Fiction tips: How to write a sex scene

SEX scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. Even celebrated authors struggle to describe this basic, essential human behavior in ways that are actually sexy. Too often their best attempts still fall into the realm of the too cheesy, too flowery, too technical, too cold, or too . . . well, icky. Poorly written sex scenes in novels are so common that the Literary Review (U.K.) has an annual competition to award the worst sex scenes in literature. Here’s one winner:

“I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl. ‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

Arrrgh! This guy needs to get off the farm more often.

William F. Buckley called lovemaking episodes the “O.S.S.”—the Obligatory Sex Scene. Of course scenes that include sexual acts aren’t obligatory at all, but many writers include them nevertheless. You must decide whether such intimate activity should be shown to the reader (and how much you should show) or skipped altogether. Having two of your story people make love is a natural occurrence, and it could be a wonderful part of your reader’s experience. One can argue that a reader wants to escape the drabness of the world in a novel, where lovemaking is always perfect. But nowadays even romance novels shy away from anything perfect, including sex. Readers today are too sophisticated to believe in perfect sex, even as a fantasy. It’s better to create a sex life for your characters that seems real.

Sex scenes can help develop characters

On the plus side, sex scenes can give the writer an opportunity to deepen the characterization of someone or create a change in one or both participants or in their relationship. Such character-driven couplings serve a better purpose than trying to stimulate the libido. If the sex scene doesn’t reveal more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development and for the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does. If the rest of your story is written well, you won’t lose information by leaving out the scene. Remember that you can always refer obliquely to the lovemaking or have one of your characters think about it afterward.

My view on this subject is that less is more and that a writer can be explicit without being clinical—without sacrificing passion for physical details. I think a sex scene can be rendered effectively if the writer keeps the five senses in mind and strives for the sensual, the tactile, and the passionate, all of which target the heart. That’s what a writer should always do, because emotions are much more significant to a reader than ideas—or the graphic description of sexual gymnastics. If a writer can do no more than offer a standard-issue play-by-play of physical actions that are familiar to readers, then I’d rather see the writer stop short and go to a scene break, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination. One more thing: Don’t include multiple scenes of gratuitous sex with the hope of attracting readers unless you have embraced the dubious goal of writing another Fifty Shades of Grey.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: The importance of rewriting

MOST new writers publish their novel too soon. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there” by self-publishing it. These writers saddled themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Jeez, isn’t there enough stress in life already?

So why do they do this? Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block got to the crux of the matter, I believe, when he said, “Too many writers don’t want to write, they want to have written.”

Have written.

Think about this. Do these writers take their work seriously enough to want to improve their craft? Or do they just want to be able to call themselves an “author” and impress their friends?

Successful novelists all agree that writing is rewriting. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He also called a first draft his “junk pile,” meaning that his initial finished version of anything was the raw material through which he could sift for whatever might be good enough to keep. His junk-pile metaphor encapsulates the most painful truth that any aspiring novelist has to learn: A novel isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times. Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of her first book fifteen times. For one story that was 20,000 words when finished, James Thurber wrote a total of 240,000 words and fifteen different versions.

Some quotes on rewriting

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.” — Sol Stein

“A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.” — James Thurber

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is rewriting. Books are not written—they’re rewritten.” — Michael Crichton

Don’t allow your excitement and impatience to get your book published compel you to do so before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you give your manuscript a superficial rereading and how many friends and writing group members read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least twice. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews on Amazon. Read some of those bad reviews—the ones NOT written by friends, family members, and family pets—and you will occasionally find ones that say the book needed to be edited. I’m pretty sure that any reader who says this is not a professional editor. Mature readers can easily identify a poorly written, unedited book. Bad reviews will kill your sales.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the writing process. Be patient. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run. Do you really want to “waltz out of the house in your underwear”?

If rewriting seems like too much trouble to you, ask yourself: Do I want to write, or do I want to have written?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tips: How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.

