to a different story or a different person, in a different place. And then you build that story segment up to high point of drama and then jump back to the other story. If you do it right, people can’t stop turning the pages because they have to find out what’s going on with the other stories.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We love third-person limited shifting. It’s our POV device of choice and probably why we usually write for ensemble casts. Little Greed Men uses 3p-limited-shifting in spades and by the story’s close, the characters each think they have the story figured out whereas only the reader knows what really happened – maybe.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Depends on the story.  I tend to revolve around a single POV, because I find sagas and epics to be kind of frustrating to read at times.  But I don’t worry too much about popping over to check in with another character now and then.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Single. Though I have used multiple POVs before, when I wanted my readers to see what was going on in both camps.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I love multiple POVs.  The story opens up in a new way when you explore other thoughts and feeling, and see the world through different eyes.  Plus, its fun to play around with split personalities! I realy have to force myself to write in first person if a story calls for that voice.

L Rayman It depends on the story I’m writing. If I’m writing in 1st person, I keep my story to one POV. When I’m writing in 3rd person omniscient, there tends to be multiple POV.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil It really depends on the story.  Some of my books are multiple POVs and some are single.  It just depends on the story I am telling what fits best.

When using multiple POVs, does each character get equal page time? Do you switch POVs within chapters, or on the chapter break?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Equal page time? No. Not a chance. You have stars and you have bit players. The stars get the limelight and the majority of the pages. Everybody else only gets as much as is absolutely required.

I will switch point of view within the chapter, at a chapter break, however often as needed. I’d do it midsentence if I could.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We use additional page time with a given character as the way to signal to readers who our protagonist(s) is (are). But we also sometimes give extra page time to an antagonist – either to make characters hate them or else to make readers like them despite what the antagonist does. And we stand by the dictum that an antagonist is simply a character who opposes the intent of the protagonist. We never paint characters into villains for our stories – too simplistic for us.

As for POV shifts, we often change scenes to switch POVs within a chapter. It largely depends on whether or not it serves the story arc. Also, we love switching POV scenes with mini-cliffhangers. (We do it to keep readers from being able to go to bed.)

DeAnna Knippling

deannak NNNNNNNOOOOOOOOO. The main character or the main narrator gets the most page time, period. Then again, I have to admit that I don’t write a lot of romance–that’s a situation where often (not always) the two main love interests get approximately equal page time. I’m fine reading that. But I generally loathe the “rotating POVs of calculated fairness” book structure. That one thing that I’ve been in suspense to read for the last four chapters? I no longer care. Book, meet wall on other side of the room.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Always in scene breaks, not necessarily chapter breaks, though. We must have a clear break in the scene if we switch POVs.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It depends on the progress of the story.  I never decide when the POV will switch.  As I’m writing, the other character sneaks up on me, demanding his/her turn.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Depends on the story and its flow. I try to keep to individual chapters where I can. Usually though, its my characters that dictate to me their story and how it should go.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Not always.  I usually switch POVs at the beginning of a chapter, but in some instances, its important to add the alternate POV within the same paragraph.

One of my pet peeves is head hopping, switching back and forth from one character’s head to another without clear indication to the reader.

How do you indicate to readers that a switch in POV has occurred?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I don’t think I mind head hopping as much as a lot of other people. That’s kind of like people who drink beer AND wine versus people who ONLY drink wine (and then the people who can only drink robust read deep with lots of tannins… ) Head hopping is usually a writer making a mistake. It often lessens the reading enjoyment for the reader. If you’re not writing for an audience, then it doesn’t matter, but if you have an audience that’s going to pay money for the show, they need to get their money’s worth. Most of them won’t feel they did if you head hop. Of those who don’t mind, I think they won’t feel the story is as good as it could’ve been, even if they can’t articulate why.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Oh boy head hopping really bothers me too! I try never to do that and the way I make sure is to start a new chapter whenever I want to switch a character, or at least put in an obvious break in the current chapter so you know it’s a different character POV.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We agree with you, Kaye. We hate head-hoppers. We feel like it’s a cop-out and the resort for lack of craft control. To shift POV we use the time-honored convention that ellipses mean one or more of three things: change of POV, change of place, or change of time. Most readers intuit this just fine, and we’ve never had complaints from fans.

