StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

Thoughts on writing styles

This post was inspired by a discussion in gabrielleabelle's LJ about the potential difficulties in using first person POV when writing fiction. It inspired me to think about my own experiences when writing; the differences between using first person or third person (or second!), between writing in past or present tense, and so forth. And so I looked back through the fic I've written over the last couple of years for different examples of each style, and thought about why I chose to use them and what effect I hoped to produce by doing so, and whether or not I think it worked. The result of that was the following meta, which I hope some people might find interesting or thought-provoking...

First Person versus Third Person

I've only written two stories in first person: Hiywan's Story, and the related I Am Destruction (which is about the same character). I think my main problem with first person narrative is that it feels intrusive. Instead of describing what your characters do in a neutral fashion, as in a standard third person narrative, you have to consider that the narrator is herself a character in the story, and therefore is subject to bias and mistake and emotional entanglement in events. That's fine as a deliberate storytelling device when it's the effect you want to achieve, but for more conventional fics I find it interferes with the flow of creating the story.

There's another point, of course, which is that a first person fic is by its nature a spoiler. You already know that the main protagonist will survive to the end of the fic, because otherwise they wouldn't be there to narrate it for you! (Although that's less of an issue in the Buffyverse than it would be in more conventional genres; indeed, the opening line of 'Hiywan's Story' is "I am dead".)

As for why I chose to make an exception for Hiywan's Story and write it in the first person, it was, as I implied, a deliberate stylistic choice to serve the story. I was writing about the First Slayer's origins, and she's a character who is defined by the words "I have no speech. No name." If you want to get clever, you could say she represents the women silenced by 10,000 years of patriarchy. And so in writing her story, I wanted to do as Buffy said in 'Restless', and "Let her speak for herself."

Something stirs inside me. Deep and black and hungry, coiled around the hidden part of my soul. It wakes. And it is angry.

"No". A single word, but it is filled with all the passion and hatred and righteous fury that has lain within me, banked up like a fire, since my sister was taken from me when I was eight summers old. The thrall breaks and I see Awrelye for what he truly is. Nothing but a walking corpse, hideously pale like bleached bones, like a piece of dry wood to be cast into the inferno of my rage.

He shrugs, and turns his back on me once more. "Very well then." A casual wave of his arm to his massed followers. "Kill her."

There is a moment of stillness. A held breath, if there were any but me in all of this vast cavern who still needed to breathe. And within me, the Power stretches and expands and awakens, filling me with its awareness, stronger than I have ever know it before; and I see the nightwalkers rise and turn and start towards me as if in slow motion, and the emotion that fills me at that moment is nothing but pure delighted joy.

(From 'I Am Destruction')

One thing I've never done is write a fic in second person. I'm not even sure if it's possible or how it would work, although I've heard people discussing it. I can only imagine it would read like a session from a tabletop roleplaying game:

"You're walking through the graveyard late at night, when suddenly you hear a rustling in the bushes behind you! Wheeling round, you grab a stake from the inside pocket of your jacket and raise it high to thrust... but moments before you strike the killing blow, you realise it's Spike carrying a paper bag full of shopping. Roll under your dexterity to pull the blow, otherwise you'll have to roll to hit him..."

When it comes to third person narration - which describes the vast majority of my fics - the choice is between limited and omniscient narration. While it's not always been a conscious choice on my part, most of my earlier fics assumed an omniscient narrator: that is, I described the inner feelings and reactions of all my characters in an equal and neutral fashion, exchanging the point of view as needed. For example, in 'Intrusion' I have a scene where Kennedy is watching Willow cast a spell, described from Kennedy's perspective; then later on in the same fic I have Willow watching Kennedy fight a room full of bad guys, described from Willow's perspective. This just seemed like the most natural way to write, but I felt a little uncomfortable with it. However, it wasn't until I attempted writing my first PWP story - 'For A Few Kisses More' - that I realised why it felt awkward. The story lacked focus; by bouncing from one character POV to another it was hard to keep track of who was feeling what about whom. (Or in that particular case, who was feeling who's what... the fact that I was writing femslash and therefore encountering the infamous Pronoun Problem probably helped crystallise my realisation.)

Once I did move to a limited third person, I found I actually enjoyed the challenge of only being able to describe the inner thoughts of one protagonist in the story, and instead have to rely on body language and tone of voice and dialogue to reveal what the other people were thinking - just as we have to in real life:

Buffy wasn't sure what her expression looked like, but it seemed to have sent Willow into a fit of giggles. Her friend glanced over to smile fondly at Tara, then looked back to Buffy with a raised eyebrow and a "What can you do?" expression. Buffy decided she'd have to, um, re-evaluate some of her basic assumptions about her friends' relationship.

