The Toolbox -- The Important Bits

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Peter Graham

Well-Known Member
Apr 10, 2007

This is a slimmed-down version of The Toolbox -- Free For All thread, in that a lot of the questions and answers raised there have been removed from here, so as to concentrate on the more essential posts.

This thread is closed so it doesn't get overwhelmed with yet more questions and answers, but Free For All remains open for question-asking and -answering, as well as for general comments and, of course, helpful and informative posts on writing. The latter may well end up copied into here, too.

Because posts have simply been copied across from the original thread, they will often contain cryptic references to posts which haven't been duplicated, so don't let any oddities worry you. And you can always go over and read the entire Free For All thread to find out what's missing!
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I am hoping we can use this thread as a means of offering advice as to some of the common stylistic, grammatical and syntactical traps and pitfalls awaiting the new writer. If story and plot are the bricks and mortar of writing, then technique, imagery, word power and confidence with the language are surely the trowels, wheelbarrows, plumb lines, ties and PTFE tape needed for the job.

As many have pointed out, there are no "rules" as such. But there are guidelines and there are topics for discussion. I really hope that we can get a good number of contributions here and perhaps build up a "bank" of hints and tips for those who post in Critiques.

Right, I'll start with:-


Info dumping is the introduction of large amounts of apparently irrelevant background and explanatory information which does not take the immediate action forwards (and may even disrupt it entirely) and which is all too often presented in a bland fashion like a shopping list.

An example:-

"Peter opened the gate. The gate was wooden. He had come home as soon as he was called. Mrs Graham had said it was urgent and Peter was worried. Peter was very tall, standing seven foot three inches in height. He was very friendly and a bit scatty and his clothes were strange. He wore an old-fashioned Edwardian frock coat which he had bought from a vintage clothes shop in Leeds. It was plum velvet in colour and edged in lace. It had two pockets. He had a pipe, some dog biscuits, three elastic bands and a little tin of Gawith's Kendal snuff in one of the pockets. He wore flared trousers and silver stack heeled boots which were rubber soled with leather uppers. He was wearing a top hat and blue sunglasses. He was from Cumbria, which was a mountainous and rural region in the North west of England, where Wordsworth was from.

Mrs Graham ran towards him to tell him that the Scots had invaded again and that he was needed at the muster. The muster took place every time the beacons were lit. The Scots raided regularly, taking catttle, sheep and prisoners back across the border. The muster was made up of local men, led by the local village elders. Peter was an elder because he was old.

"Thank God you're here," she shouted. "The Scots have invaded again - you're needed at the muster!"

An OTT example, but the physical description of Peter is long, dry, boring to read and disrupts the immediacy of the action.

A better way to impart this sort of information is to work with a light touch - drop hints, make passing comments or weave things into dialogue or description. It may take longer to bring out all of the facts, but it will be more interesting to read. Remember that writing a book is a marathon rather than a race, so there is plenty of time to say everything that needs to be said. Keep it lean - if you are saying something that is not necessary or relevant to the scene you are describing, think whether you need to say it there or even at all.

Also avoid the trap of writing info dump masquerading as dialogue. This happens when two characters who supposedly know each other well start talking like this:-

"Hi, Dave" said Peter. "Fancy coming to the pub tonight?"

"Do you mean the only pub in the village, which we go to every Friday?" replied Dave.

"That's right! The Lamb and Flag on Chapel Street, where they sell Real Ale and have a Quiz night on Thursdays."

"I'd love to go," said Dave. "Do you think we'll see Sally, who is the landlady?"

"I should think so. She has worked there every night for the last seven years and only rarely takes a holiday."


I'm by no means an expert on this aspect, but this is closely related to the INFO-DUMP problem; so, in the best Blue Peter tradition, this is something I prepared earlier** relating to:


Truscott was a foul-mouthed sexist buffoon and Claire felt nothing but contempt for him.

This is all telling. If there is a tell-show scale, this is right at one end.

'I feel nothing but contempt for that man, Truscott,' Claire confessed. 'He is a foul-mouthed, sexist buffoon.'
This is still telling, even though it is being said by Claire, because we are being told (a) what she thinks and (b) what we should be thinking about him. On the tell-show scale, it is a little along from the first option, because it is being given through Claire's voice and if nothing else it shows something about her (ie that she is the kind of woman who forms judgements of this kind and uses this sort of language).