RA Winter

RA Winter Most of the time I change chapters for different POV’s.  However, if the scene isn’t finished and there is another character who could add a different depth, stakes, or a call to action for a character, I use a scene break symbol, a *** in the middle of the page.
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I don’t do it often, but sometimes that’s just how it has to go.  I pull back on the POV depth on character one, so you might be inside their head or outside of the their head, then switch over to the second character’s POV, again at a very light depth.  I only add a personal, internal POV to the second character if I have to, too.
Nettie felt that she would never be able to understand her cousin Matthew.  She flipped several pages as the candlelight flickered.
Matthew walked around the outside of the room.  To see him, you would never know that he was suffering.  A black despair always fell over him at this time of year, at the memory of his wife.
Nettie said, “Would you like me to read to you?”
“Yes, please.  What are you reading?”
She paged back to the beginning of the story, considering whether the story was an appropriate one for the moment, or not.
–Like that.  We hopped from Nettie to Matthew and back again.  Neither POV is all that rich with observation, but sometimes you have to at least suggest what’s going on in the other character’s head so the reader doesn’t misinterpret the subtext.  But I’m still new enough at being able to do it that I just about have a panic attack every time I have to try to pull it off.
Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I won’t ever jump from head to head with POVs. It might work in comic books, though.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I break up the screen, making it clear that the previous scene is over, or I start a new chapter.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman As an omniscient writer, it can be hard to strike the right balance between an omniscient pov and a head hopper. My chapters might follow one particular character for the duration of that chapter, with a touch of another character’s perspective, but, I’ve never had any complaints, and a really good editor is a god-send to pull up any head hopping moments. I try to provide clear indication within the first sentence or two as to which character is the main lead for that chapter.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a heading with their name on it.

 

How close are we to the story? Do you want your reader to feel as if they are at a distance, watching the story unfold or do you want them to be right up in the action. Each approach has a different effect. You must be careful not to distance readers so much that they loose interest, yet there are times, such as when your character needs to remain unaware of certain aspects of the story, when you may not want them to be right in the thick of things. This can be manipulated through the narrator, using past or present tense, or through voice.

How much narrative distance do you like to give for your readers?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I don’t know what that is, so I’m gonna say none. * Looks it up. * If it means what I think it means, how much space you allow between your reader and your story, the answer remains the same. None. I want them immersed up to their eyeballs, unable to stop reading, unable to put the book down, and their hearts broken when they have to close the book and after the ending and leave these people they have come to love. If a character gets cut, I want the reader to bleed. I want the reader so close, they feel the killer’s breath on their neck.

RA Winter

RA Winter I start each chapter with setting the scene to orientate the reader. This is done by a more distant narrative, but as soon as possible I draw readers into the character by delving deeper inside the scene and the motivations behind the actions. I want the reader to be inside the story, know where they are in time and place, what’s going on, the motivation, the stakes, the hidden agendas. Each character’s action should be clear and logical with the scene painted in- to add depth to the story. A deeper POV has the pull to bring a story to life.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try to suck the reader in as much as possible.  Even if they aren’t exactly like the narrator, I want them to feel the same emotions and sensations, and hopefully identify some part of themselves in the main character.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Whatever is required for the story as it flows along.

I recently read Webs of Perception, by Darlene Quinn, (you can read my review this Friday, October 19). Darlene used the first person POV for her main character, but used third person for the multple POVs used in her story. The character had amnesia, so in a way, it was what made the story work, but I had never seen this done before and found it an interesting technique.

When using multiple POVs, have you ever used multiple narrator’s voices in the same story? Was it difficult to make that work? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Sure. I did this in The Navigators. It was first person as the narrator, but whenever the narrator wasn’t present in a scene, it was third person limited. It works fine. I think one or two reviews mentioned it, but they didn’t ask for a refund so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy It can be a useful exercise, we suppose. But we find this sort of POV slight-of-hand a bit gimmicky. By its very nature, first-person is the most intimate but also the trickiest since readers have to learn to trust the author when getting so close to a character. And switching POV modes feels heavy-handed, more flash than substance in most instances. Our stories are already as complicated as we want them to be.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Eh, I’ve seen it done and I’m fine reading it, but when I do that kind of thing, it’s a prologue in third and the rest of the book in first.  The prologue sets up the crime for the rest of the book, and then the rest of the book is the investigation by the (unreliable narrator) detective.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Third person throughout the story, I never change this format.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I haven’t done that exactly, but PATH TO OLD TALBOT  is written in first and third person for the same main character.  When Charity is adventuring in Old Talbot, the story is in third person.  She’s detached from the emotional trauma of real life and just living in the moment.  When she’s in the present dealing with her father, the story is told in first person, showing all of her hurt.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Only on occasion has I slipped a scene or two in for characters POV in first person when the rest of the story has been written in third person. This has been a deliberate choice when planting in certain little plot bunnies to tease at the reader until it all comes together at the end.