(From 'For A Few Kisses More')

Of course, that doesn't mean I don't get all worried that my readers won't notice any of the subtext and byplay I've tried to include in the story. Which is one reason why I write so many director's commentaries on my fic. :-)

Something I've only done once so far is to keep to limited third person, but swap between viewpoint characters throughout the story. I think that's a device that works better in longer, novel-length stories, where devoting an entire chapter to each protagonist is a good way to keep them separate. Such a framework can either be used to present a "chronicle" type story, with dozens of characters all living their individual lives but nevertheless contributing to the grand sweep of history; or it can create interest and tension by describing the same event from two contrasting perspectives. That was more or less what I tried to do with 'What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?', where I alternated between Buffy leading a rescue mission and her opponent, Ravel, preparing her defences and waiting for her to arrive. I used italics to distinguish between the two different viewpoints, and also changed the style: Ravel's sections used more Romantic language, metaphors and similes and elaborate descriptions and a 'high' style, while Buffy's sections were more immediate and fast-moving and colloquial and modern.

The woman sounds suspicious, but also somehow expectant. She knows. Oh yes, everybody knows about Ravel and her riddle.

"I'll release your friend, yes, and let you go, yes, if you answer my question. Just one question, then you can go." She takes a deep breath, then intones the words she's spoken so many times before.

"What can change the nature of a man?"
"What can change the nature of a man?"

Buffy hears the words click into place like a bullet into the chamber of a gun. For all she's been expecting them they make her just as uncomfortable as, well, as a gun would. They've heard the riddle whispered in the back alleys of Sigil, seen it written on the wall of a burned-out temple in the Wastelands, as they followed the trail that led them finally to this place. To this confrontation. To this question.

(from 'What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?')

Past tense versus present tense

The other big element of style to consider is the tense used. Past tense seems to be the natural choice; it's the one most used in conventional literature, and if I can hazard a guess, I'd say it stems from the idea that pure fiction was once frowned upon in Western society, and storytelling was "supposed" to be a matter of describing real-life events that happened to noted saints, heroes or figures of legend... or, of course, to the storyteller him- or herself. "Once upon a time..." One thing I've noticed is that even when I decide to write a story in present tense, if I'm not careful I tend to slip back into past tense automatically, and then have to go back and change all my word endings.

These days I write a lot of stories in present tense; so much so that I was actually surprised to discover, on checking, that the first one (excluding drabbles, where stylistic experimentation is more common) was 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare' written in February 2008, over a year after I first started writing. I do remember that I actually started writing that fic in past tense as well, then decided to switch to present instead part way through.

Silvery laughter greets her remark. "A wise answer, child. But what of this form, then? Does it please you? Does it fill you with the warmth of mortal passion? Would you share that with me?"

Gulp. Willow has read the books, knows what to expect, but this is sudden urgent reality and she fights the urge to panic. What is the correct reply? If she gets this wrong now, she'll never return home... although - a rebellious thought intrudes - it would probably be a really fun way to die. No. Not fun. Not fun at all. Think, Rosenberg. Get it right. She masters herself, and her voice comes back low and determined.

(from 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare').

The reason was, in part, because the story was set in an alternative dimension (Willow has gone to visit the snake goddess Saga Vasuki) and so playing around with the consciousness of time passing was part of creating the effect. My sequel to 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare', 'In Sure And Certain Hope', makes use of this device even more deliberately, because it begins with Kennedy being dead and a description of what her soul is experiencing at the time:

It's quiet here. Soft and warm. Enveloping. She drifts, empty, silent, still.
No. Wait...
There are no memories of pain or sorrow to shadow her existence. No grief or worry.
Something's wrong. This isn't...
Only an endless comforting blank nothingness, forever and ever.

(from 'In Sure And Certain Hope')

My other reason for using present tense is the feeling of suspense it brings. When a story is in the past tense, there's a certain comfort factor involved: the events I'm describing are all over and done with and their ending is, in theory, already known to at least one person (me, in my role as narrator). With present tense, though, I don't think that certainty applies. The events in the story are happening right now, and that creates an immediacy and tension in the reader because it feels as if nobody knows what will happen next. Appropriately enough, the first story I planned from the start to be present tense was 'We Just Declared War', a suspense horror action story in which Buffy goes through a portal and finds herself in the plot of 'Aliens':

Now she can see again; and the room is a mess. Overturned shelves. Food and supplies scattered on the floor. No people.

No living people, at any rate.

Clearly there's been a fight here. She can't see any bodies, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. Across the back of the room is a large, solid counter. She walks cautiously over to it.

Leans on it, peering over the edge. Nothing.

Except... eww. The counter is sticky. She lifts her hand, and stringy grey slime clings to her glove like glue. Eww eww eww. She looks around for a cloth, and finding none, scrapes her hand over the edge of the counter, scrubbing away the slime.