1. Don’t make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.

2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related to your main characters that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or expertise or a deformity). If a secondary character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with only one leg, you should mention that.

4. Don’t go into detail about setting. If you wrote a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you could simply say, “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”

5. Don’t go into detail about your main character. A few quick strokes are all you need. For example you might say, “Bridget Jones, a ditzy, rather boozy twenty-something . . .”

You don’t have to give away your final plot twist, although you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance, and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly, though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, so you should spill the beans whether you like it or not.

How concise should the synopsis be? Try to keep it to one page, single-spaced, that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end—the problem, the struggle, and the resolution. Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have one ready to send.

I suggest that the first thing to do is write a “logline” for your story. This is a short and informative summary of a story used by screenwriters that encapsulates the story in 20 to 30 words. It has three crucial components:

• Character

• Want

• Obstacle

An interesting character who wants something badly but is having trouble getting it.

The logline must answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

If you can’t boil down your story to a logline, then you can’t write an effective one-paragraph summary for a query letter and the first paragraph of a synopsis.

After that, beginning with the second paragraph of your synopsis, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your main characters, what they do, and what happens to them. To do that, answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Why does this character want what he/she wants?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

The following movie loglines will help you write one for your novel:

THE GODFATHER: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

PULP FICTION: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

FOREST GUMP: Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

THE MATRIX: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

CASABLANCA: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

REAR WINDOW: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

APOCALYPSE NOW During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

THE LION KING Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble.

All of these loglines are under 30 words. Most are under 25 words.

MORE GUIDELINES for a synopsis

• If you submit your synopsis on paper, format it using single-spaced lines; 12-point Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible.

• Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

• Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

• Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says: “Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, they skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then they’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is rejected.”

That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your email query, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in summary form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: Avoid “purple prose”

Purple prose is writing that is so extravagant, ornate, hyperbolic, or flowery that it interrupts the flow of the writing and draws excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make the writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, silly and, in most cases, quite funny.

The term purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness), and so we now have the phrase to describe such writing in fiction, typically created by inexperienced writers.

In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors, figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.


“Her silken, sun-kissed locks made a golden frame around her perfect heart-shaped face. Soft, ruby red lips curved up, crystalline sky blue eyes sparkled as she looked down at the brilliant, beaming emerald clasped in her long, elegant, lily-white fingers.”

“His eyes spoke eloquent volumes of walks in the rain and white beaches, cool mountain paths, and crisp forests. She felt like she was floating from one place to another faster than she dared imagine, all the while his eyes daring her to move, to let go.”

“She answered him haughtily, the smirk on her face touched by a naughty flash in her eyes that tugged at the male part of him. He noticed she sat tall and relaxed with her nubile legs twisted in lotus position. Her poise reminded him of queens of old sitting dominion over loyal followers in huge temples of worship with rich gold and crimson fabrics cradling them as followers came and dropped down to pay homage.”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“She lay upon her silken sheets in her ornately embellished robes of satin, her chest ascending and descending easily with every passing second, deep inside the caverns of her subconscious mind.”

“My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling . . . everywhere.” (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

Do you feel nauseous now? Me, too. Please oh please don’t write this kind of dreck.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction writing tips: Description of the setting

Landscape photoALWAYS keep in mind that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot. The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot. Action may be the most important element of fiction, but no novel is fully realized without some description. Here’s an excellent example from Gaylord Dold’s mystery novel Samedi’s Knapsack:

“Roberts walked down the ramp and stood on the hot tarmac, breathing diesel fumes. He was sweating heavily and his shirt was soaked through to the skin. The sky was like a fiery kiln of clay glaze, smelling of sulfur and charcoal smoke. He looked at the low airport complex, sets of concrete buildings with tin roofs, a long hedge of cactus separating the runways from miles of confused, jumbled slums. In the west, high brown mountains rose into crabbed valleys and wrinkled ridges, then a slash of green. All around him the Haitian passengers were lugging their packages and bundles toward a tin customs shed located at the far end of a concrete building with several broken windows and an air conditioner leaking water.”