We are taught to use an active voice, leaving passive ‘to be’ verbs like ‘were’ or ‘had been’ by the wayside. It’s difficult to write in an active voice when the story is in the past tense yet, using the Hunger Games example, being first person, present tense may have been the reason it was awkward at times. (I think first person, past tense may be a little easier.)

Do you prefer to write in past or present tense? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre  I prefer to write in past tense only because the vocabulary is much more limited in present tense. When you start thinking about your verb usage, there’s about 10 times as many when you use past tense – and people are more used to telling things that way, therefore they are more used to hearing things that way. But it’s all personal preference. If your story kicks butt in first person present tense, then stick with it.

As far as active or passive, I really don’t worry about it too much. There’s so much going on in my story, and the characters are so lively and the dialogue is so engaging, I could probably use all the passive verbs I want and nobody would care. The simple fact is, words are like paint strokes on a painting, and you dip into whichever one is going to suit your purpose best for that section.

Once you know how to write an engaging story, you get to choose which types of words you need to deliver it best. When you were learning to drive a car, it was all you could do to keep the car on the road. Now you drive with one knee while you’re eating a cheeseburger and talking on the cell phone. You don’t even think about it. That comes with practice. Hone your craft. And there’s something else I notice a lot, which is: the really great storytellers don’t pay that much attention to the rules because they’re telling great stories. A great story hides a lot of sins.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I prefer present. To me it feels more active, like the story is unfolding right now in front of the reader.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Almost exclusively in past tense. We use dramatic present very sparingly and only when we want a sense of suspenseful immediacy for a short burst.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I hate present tense for fiction.  I find it comes across as breathless and melodramatic, especially in YA fiction.  That being said, if a story needs a breathless tone of voice, I’ll use present.  I’ll complain about it to myself the entire time.  Why, subconscious, why?!?

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart I prefer to write in the past tense, but I use lots of dialogue and that is all in the present. Writing in active voice is also a great choice as it makes narratives direct and straightforward. Thus, the writing narrative is kept clean and clear avoiding redundancy and lack of objectiveness. We should use words as precious things and avoid using them merely to fill in the blank space or getting into details that make no difference to the story. So, my tip is: “write as you were opening fields in the jungle with your words, cut, chop and do not get stuck if things are not perfect, move forward and take the reader with you – on top of all that – enjoy the journey.”

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I prefer past tense.  It flows better for me.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I tend to write in the past tense when in 3rd person POV, this feels more comforatble to me. Yet I slip into present tense when writing in the 1st person. Although, I have written 1st person in past tense as well.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Present tense.  I find it easier.

How do you avoid the use passive voice in your writing? Or do you?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I write such awesome stuff, nobody’d notice if I used a passive verb. They might even be grateful I let them catch their breath.

Seriously, I don’t worry about “avoiding” using the passive voice, because I’ve just realized that most people don’t write stories that are engaging enough, so the passive voice weighs the story down. If the story is engaging and the characters are lively and the dialogue is witty, some passive voice here and there isn’t going to hurt anything. I don’t worry about using it. I don’t use it much, but I wouldn’t worry about using it at all. If a reader sees it and notices – not an editor, but a regular reader – then your story sucks anyway. Write great stories and you can do whatever you want – and nobody will care. Here’s a great example. Star Wars didn’t win best picture. Critics said it was a space cowboy movie. But it changed our whole culture. A great story makes its own rules.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Editing…lol.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Simple, we never use it. Passive only has two functions – 1) when you don’t know who the subject is (e.g., the initial JFK headline “The President has been shot” and no one knew at the time the name of the assassin), but in fiction, we know such info already and can control such revelations in other ways; and 2) when you don’t want to reveal who the subject is. In the latter case, we always construct other storytelling strategies to avoid revealing identity.