Okay, this is creepy. She has a nasty feeling the inhabitants of this village have already met the demons of her dream. But where are the bodies?

And more importantly, where are the demons?

(From 'We Just Declared War')

I've never written a story in future tense. Nor have I ever written one in the subjunctive mood. I'm not sure I ever will.

All-Dialogue Fics

One of the more quirky stylistic devices I sometimes use is to write fics as dialogue-only. Usually, these are fairly short ficlets, which simply detail a conversation between two people. Stripping out the "he saids" and "she replieds" seems to me to be, quite simply, an economy of words that streamlines the fic. It's my job as a writer to make sure that I characterise the two people speaking well enough that readers can tell who's speaking each line - although of course you can usually tell that simply from the sequence. Still, I usually try to throw in people's names or other clues to their identity fairly often to keep things moving.

"We should totally have a party. Wet the baby's head."

"She's just a blastocyte, Buffy, her head hasn't formed yet... sorry. Been reading far too many medical books lately. Yes, we should definitely have a party. You need to start getting up to speed on your cool aunt routine, and Xan needs to get into training too. We were thinking of asking him to step in for role-model duties once she's older: teach her about carpentry and sports and things."

"Poor kid. I mean, great idea! But what if she wants to play with dollies and dress-up and girly stuff?"

"Xander's very adaptable."

(from 'Matthew 1.23, Except Not'. Which, yes, I'm afraid is baby!fic.)

Some people criticise the device of having characters address each other by name too often, saying it feels unnatural. I think this is a genuine difference of personal style and/or dialect, since in my experience using another person's name in conversation is actually quite common: to get their attention at the start, to emphasise a particular point, to stop them going off at a tangent or making a misapprehension, to tease them, or for many other reasons. For example, in the fic I quoted here, 'Matthew 1.23, Except Not', in just over a thousand words I have Buffy address Willow by name four times:

Will! It's wonderful to see you!
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.... Will! That's, um, that's -- Help me out here? Is that really good news or really bad news?
Willow Rosenberg, you are a very silly woman.
Oh, I see. Um, Will, you do know that 'Buffy' is my actual proper name? It's not short for anything.

And likewise, Willow addresses Buffy by name four times. It's perhaps slightly more forced than it would be in a non-all-dialogue fic, but still doesn't feel out of place to me. Others' kilometrage may vary.

While most fics of this type were short, the first one I wrote was in fact fairly long - 1500 words - and actually had a plot and action and drama rather than just recording a conversation. 'From Ancient Grudge' describes Willow and Faith sneaking into an evil cultists' base, and having a highly personal argument at the same time:

Heh. Well set your mind at rest, Red, I haven't. Though I'm kinda curious to know why you're so interested in my sex life all of a sudden?

What? I'm not!

So why are you blushing?

I'm, uh,.... oh, look! That must be the main cult temple up ahead! (Thank Goddess!)

Damn, there's a lot of them. I'm actually really hoping your spell won't fail now...

Mmm. Me too. Look, there's a balcony up there. Maybe we can get closer that way, hear what they're saying.

Good plan. Hey, will this glamour hold if I actually bump into these guys?

Don't know. It should, but let's, uh, not risk it, OK?

(from 'From Ancient Grudge')

This was actually not planned as all-dialogue; but when I got half-way through and realised it was almost all dialogue, I decided to go all the way and remove the few elements of authorial intrusion I'd included. I also tweaked things around to make the dialogue follow a strictly alternating sequence, Willow-Faith-Willow-Faith, to help keep it clear who was speaking each line. Sometimes that meant adding laughter or interjections as a line of dialogue in themselves, just to keep things flowing.

Finally, I recently wrote 'Lost and Found', which is not a narrative at all, but a series of objets trouvés: news reports, letters, logs of telephone calls, etc, which appear disconnected but when you read them in sequence and follow the clues in each one, tell you a story. It was an interesting experiment and fun to write, although (as a commenter noted) it's a style that lends itself to mystery and action Gen stories without the in-depth characterisation study that seem more popular in LJ-style fic. A related story structure which I've not used myself, although I've seen it done well by others, is to frame the story as a series of letters being exchanged between the protagonists.

Email (PGP encrypted) sent 25 January 2005

Subject: Satsu's evaluation

B -
More when I get back, but in a word: :-)
Okay, that's an emoticon not a word. Sue me.
- K

(from 'Lost And Found')

There's doubtless much, much more I could go on to write about on this subject - such as story genres (fluff, dark, action, pr0n, etc), the use of language - depicting dialect, swearing, use of pronouns in sex scenes, words for body parts, British versus American English, and more; which characters I prefer to depict, the choice between writing gen, slash or femslash, and much much more. But I think I've bored you all enough already for today. :-)

Tags: meta, writing
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