Note all the sensory details that Dold used.

You should include only the most significant details in a passage of description, as Dold has done. You don’t want an exhaustive catalog of images. That will turn your reader into a clerk taking inventory. Readers won’t do that job for long. Instead of mentioning every item in a room—or every detail of a character and his clothing—choose perhaps three or four vivid and specific details that make the room or that person unique. Remember that the reader and the writer are involved in a creative partnership. The writer uses a broad brush, and the reader fills in the blanks. As a writer, you must trust the reader to do so.

What do I mean by “the most significant details”? Let’s say that you and your spouse go to have dinner at the home of new friends. If you had to write about this experience and describe their home, what would you choose to mention? That they had a couch and a recliner and a big flat-screen TV in the living room? You could do that, although such things aren’t very interesting or revealing. But what if you saw a big glass display case in the living room that was filled with World War II weapons and memorabilia, or beautifully bound copies of the complete works of Shakespeare on a bookshelf, or a liquor cabinet crammed with every alcoholic beverage known to mankind, or a scatter of NASCAR magazines on the coffee table, or a wall filled with arty black-and-white photos of nude women? Things like that are much more informative, aren’t they? That’s what I mean by significant—and that’s what you want to include in description.

When you’re writing description, remember that you want your readers to inhabit your point-of-view character, so you must do that yourself in order to write vivid description. To do that you need to get out of your own brain and see everything through the eyes of your viewpoint character.

Tip #1: Do this exercise: Drive around urban, suburban, and rural areas and stop at places you’ve never seen before. Note what catches your attention first, then what other things stand out. Also notice any obvious smells and sounds.

Tip #2: Placing your viewpoint character in the midst of some activity allows you to integrate description into the action so it is less invasive and more an organic part of the whole. One of the best ways to work in the description of a setting is to move your main character through it. That’s why the Mississippi River was such an effective device in Huckleberry Finn.

Tip #3: Don’t forget about the weather. In some stories the weather is so integral to the story that it goes beyond a mood-setting device to being like another character. Think of the movie Blade Runner, where it’s always dark and rainy.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing fiction: How to use multiple viewpoints

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld (@JordanRosenfeld), published by Writer’s Digest Books.

fiction writer at workSome stories require greater scope, more voices, or a different context than can be delivered through the eyes of one protagonist. When you find this to be the case, consider using multiple viewpoints. However, you must think about several factors before launching into this greater undertaking.

In a book with co-protagonists, each character should get approximately equal story weight. In other words, no one character is more important than the other, though one character’s story may seem to drive the action more than the others. Usually these multiples are written in an intimate POV, and each co-protagonist gets his or her own POV chapter or scene, in which we are privy only to that character’s thoughts and feelings. When your co-protagonists appear in a scene together, you still must choose which character’s POV to show it from. This has the potential to get confusing, so remember to imagine that each character possesses a movie camera. The POV comes from the person whose camera (mind) we’re looking through.

Using co-protagonists is different from omniscience, in which the POV can move between the heads of multiple characters in the same scene. Often in omniscient, the story has one protagonist, but the narrator still dips in and out of other characters’ thoughts, adding flavor, clues, and color. But ultimately we are still following only the transformational arc of one character. Using multiple viewpoints can benefit your story in several ways. Keep in mind that when showing the vantage points of co-protagonists in one of the intimate POVs, you must start a new scene or chapter each time you switch.

5 reasons to use multiple viewpoints in your novel

Your story must be told from multiple perspectives. No matter how compelling one person’s journey, some stories are more deeply realized when several people tell the same story, adding different facets to the larger picture. Novels that have done this include All the Light We Cannot See by Kathryn Stockett, and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This is especially true when each member in your cast of characters provides a unique piece to a larger puzzle: They might not understand each other’s lives, or they might clash against one another as a result of plot events.