'I tell you what, lass. That girl over there is a right cracker.' Truscott pointed out one of the visiting dignitaries. 'Reckon I could get into her knickers? Or d'you think she's one of those f***ing lezzies?'
Claire stared at him for a moment before turning away without replying.

This is all showing. We are not told what to think about either of them, nor what Claire is thinking about Truscott. We are being shown what is happening and we have to draw our own conclusions from it. On the tell-show scale, this is right at the opposite end from the first option.

Of course there is a problem with the third option. There is a risk that your readers might not realise what Claire is thinking when she turns away. (Even worse, some might not understand that Truscott is a foul-mouthed buffoon - they might see him as a straight-talking figure who has a good head on his shoulders. :eek: ) One way to avoid that is to use a few judicious adjectives/adverbs/comments - Claire could stare at him in disbelief or disgust or contempt; or she could turn away with a look of scorn in her eyes; or she could make a mental note to lodge an official complaint about him. But as soon as you start doing this, you are sliding back along the tell-show scale - how far you slide depends on how much detail of that kind you put in.

The other point is that option 1 is over and done with in 15 words; option 3 is a para of nearly 50.

Sometimes, telling is necessary, or at least, is the best available option - if the information needs to be given, then giving it quickly and smoothly before getting into the action can be preferable. Like everything in writing, it's a question of degree.


** on another thread. I don't have banks of these things just waiting to be wheeled out.
And thanks to Chopper, we can now move seamlessly into


The use of multiple character points of view in the same chapter or even paragraph. Although there is nothing wrong with multiple p.o.v, it should be clear when one character p.o.v ends and another begins. New chapters, or clear breaks within chapters (the much maligned line of asterisks) help sign the shift from one character to another.

By way of an example:-

Dave downed his eighth pint and sighed. He was having a great evening, but Peter was already showing signs of advanced inebriation. Dave knew that another couple of pints of Old Frottage would see Peter either under the table or on a stomach pump. But Dave didn't care. It was Peter's round and he would have to get his hand in his pocket. But Dave knew he had to be careful and subtle. The wrong move now and Peter would just stagger off home.

"Oi, Graham, you big numpty. Get the air out of this glass and stop drooling!"

Peter stared back at Dave quizzically. He had just been thinking about whether he had forgotten Mrs Graham's mother's birthday again. He had no idea what to buy her this year. Perhaps a negligee. But he couldn't think so well at the moment. His brain felt like it was being redecorated by Motorhead's road crew. He stood up, grinned at Sally, felt suddenly very sick and fell over in a heap on the floor.

"Men!" said Sally, shaking her head. She didn't like drunks in her pub, but she was less bothered about this pair of middle aged morris dancers. At least they didn't fight. The worst you could expect was that they would load the jukebox up to play "The Skye Boat Song" endlessly.

In this extract, we see the action from the internalised perspective of three entirely different characters. It would be better fixed on one, main character with the events described (Peter's fall and Sally's views) being reported from the perspective of the main character only.

Some authors use head hop to great effect, but it is one of those things which you need to properly understand to make work. The problem with using it too frequently or badly is that you do not allow the reader to identify with your main characters or to relax into the scene. P.o.v shifts can too easily jar on the reader.


A related Info-Dump problem is one of abbreviations.

As we all know things in common usage have abbreviated names. TV is a good example.

This will also be true in the future and an author has to take this into account when writing SF. It just doesn't feel right if a character in a story continually refers to the 'matter transmitter' instead of the MT just as a modern day character would seem odd if they continually referred to the 'television' instead of TV. This is especially true in dialogue.

In the past I have tried using the full name the first time followed by the abbreviation on subsequent occasions:

"The Lunar Positioning System says we are way off course."

"The LPS can't be trusted. I vote we carry on."

I have also tried making characters explain the abbreviation:

"The LPS says we are way off course."


"Lunar Positioning System."

Both these methods, however, seem false. The very nature of it being an abbreviation implies it's in common usage and therefore already known to the characters in the story.

More recently I have started to use labels and titles.

Fredericks scrolled through a few screens on the monitor until "Lunar Positioning System" displayed.

"The LPS says we are way off course."

"I've never trusted those things. I vote we carry on."

Not perfect but I'm working on it. :)
Thanks, Pyan.


Can be used in many exciting ways, but most commonly is used to denote the possessive (something belonging to somebody) or a missing letter (or letters).