RA Winter

RA Winter Crit cycles.  My writing undergoes numerous drafts.   There are between seven and eight critters who comb over my writing at every stage and thankfully they stay with me until the end.  My editor helps with the development of my story and is a  huge help at with every draft, I don’t know what I’d do without her expertise and input.  Each crit brings another depth to the story and every draft focuses on one aspect including passive voice.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I don’t.  The use of passive voice in writing is often a necessary element.  Breaking rules is something that writers get to do when it provides a specific benefit to the reader.  I spent a lot more time breaking long, convoluted sentences into smaller parts so they’re more readable.  That’s my sin.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Oh, passive voice is easy. When I went to school we learned all about verbs and adverbs, and how to use them, past tense and future tense, etc. That’s what learning was all about. Only now do we find out that passive voice and “ly”s are not wanted. I’ve got an idea our language is even changing as I write this. Soon we may be replacing “you” with “u” and other single letters replacing words. Who knows what writing will be like in thirty years – or fifty, or a hundred years from now? I’m reminded of writers in the 1930s and ‘40s that wrote for a penny a word, and had to fill their stories with adjectives and verbs to make a living. It was called purple prose back then, and if you could sneak a “had been” in there for an extra two cents, you did it. Cowboys didn’t just turn and draw their revolver; they turned quickly and drew their six-shooter lightning fast. Anyway, it was all about words, and how many you could get in a sentence.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Spell check finds a lot of it!  I always send my stories by multiple critique partners to make sure nothing slips by.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I guess plenty of re-reads and editing rounds to make sure the passive voice is weeded out if it does make an appearance!

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I rely on my editor to fix that.


Writing fiction and nonfiction have many similarities, but in the case of nonfiction, true life stories, such as those that author and panel member Mark Shaw writes, the story determines the tone, so the above questions don’t really apply. Yet each of Mark’s works carry a distinctive voice and tone. So, I asked Mark how he decides which elements of voice to use and what tone to take in his story telling.

In the nofiction that you write, you tell the stories of others. In The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, you took a third person investigative approach, in Courage in the Face of Evil, you took a different approach, telling the story from Vera’s POV, and in Beneath the Mask of Holiness, you told the story in third person as a narrator. In each of these cases your story telling skill was spot on. If told in a different way, it wouldn’t have been the same story. How do you choose the right voice in which to tell your stories? 

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) Regarding “voice” and the storytelling method utilized, three of my books illustrated different methods of doing so. In Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free, I chose to be the narrator, the guide to telling the story of how late in life the famous monk finally found true love through an affair with a student nurse half his age. While doing so, however, I wove into the story excerpts from his diary so that his “voice” was apparent to the reader as he expressed strong emotions about the love affair and what it meant to him, most important of course.
In Courage in the Face of Evil, based on a true story as captured from a Holocaust diary, I told the story through the main character Vera’s voice since I wanted readers to learn of the horrors of the Holocaust with a firsthand account as she wrote it in the diary. This also permitted the inspirational aspect of the story to come forward, the part where she trusts a German prison guard whom she hated to help her save the life of a little Russian girl who would have been killed otherwise. Vera’s own words indicate her courage and permit the reader to become emotionally involved in the book start to finish.
In both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much about Dorothy Kilgallen and the upcoming follow-up book, Denial of Justice (Nov. 20), I tell the story as the narrator, but weave in as much of Dorothy’s own words in her columns and what she said to others about how she was investigating the JFK assassination. Using as many images of Dorothy and never-before-exposed government documents, I enhance the story and provide the reader with the path Dorothy took to learn the truth just as prosecutor would do for a jury. Once again, though, the key to TRWKTM becoming a bestseller with hopes Denial of Justice will just as successful, is that the story touches reader’s emotions by their bonding with the famous reporter who did not receive justice when she mysteriously died in 1965. Many readers have told me they grew to respect and love Dorothy, emotions on their end that warm my heart.

It seems the story itself, determines the number of POVs used, and what tense it is told in, and sometimes a change in POV can make a world of difference as to how the story comes comes out and what tone is set. Finding the right tone can be the difference between a really great story and a mediocre one. Although fiction is different from nonfiction in many ways, you can see from Mark Shaw’s answers on nonfiction how important finding the right view point and voice is to the story.
Most of our panel members avoid headhopping, although a few find it useful at times and make a purposeful effort to do it well, when they do use it. Also, in most cases, narrative distance is close and personal, drawing the reader right into the thick of the story. Although I felt second person might distance the reader, DeAnna Knippling feels it brings them in closer, decreasing their narrative distance from the story. I suppose it might depend on how well it is done.
Most of our panel members give much credit to editors, critique partners and beta readers to help weed out passive voice and accidental head hops. I think it really helps to get additional sets of eyes on our work. One technique that I have used that works very well to find these errors as well as others, and helps you to know if the tone is that desired is reading your story aloud. This helps in knowing if the flow is smooth as well. You don’t even have to have someone to read to, although you can and then you have an additional opinion, but I’ve read it aloud to myself or even to my dog. (He’s a good listener, but he doesn’t give a lot of feedback. Lol.)
That’s it for this week. I hope you all will join us next Monday, when our panel members will discuss character development. 

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One Comment on “Setting the Tone with Point of View, Tense, Narrative Distance and Voice”


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