Each character offers a unique plot thread or strand to the story.

Multiple POVs only work when each POV character has a truly different story element to offer. They contribute new information, opinions, history, and clues that walk us deeper into the story’s heart.

Each character is compelling and has his own narrative arc.

Sometimes writers confuse secondary or supporting characters for co-protagonists. A true co-protagonist must have his own narrative arc. He must be driven by his own unique goals and undergo a journey of transformation related to the larger plot. That’s a lot harder to do than just maintaining one character’s arc.

Your story spans a wide swath of time and history.

Historical novels or stories that cover large time periods often feel limited when told in only one character’s POV. Since one character may also possess only a portion of the knowledge you need to convey, multiple characters can offer a feeling of depth and richness. But again, don’t bring in a new co-protagonist unless you are sure she is integral to the plot and carries her own arc.

Your book requires a quick and compelling pace.

Multiple-character POVs have the power to make readers turn pages at a fast clip. As you end one character’s compelling scene at an unresolved point, you also create a yearning in readers to know what happens next. Repeat this technique with two or three characters and you create positive page-turning tension.

5 common problems with multiple viewpoints

Before you get too excited about creating a cast of co-characters, it’s wise to consider some of the potential pitfalls inherent to multiple POVs.

Readers don’t need the POV of the antagonist unless you’re redeeming that antagonist via his own narrative arc.

I’ve read a lot of client manuscripts that try to “explain” the antagonist’s actions by offering several chapters from the antagonist’s POV. Unless you plan to redeem your antagonist so that he truly becomes a good, or better, person by story’s end, this is not necessary.

Don’t rehash the same scenes from different characters’ POVs.

Don’t fall into the bad habit of writing the same scene from several characters’ viewpoints. Unless each rendition offers new and potent plot information, you run the risk of boring readers and slowing the pace of the narrative.

Don’t use new characters to offer narrative info dumps or explanatory plot information your protagonist doesn’t provide.

A viewpoint character has to exist for his own story purpose, not just to offer up key plot explanations to carry your protagonist to the next stage of the journey.

Don’t add characters to create new subplots.

Some writers feel that the best way to create a compelling plot is to include lots of subplots linked to more characters. More often than not, this leads to complications. The best plots arise from one character’s problem, past wound, or current challenge. Subplots must also rise organically, like spokes radiating from a central hub rather than a tangled web of overlapping and confusing stories.

The character arc of each co-protagonist should be distinct.

New characters are exciting and fun to write, and it’s easy to dream up a team. But it’s a lot harder to develop a unique story arc for each character. If you can’t quickly think of how each character not only will play an integral part in your plot but also will experience a story-worthy transformation, you’re better off sticking with one protagonist.

Distinguishing multiple protagonists

To figure out how many co-protagonists to include in your story, analyze novels in your genre with multiple viewpoints. You’ll find that three is the average number of co-protagonists, but it’s by no means the rule; many novels have only two POVs. And while focusing on the struggles of more than three POV characters can cause readers to feel torn or confused, that’s not to say it can’t be done: Marlon James’s Man Booker award–winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, has no fewer than thirteen protagonists spanning seven hundred pages. He pulls this off by putting the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter so readers have no doubt whose POV they’re in, and he imbues each character with a distinct voice. However, I prefer books in which readers can tell who the POV character is by his distinct voice and personality alone.

To determine how often to switch to a different viewpoint character, many writers use a formula wherein each co-protagonist gets a POV chapter or scene in a set rotating order: Protagonist A, Protagonist B, Protagonist C, all the way through the novel. Others might structure their scenes so one character appears more often than the others: A, B, A, C, A, B, A, C, or even A, A, B, C, A, A, B, C. This is where scene trackers and plot outlines come in handy. When you’re juggling multiple protagonists, you will need more structural guidance to keep track of the arc and plot outcome for each one.

Paul Thayer
ThayerLiterary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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