1. Possessive use is fairly straighforwards. In the singular, it goes like this:-

Peter's car

Pyan's tentacles

Judge's ermine-trimmed robes of judicial office

When there is more than one possessor, the apostrophe comes after the 's':-

The Smiths' children - the Smiths here being used in the plural - in other words, the whole family or at least both parents.

This allows you to differentiate between singular and plural when you read:-

The cow's hooves - one cow.

The cows' hooves - more than one cow.

The first big caveat is when the singular already ends in 's'. In that case, the apostrophe also comes after the 's':-

Tom Burness' cat

The second big caveat is that you don't use an apostrophe when using "its" in the possessive sense:-

Its teeth

2. When denoting a missing letter, an apostrophe goes wherever the missing letter is:-

You're (a contraction of 'you are')

They've (they have)

She'd (she had or she would)

Peter'll (Peter will or Peter shall)

Fo'c'sle (forecastle - although strictly this should be either fo'c's'le or fo'c'stle)

It's (it is - see why you don't use it for the possessive now?)

The big pitfall in apostrophe use is what is known as the grocer's apostrophe (or grocers' apostrophe if there is more than one grocer!), which is when someone uses an apostrophe to denote the plural:-


Ten year's ago

As the years and the tomatoes don't possess anything and as there are no missing letters, there is no apostrophe.

Regards (and, of course, never Regard's!),


This helpful piece of punctuation has two main functions.

The first is to show a contraction in a word or words. So "I cannot" becomes "I can't" - the apostrophe taking the place of the missing "no"; and "he is" becomes "he's". Similarly, it is used when dropping the "g" or other letter(s) off a word to express a slangy way of speaking, so "he's goin' over there".

The more problematic use is when the apostrophe marks a possessive. Instead of "the pen of my aunt", most people would say - and write - "my aunt's pen". Without the apostrophe, the phrase becomes meaningless - "my aunts pen" indicates I have two or more aunts and even suggests that they might be called "Pen" but the capital letter has been omitted.

Where there are two or more aunts, then the apostrophe, instead of coming before the "s", follows it, so "my aunts' house". Where the plural isn't formed by an "s" though, eg "children", then again there is an "s" following, ie "the children's toys".

Whenever there is an "s" at the end of a word, there is a split as to usage as to whether to put another "s" after the apostrophe ie "James' toys" or "James's toys". Perhaps the answer is to say the word out loud and use the "s" accordingly; so "St. James's Park" because one pronounces it "Jameses"; but "Mrs Bridges' actions" because one doesn't say "Bridgeses".

The real problem with the apostrophe is when it is used with "it". Logically "it's" should either be a contraction of "it is" or a possessive "it's dinner". But at some point the rule became established that the apostrophe is only used to form the contraction with "it". So if the possessive is needed it must be "its" - apostrophe-less.

A recap:

"my aunt's pen" - correct if there is one aunt
"my aunts pen" - not correct
"my aunts' house" - correct if there are two or more aunts
"the children's toys" - correct
"Mrs Bridges's house" - technically correct but inelegant
"Sid James's house" - correct

"it's still raining" - correct as this is a contraction of "it is"
"the car has failed it's MOT" - not correct
"the car has passed its MOT" - correct


EDIT: Arrgghh - you weren't there when I started Peter... Double apostrophes - now there's no excuse for anyone getting it wrong!

SECOND EDIT: realised got something wrong! (Blushing smiley here if I could conjure one into an edit)
At the risk of disrupting the thread - and worse: revealing my ignorance of grammar to the world - I would like to say that I have reservations regarding what has been said about the use of apostrophes at the end of singular words ending in s. IMHO, sometimes there should be an s after the apostrophe.

As it happens, I agree that with PG's example: Tom Burness' cat is the "correct" form, but that's because you ought not add a third s when indicating the possesive. Neither should one add an s with (certain? Classical?) foreign names, such as Xerxes.

So I would suggest that the following are "correct":
Tom Jones's cat;
Tom Burgess' cat;
Xerxes' cat.
* Goes to look for his coat.... *
you ought not add a third s when indicating the possesive.

At the risk of seeming belligerent, who says? This feels like one of those "rules" invented by some eighteenth century grammarian for no better reason than the sight of the triple-s offends his personal aesthetic.

