Category Archives: Point of View

Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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Then What Is Head-Hopping?

In last week’s article, “Omniscient Point Of View,” I made the point that this seldom-used POV should not be confused with poor technique referred to as “head-hopping.” To solidify the point, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the poor technique in contrast to proper omniscient point of view.

Head-hopping, unlike the omniscient point of view, has no unifying, overarching voice that tells the story. Hence, each character vies for center stage, and the result is often confusion. Here’s a sample.

The six men piled their gear onto the boat. Jeff was careful to put his backpack near the center. No sense in leaving it where everything could get wet.

Ted dropped to the deck and sprawled out, his head resting on the closest pack he could find — Frank’s probably, by the look of his scowl. The guy was insufferable.

“Do you mind?” Frank reached for his pack, not wanting his extra pair of glasses or his tablet to take an unnecessary beating. Ted was oblivious to the damage his three hundred pounds could do. In fact, he was oblivious to most things.

“Now, now, guys,” chimed in Javier. “Let’s not start our trip with sharp words.” Above all else, he wanted this trip to work. He’d told his father-in-law, Marcus, that this group of guys from his church were the best. Now he just needed to be sure they acted like it.

“Everyone set?” Tim pointed to a rope anchoring the boat to the dock. “Let’s go ahead and cast off.” Time to figure out which of these guys he could count on to get the work done. Ted had already made it clear he had no intention of moving from his spot. Frank was too worried about his bag. Jeff was guarding his, too, like it held gold, not supplies for a day trip to Catalina. “How about you, Marcus, you want to lend a hand?”

Marcus rolled his eyes. Did he look like somebody’s servant boy? If these guys were as great as Javier claimed, why didn’t they respect his age? Why weren’t they trying to make him feel like he belonged instead of pushing their unwanted jobs on him. This was going to be a long day.

In this scenario, who’s the main character? What’s the unifying perspective? What tone has been set? What voice does the reader hear? The truth is, there is no omniscient view, just six different individuals dumped onto the reader all in one scene. This qualifies as head-hopping.

The omniscient POV, in contrast, describes a story rather than simply relating events. The narrator, whether a storyteller or one of the characters or even an objective “camera-eye,” takes a certain perspective and sticks with it.

An omniscient narrator may love or hate his characters, but he is rarely neutral. The pathos or ridicule or humor in a story lies in the way the omniscient narrator chooses to describe events. The tone may be casual or formal, humorous or grave, admiring or condescending. These perspectives are revealed through such innocent devices as adjectives, verbs, adverbs, syntax, even punctuation. (Excerpt from Description by Monica Wood, p. 107)

Here’s that same scene, in part, written from an omniscient point of view.

Here they were, six guys who thought they could all get along, boarding a yacht to disaster. They went to church together, didn’t they — all except Marcus, but he was OK because he was family. Javier’s family to be exact, but that was good enough for the others. Little did they know that church affiliation wasn’t going to get them through this casual-day-trip-to-Catalina-turned-tragedy. They’d need more. Much more. Tim, the yacht owner, at least knew enough to bring up boating safety. He even handed out life jackets. Not that all the men put them on properly. Ted, lazing on the deck shortly after boarding, used his as a pillow after Frank yanked his pack out from under him. Jeff, the sharp dressing, uber-careful business type put his on at once, but Javier was most conscientious. Not with his own life preserver — with Marcus’s. And that probably saved his life.

Hopefully the contrast is evident. In this last sample there is a unifying voice, a clear perspective — that of an omniscient narrator who knows the end of these events and is painting the picture of a disaster even before the boat gets underway. There is also a protagonist emerging. The six men don’t all have equal footing, so the reader has more of a focus.

Yes, omniscient POV done properly gives the reader a focused view. It also gives a definite, consistent tone, and a clear perspective. The point of view might be called omniscient, but stories utilizing it have the feel of control and direction — a distinct difference from the regurgitation of all thoughts and feelings of all characters in the story. The latter is head-hopping and should definitely be avoided.

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Omniscient Point Of View

I’ve resisted writing about point of view because it’s been done so often. It seems like every writing book I own has a chapter on the subject. The problem is, few of these have much to say about the omniscient voice. Around the web, too often I’m finding misinformation on the subject. It seems some writers equate this legitimate point of view with poor technique often referred to as “head hopping.”

Please help me get the word out: the omniscient point of view is not the same as head hopping. It is true that the omniscient voice has been in disfavor with contemporary writers. Hence writing instructors more often than not warn new writers away from exploring what actually is a more complex option than the others.

First a quick — very quick — point of view (POV) summary.

    • First person POV – I tell the story.

    • Second person POV – you tell the story.

    • Third person POV – he or she (or it) tells the story.

Where is omniscient in that? It’s an option of the third person POV.

The he, she, or it telling the story can be one or more of the protagonists. The story, then, is told from the limited view of one character or several at a time. The latter is called multiple third person POV.

The omniscient storyteller, however, is not limited. This is not to suggest, however, that the omniscient POV must have a god-like narrator. That’s only one kind of omniscient POV story.

It’s a good one, too. Many of the stories I grew up with had that kind of narrator. It’s the type of story that starts with something like, “Come gather around, children, and let me tell you a story.”

There might even be narrator intrusions from time to time, such as, “Now those of you who are afraid of the dark should not read this next part late at night, or when you’re home alone.” In other words, at certain points in the story, the narrator talks directly to the reader.

Throughout the rest of the story, the narrator manages the information, internal and external, from his own perspective. When he says the obnoxious little boy, the reader understands this is how the narrator views the character, and the narrator is right.

The movie The Princess Bride employed the omniscient narrator in the fantasy part of the story — the grandfather who was reading the story taking that role.

C. S. Lewis used the omniscient narrator in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here’s one example:

“We met one another in there, in the wood. Go on, Edmund; tell them all about it.”

“What’s all this about, Ed?” said Peter.

And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down. (Emphasis added)

Notice how the narrator includes himself by using the pronoun “we.” The entire third paragraph tells his impressions and opinions, but the reader is confident he is right about what he’s saying.

There are other kinds of omniscient POV stories however. One of the characters in the story may be telling it after the fact. He’s lived the events and is looking back. Because of hindsight, then, he knows what the other characters did even though he may not have been present during the action. He even can know their motives and can speculate on what might have changed if this or that had been different.

A third kind of omniscience is more distant. It’s a camera-eye view that gives a more objective report of the events without tapping into the characters’ thoughts.

A fourth type is focused omniscience. The omniscient voice describes things the character couldn’t see or know — what’s happening behind him, for instance — but does so only for the focus character and no one else.

No writer should decide on omniscient voice because it is easy. In reality, it’s quite demanding. It allows for description the narrator wishes to make and is not limited by the character’s voice or opinion. But it must be consistent throughout the story. Because it doesn’t allow the reader the intimacy with the characters that first or limited third allows, the narrator descriptions carry more weight. That can be a challenge — one some writers relish. Others — not so much.

See also “Then What Is Head-Hopping?”

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