The form suggested by the Judge (write it if you pronounce it, so Burgess's because you say "Burgesses") makes more sense to me.

A homophone is a word which is pronounced in the same way as another word but which is (usually) spelled differently and, of course, has a different meaning. So main/mane; here/hear; great/grate; baron/barren.

These kinds of mistakes are almost inevitable, certainly in the white heat of a first draft when there is a rush to get something down on paper/screen and there is a blip between brain and fingers. Usually a proper check through at second draft/editing will catch the problems - though, of course, that's dependent on knowing the difference between the words, so there is no substitute for having a good dictionary and a better vocabulary. :D

There are some words though which seem to cause more problems that others - possessives** and their homophones.

Possessives = words indicating possession so: my, his, her, our ie my = something possessed by/belonging to/associated with me. No problems with these usually. But their, your, its and whose all seem problematic and become confused with the contractions they're, you're, it's and who's - where the apostrophe is taking the place of a missing letter (see APOSTROPHE above).

Their = something belonging to them ie 'their football boots'
They're = a contraction of 'they are' ie 'they're on the losing team again'

Your = something belonging to you ie 'your common sense'
You're = a contraction of 'You are' ie 'you're so clever'

Its = something belonging to it ie 'its bleak wind-swept outlook'
It's = a contraction of 'It is' ie 'it's raining again'

Whose = something belonging to either an unnamed/unknown individual ie 'whose clothes are those?' or someone referred to previously ie 'she is a woman whose dress sense is impeccable'
Who's = a contraction of 'Who is' ie 'who's that at the door?'

If there is confusion as to whether to use, say, your or you're, think about what you are saying - if need be re-word it. If it is 'here is [your/you're] coat', re-phrased it is 'here is the coat belonging to you' - ie possessive, so it must be 'your'. If it is 'why can't you hurry? [Your/you're] always last', re-phrased/expanded it would be 'You are always last' - ie a contraction of 'You are' is needed, becoming 'You're'.


** I've always thought of them as possessive pronouns, but having checked I see they are possessive 'determiners', a determiner being 'a modifying word that determines the kind of reference a noun or noun group has' ... so that's made everything clear then... :rolleyes:
Good point, Chris. Although in all fairness, your recent and detailed post about tenses was at the forefront of my mind when I suggested this thread. How about cutting and pasting it in here?

Culhwch - not a bad plan at all, although it might involve a fair bit of work for you or one of the other mods to update the thread every time we start arguing about split infinitives or narrative voice. But I'm all in favour of increasing the amount of "stickied" information to help those who post in Aspiring Writers (and also to save the fingers of the critiquers!).

Since I'm here:-


When you are describing the sword fight, car chase, space battle or whatever, keep the action at the forefront. If you have set up your action sequence and have instilled in your reader the willing suspension of disbelief (of which more later), you need to take them with you into the action. The reader should feel that they are there with the characters, seeing, smelling and feeling what the characters feel.

Avoid dropping out of the action sequence to dump a load of extraneous information:-

"Peter the Mighty ducked to avoid Lord Babyeater's wildly swinging axe. His heel turned on the broken ground and he fell. Lord Babyeater grinned maniacally and brought his axe down. At the last second, Peter rolled to one side. The axe smashed onto rock with a deafening ring. Babyeater stumbled forwards. But before his enemy could recover his balance, Peter had unsheathed Cheeseslicer and was back on his feet. Cheeseslicer was a Really Good Mage Sword, forged three million years ago in the furnaces of N'yrrpxxq'n by Blodwyn the Flatulent, the greatest sorceror that Khroniklos had ever seen. Some prophesised that Blodwyn would one day return to lead seven half armed villagers to victory against King Eviltude's teeming hordes of goblins and undead. but Peter only half believed the tale. He drove Cheeseslicer forwards, splitting Lord Babyeater's ribcage in twain."

See what I mean? The background information about the sword totally breaks the reader's relationship with the action sequence, dragging the reader away and forcing him or her to look at something else. Such dramatic tension as there was is totally lost.

Short sentences also help to keep action sequences punchy - check out the scene in The Two Towers when Grisnakh does a runner with the hobbits.

Make sure that your narrative voice is consistent - if we are seeing the scene from character p.o.v, limit the description to only what that character can see, feel or hear. If you come out even for a second to tell us what is going on elsewhere on the battlefiled, you risk breaking that dramatic tension again.

Finally (although this may just be personal preference) do not leave the reader hanging as though this was the end of the first part of a "to be continued" episode of a TV programme. Once you have the reader immersed in the action, finish that scene before going off to start something else. Unless there is a good dramatic reason for it, don't leave Peter the Mighty sprawled on the floor struggling to draw his sword whilst you start a new chapter telling us what is happening to the Lady Graham three hundred miles away.


As requested.

Think yourself a timeline; a bit like a road you're standing on, but since it's one dimensional, very straight, and very strait, and (as far as we know) invariably with a one way sign on it.

Where you are standing is, by definition, the present. When you are writing, occasionally you get so involved in the past you forget you're not actually there, and start describing it as if you were actually living it; this can enhance the immediacy of the action, or confuse the reader totally (Aaargh! When am I?) depending on how well it is done.

We have two main present tenses, present continuous "Is is raining" and – well, just sort of present "I open the door". These can be mixed and matched "It rains on me when I am opening the door" or "When I open the door it is raining" We have present conditional, where one action depends on another "It would rain if I opened the door." Negative is generally done with a "not" or abbreviated "n't", or using the auxiliary "to do", ("I don't like the rain") while interrogative is sometimes done by word order ("Is it raining?", "Are you out in the rain?") but frequently by the use of the verb "to do" as an auxiliary ( Do you open the door when it is raining?")

Close behind you is the immediate past, with the perfect tense ("I have opened", "it has rained") which uses an auxiliary verb (to have) with the past participle of the verb (ordinarily an "ed" after the infinitive, but there are enough irregulars to keep anyone happy; assuming memorising lists makes you happy, that is. And different irregularities, too; I think, I thank, I have thunk doesn't cut it. But you know them; you use them in speech.) Then there's the imperfect : I closed the door, it rained (yes, with regular verbs it looks a lot like the past participle, doesn't it?) the continuous perfect (it was raining, I was opening the door) conditional perfect ("I would have opened the door" and I suppose the continuous form "It would have been raining {if I had been stupid enough to open the door}") Negative associates our "not" with the auxiliary verb, if there is one ("You haven't come in out of the rain yet.") and frequently uses "to do" as an auxiliary ("You didn't close the door") wit only a few verbs negating directly ("No, I didn't; I wasn't in the mood.") while interrogative inverts the auxiliary and its subject ("was it raining?") or again uses the verb "to do" ("did I open the door?")

Then there is a region even further back on the line, with events that had already occurred when the ones you are describing take place ("it had been raining, but now the clouds were retreating") which I learnt as the 'pluperfect' but believe now has another label. This one is easy; there's only one form of it, and it stretches back to the beginning of history. Interrogative by inverting word order ("Had it rained that afternoon?"), negative a simple "not" ("I hadn't opened the door") no conditionals or subjunctives… I think we'll ignore subjunctives for the time being anyway, don't you? There are barely any pedants remaining hard-headed enough to insist on them. So, pluperfect is easy, and logical for flashbacks, but is quite clumsy to write in, and frequently, once the time period is set, an author will regress to simple past (to the expressed complaints of pedants)

Which leaves working out when to use perfect and imperfect (I was, I have been) and I can't think of a convenient rule for which I can't think of an exception. In conventional tale-telling mode, where generally one explains what has already happened, there is a lot more imperfect than perfect tense, but that is hardly a rule.

Future tense is another compound in English, "will" or "shall" with the infinitive of the verb. Future perfect, future continuous perfect, future conditional are all formed exactly as expected – it will have rained, will have been raining, would have rained – and I'm not ready to explain exactly where they fall on the time line; generally a bit ahead of "now" but not necessarily "when you reach Grandma's house it will have been raining for six hours"

Change when you change place on the timeline, or when the action catches up to "now", and never change without a reason. Not everybody's as sensitive to tense as I am, but jumping around in time disturbs readers; they need timing clues to know when they are in a narrative, and the four time zones: now, then, longer ago and yet to come are the only indications we can give them.

Now, that must be about the most confusing explanations of time structure ever; but at least I didn't try and include time travel…

As I reign over the weather, I will rein in the rain.

Only two things to add. The pluperfect is now - I think - called past perfect, as opposed to present perfect (ie the ordinary past tense). And although you obliquely refer to it, you don't give any credit to the historic present. This is usually limited to dialogue 'so it's raining, right, and I open the door', though Damon Runyon managed to write whole stories in it very successfully. (The only ones I've seen are written in the first person, which perhaps isn't so far removed from dialogue at that.) As a title, 'The Empire Strikes Back' is a kind of historic present as well, used to convey immediacy.


metalspider said:
I really would love to see you explaining why the first person is better than the third person narrative.

Who said it was 'better'? I happen to have a personal problem with characters, relative to environments, and a tendency to shift points of view. I find that, for me, going first person doesn't only lock my viewpoint, it forces me deeper into the motivation and thoughts of my protagonist, so I have more insight while my readers get a more intense immersion in his, her or its personality. This also has the advantage that I'm not likely to veer off into historical lectures, explaining how things got the way they are, unless I'm in the head of a historian.

But I wouldn't suggest everyone adopt this technique. The simple past narrative has served long and well, and there is a huge mass of example as to how to do it well, and it works, so why change?

Unless you happen to be pigheaded perverse, like me.
Which brings us neatly to:-

Narrative Voice

There are no rights and wrongs here, provided your narrative voice is consistent. Basically, the reader needs to know from whose point of view or from which perspective the story is being told. Once that is established, the narrative voice should ideally remain consistent, although this does not mean that you cannot tell the story from more than one character p.o.v, if that is the narrative voice you have chosen.

There are oodles of different narrative voices, but three common ones are as follows:-

1. The "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods" voice (aka Omniscient Narrator). This style is possibly the most common and involves the writer decscribing the action from outside the heads of the characters, usually from a dispassionate perspective. Where necessary, the narrator tells us what is happening in the heads of the p.o.v characters (but watch for head hopping). By way of example:-

"Peter the Mighty sheathed Cheeseslicer and brushed the worst of Lord Babyeater's innards from his flared chainmail trousers. He gave a sigh as he considered the futility of male pride and the fickle nature of honour.

"What sort of chump enters into single combat when he has an army if hard luds to do his bidding? All I had to do was tell him that he was a wuss and he was happy to chuck ten years of carefully laid plans to the wind!"

Lord Babyeater's cooling corpse did not answer. Peter adjusted his hair in order to look his best for any passing lady fauns and set off down the forest track at a jog."

2. The "Jackanory". Used to great effect in the Hobbit and Tom Jones, the narrator speaks directly to the reader as though the narrator was a chronicler or storyteller recounting the tale to an audience.

By way of the same example:-

"You can imagine how Peter the Mighty felt as he sheathed Cheeseslicer and brushed the worst of Lord Babyeater's innards from his flared chainmail trousers. He had gambled on Lord Babyeater being insecure enough to react to any imputed slight on his male pride and he had bene right.

"What sort of chump enters into single combat when he has an army of hard luds to do his bidding? All I had to do was tell him that he was a wuss and he was happy to chuck ten years of carefully laid plans to the wind!" chuckled Peter

Unsurprisingly, Lord Babyeater's cooling corpse did not answer. Peter adjusted his hair in order to look his best for any passing lady fauns and set off down the forest track at a jog."

3. The first person narrator. In many ways, both the most limiting and the most freeing of voices. You tell the story from the internal perspective of your main character and are limited to his or her knowledge, observations, reactions and experiences. Done well, you end up with a rounded and credible protagonist, but you need to be adept at it to avoid traps like info dumping!

"I sheathed Cheeseslicer and brushed the worst of Lord Babyeater's innards from my flared chainmail trousers. I had taken a massive risk, but it had paid off. I knew that Babyeater was no match for me in single combat, but the question was how I could get him to face me man to morris dancer.

To think that all it had taken was for me to suggest that he was a big wuss hiding behind his men! Ten years he had been planning the fall of Kroniklos and now he was dead at my feet. I deciced to share the benefit of my wisdom with the trees and the flowers.

"What sort of chump enters into single combat when he has an army of hard luds to do his bidding? All I had to do was tell him that he was a wuss and he was happy to chuck ten years of carefully laid plans to the wind!" I laughed.

The trees did not answer. I adjusted my hair in order to look my best for any passing lady fauns and set off down the forest track at a jog."


Would anyone like to expound on the difference between "third person omnicient" and pure "omnicient"?

My pleasure...

Third Person Omniscient

As the name suggests, you are talking in the third person - so it's he/she/it rather than I/we.

The omniscient bit comes from the fact that the narrator is the one reporting the third person action to the reader.

"Peter accidentally sneezed and tried to pretend that he wasn't wiping the horrible results on the underside of the kitchen table. He looked up in shock as Mrs Graham marched over purposefully and whacked him over the head with a roasting tray. The dog looked at Peter as though to say 'So it's not just us that can't learn new tricks.'"

This passge is told from Peter's point of view (which is expressed in the third person), but it is not actually told directly by Peter - it is told instead by the narrator (omniscient). Imagine the narrator as an invisible imp sitting on Peter's shoulder and doing a commentary.


The narrator is still relating the action, but is not doing so through the point of view of one nominated third person character. The narrator is therefore able to head hop furiously.

"Peter accidentally sneezed and tried to pretend that he wasn't wiping the horrible results on the underside of the kitchen table. Mrs Graham saw him do it. For the third time this week! She marched over purposefully and whacked Peter over the head with a roasting tray. The dog looked up and sighed. 'And they say we never learn new tricks?' it though to itself."

See how the action here is reported from three different points of view? Imagine the narrator as a god of Mount Olympus, looking down on the Grahams' domestic arrangements and reporting what he or she sees to Hephaestus, who is within earshot but who is looking the other way as he tries to spy on his lovely paramour, Aphrodite, in the shower.

Incidentally, I'd avoid straight omniscient unless you really are a truly excellent writer. Head-hopping can be done well, but it is usually done badly, which is why most of us should avoid it like a dose of the pox.


TPA, it's about the perspective. In Peter's excellent example, we still get know what the dog is doing, while in the Limited perspective, we would read what Peter is thinking.

Third Person Limited

"Peter accidentally sneezed and tried to pretend that he wasn't wiping the horrible results on the underside of the kitchen table. He looked up in shock as Mrs Graham marched over purposefully and whacked him over the head with a roasting tray.

As his head cleared, he saw the dog looking him sadly as if to say, 'you should learn from the master!'"

Now notice that we stick closely to Peters perspective and at the end, we still stick to his imagination to hear what he's thinking.
In transcribing Peter's sentence, ctg, you've added a little extra bit of separation, by adding the words "he saw" (as well as the bit about his head clearing).

To make the point, I'll simplify:
He saw the dog looking at him sadly as if to say, 'you should learn from the master!'
The dog looked at him sadly as if to say, 'you should learn from the master!'

This is something into which I fall all too easily myself: "he heard", "she saw", etc. (It's something I found I added when trying to remove implied head hopping, as if by adding the "he saw", etc. I was making it clearer; whereas if I'd written it properly in the first place, it wouldn't needed to be pointed out. And pointing it out changes the relationship between the reader and the POV, if only for a phrase or sentence.)
If I can say from the experience and what I have read, is that, you can slide the POV from the close perspective to the omniscient narrator and back again. If you do it well, and don't rush with the slide, you'll enhance the story beyond the level most writers achieve. Do it badly and you can guess what happens.

Then again, when master that, you can start experimenting with the POV switches within the chapter. Again, like Terasa pointed in the another thread, you should do it by using the omniscient narrator slide.

MattyK, your question is one that Orson Scott Card describes as an parallel storyline.

He says that the most common method to switch back and forth between the main characters is by devoting one chapter per perspective. But there is a danger: if you do it badly, you'll confuse the reader. They might even read only the perspectives they like and completely skip the others. Therefore, when you do the switch, you try to write it so that the perspectives keep close and the story propels forward without becoming stagnated.

Good example on how to do is by reading GRRM latest books, but you shouldn't necessarily adopt his style of whacking the characters at the point when they become interesting.

The other way is to do like the Grand Master Tolkien did it in the LOTR. You again devote whole chapter (or three) to one POV. But in time-line wise you have to be careful to match weather and events to match the other POV's. For example like Uncle Orson says you should take a look on how Tolkien switches between Frodo and Aragorn in the Two Towers.

This is a fairly lucid and illuminating take on the whole POV vs. "show don't tell", and omniscient perspectives. It also reminds me of another "guideline: If it doesn't move the story along, leave it out. Thank you CTG.

I hope it will not be construed as making folks work too hard, and thereby taking all of the fun out of it, but I must reveal one of my main sources for this kind of information: John Gardner - "The Art of Fiction". He gets to the "nitty-gritty" in a chapter called "common errors". IMHO he does a marvelous job of describing all of this, and he adds a dimension that I believe Teresa was trying to explain about "closeness" to a character. In the link CTG referred to the discussion used film making as an analogy, and I think along the lines of that analogy some better terms would be "panning", and "zooming" (rather than "sliding") since that's what the camera does. Here are some examples of relative "distance" to a character:
1. It was November of 2993 and a large man stepped out of the teleporter.
2. Jennan Whimsisky never cared much for teleporter travel.
3. Jennan hated teleporter travel.
4. Man! Did he ever hate those frikkin' teleporters.
5. The buzzing, the strange howl accompanied by the lightheadedness afterward, an utterly miserable experience, all resulting in the final stumbling out of the teleporter.

You might see, hopefully here the relationship between character distance, narrative voice, and finally "show don't tell".
The "inifinitive" of the verb form apears like this: to be. It is grammatically incorrect to "split" the infinitive of the verb like this: "to just be." The correct way to write this would be either "just to be" or "to be just."

In many ways, this is an excellent example. "To just be" has a sort of Descartian ring to it - "I just am". However, it is a split infinitive. Unfortunately, the sentence "to be just" when taken in isolation means something very different - "just" would almost certainly be taken in its legal sense. It's a good example of the importance not only of clear sentence structure, but also of the need for robust word choice.

"To boldly go" is the most famous split infinitive (and, in my view, the only interesting thing about Star Trek). I suspect that split infinitives are now much less of a "no no" than once they were. A piece which is grammatically correct and well written would almost certainly be excused a split infinitive or two, but in a sloppily written or badly executed piece, they would just be taken as further evidence of poor writing skills.


I have dusted this one off from a previous thread.....

Deus Ex Machina and Coincidence

A 'deus ex machina' is a hideously contrived plot twist in which a powerful but hitherto unknown third party is introduced to shoehorn in a particular outcome (or to achieve something which the characters can't achieve themselves because the writer has carelessly painted them into a corner).

"Deus ex machina" as a phrase comes from the ancient Greek playwrights, who every now and again would physically lower a character suitably doled up as Zeus or whoever onto the stage. As gods had to come down from Mount Olympus, the character might be lowered onto the stage by a crane (one possible translation of the word "machina").

Once in situ, the god would then use his or her divine powers to direct the outcome of the plot, effectively riding roughshod over the previous twists and turns of the action. By way of a modern(ish) example, the "Sinbad" and "Jason of the Argonauts" films of the 1970's used a lot of deus ex machina as the gods played out the human action like a game of chess. But it works in that context, as divine intervention is actually all part of the mythos and the backdrop.

A 21st century equivalent might be the old schoolboy fudge of "a big black dog came and ate them all up", but more subtle versions might include The Sudden Discovery Of A Phenomenally Powerful Artifact Which Gets Us Out of That Scrape But Is Then Forgotten About or the Sudden Arrival Of A Mysterious Patron Who Gets Us Out of That Scrape And Then Goes Home Again.

Deus ex machina situations are frequently presented in literature as particularly fortuitous coincidences. Coincidences (including particularly fortuitous ones) are a feature of the real world, but even where they do not amount to deus ex machina, should be used very sparingly in good fiction. Coincidence frequently equates to cop-out. That said, in burlesque or comedy writing, coincidence can be used to great effect - Henry Fielding does it time and again in Tom Jones - but the more serious the subject matter, the less it wil be forgiven.

Of course, this does not apply to what one might call the Plot Trigger coincidence - the unexpected event that sets the whole novel in motion. Cases of mistaken identity (such as in North by North West) or the chance encounter with a stranger (such as in the Thirty Nine Steps) are designed to shove the hero into the adventure. But once the ball is rolling, outcomes should be triggered by actions rather than by chance.


The rule of never splitting an infinitive may well have arrived via a mistaken - or indeed, snobbish - premise. But it was a rule for a considerable period of time, even if it is now more honoured in the breach than the observance. As a result, to refuse resolutely to split an infinitive gives one's writing at least the illusion of grammatical correctness, which can be invaluable. Of course, it can also make you sound like a pompous old **** which is less appealing.

The answer is - know the rule and know when you are obeying it and why, and when you are disobeying it and why. Don't obey rules blindly, but don't ignore them either. Think about what you are writing.

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