Raising Tension, Conflict, and Stakes: Asking What If?

When I was an intern at Ice Cube Press, I attended some events with my boss. At every event, the same questions always came up:

“Can I send my manuscript to you?”

“I sent you a query. Have you read it yet?” (Awkward!)

“My book is XYZ. Is that something your press will publish?”

“I like writing but never written a book. How do I go about doing that?”

Then my boss would answer:

“Why not.”

“I’ll have to look at my inbox.”

“Could be.”

“Just start writing. Ask yourself what if. What if character does X? Should character do Y? What if he does Z? What if character wants to do W and V?”

His Getting-Started advice always stuck with me. Asking “What If” is a good way to come up with an overall plot, and soon one idea will lead to another to form a story. It’s amazing how one question can open up to an amazing story like so:
-What if a child is the only one to survive a Dark Lord’s killing curse? (Harry Potter)
-What if children have to participate in an annual fight-to-the-death game? (Hunger Games)
-What if a ring is the only way to end an evil regime? (Lord of the Rings)

Asking What If for Better Tension & Conflict
Now that I’m back doing my own writing, I ask myself the “What If” question all the time, but not to get started. I use it to strengthen my plot. As I revise my novel, I look for spots that need more conflict. Then I ask myself, “How can I make this more interesting? How can I make the situation worse for my protagonist? What if XYZ happens to my character?”

Fiction is about how protagonists overcome conflicts and obstacles to achieve their goals. Obstacles are the fuel that keeps stories moving. Normally, the protagonist’s biggest obstacle is the antagonist, but stories are made up of many, smaller obstacles that lead up to the climax. From my own writing to reading manuscripts, I know writers struggle to keep the fuel going, but if you pause to ask yourself “What if?” you can come up with many scenarios to keep your story moving. Just take Harry Potter for example:

-What if Harry receives a mysterious letter and his aunt and uncle refuse to let him read it?
-What if Harry’s rival challenges him to a midnight duel that could get him expelled?
-What if a troll gets inside the school and attacks Harry’s friend?
-What if someone tries to kill Harry during a Quidditch match?
-What if Harry and his friends have to pass a giant, three-headed dog guarding the trap door?

Making What If Personal
Obstacles are only as good if the protagonist cares. For example, if a school threatens to expel a teen if he fails his midterms but he doesn’t care, then there’s no conflict. In a case like this now is a good time to ask “What If” to develop a better conflict.

-What if his mom threatens to sell his precious Mustang if he gets expelled?
-What if he wants to join the military but getting expelled will ruin his chances?
-What if getting expelled means he’ll have to go back to a previous school where he was severely bullied?

Not only do we have a conflict, but we also have stakes. Stakes are what the protagonist has to lose if failing to overcome a conflict. If the teen doesn’t care about getting expelled, then there’s nothing at stake for him, but in the “What-If” examples he does, whether it’s his Mustang, his chances of joining the military, or his safe space.

Stakes are also about consequences. For example, if the protagonist wants a promotion but fails to get it, she’ll still have her original job. She didn’t lose anything or face any consequences. Here’s another situation where we can use the “What If” question to raise the stakes.

-What if she needs the higher salary from the promotion to save her house from foreclosing?
-What if her company is laying off her department and the promotion is the only way she can keep her employment?
-What if the protagonist and the antagonist are the only two candidates for the promotion, and if her rival wins, she will use the higher position to fire the protagonist?

Closing Thoughts:
Ever since I started asking myself “What If?”, there’s been more tension in my stories. I highly suggest using this exercise if you’re someone who experiences writer’s block a lot or thinks you need some more fuel in your stories. Try it! 🙂

Why is My Writing So Boring?

We’ve heard the saying before: a strong voice is a must. But a common problem writers complain about is that their writing is dry and boring.

Many factors play a role in voice, but there are two that have the most impact. One is word choice, the other sentence structure. Yes, other issues can hurt voice (redundancies, handholding, telling and not showing, lack of conflict, too many unnecessary descriptions, undeveloped characters, boring subject matter, etc.), though usually, word choice and sentence structure are the big two on a line editing level.

Boring, dry (usually formulaic) writing arises when the writer uses too many vague, general words and doesn’t vary her sentences. Vague words in general (see what I did there?) don’t engage the reader, and unvaried sentences causes the writing to become predictable. And predictable writing is, well, boring. I already have a post about varied sentence structure, so this post will focus on word choice.

What Are Vague, General Words?
Vague words are weak words that lack a solid definition. They either have definitions that mention the lack of specificity or contain many definition entries that vary in meaning (slang not included). Strong words have one or two (three at the most) solid definitions that are similar to each other.

Examples with their definitions:

A.) Thing (I’m going to go buy some healthy things)
1 an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to
2 an inanimate material object as distinct from a living sentient being
3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance

B.) Apple (I’m going to go buy some apples)
1 the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh. Many varieties have been developed as dessert or cooking fruit or for making cider.

C.) Do (I did terribly on my exam)
1 [ trans. ] perform (an action, the precise nature of which is often unspecified)
2 [ trans. ] achieve or complete, in particular
3 [ intrans. ] act or behave in a specified way
4 [ intrans. ] be suitable or acceptable
5 [ trans. ] informal beat up; kill

D.) Fail (I failed my exam)
1 be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal
2 neglect to do something : [with infinitive ]
3 break down; cease to work well

The problem with these general words is that anybody can use them. A strong voice consists of strong, specific words that reflect the writer. Your voice should reflect you, not the general public.

Nouns and Verbs:
Your strongest words are your nouns and verbs, but when paragraph after paragraph is filled with weak nouns and verbs, the writing dries up like a dead plant. Do a Google search, and you’ll find plenty of websites that list vague words (even I have a top 5 vague words list).

Verbs tend to give writers more trouble than nouns. Normally, action verbs are more engaging words than linking verbs. Countless authors and editors will tell you to avoid the ‘to be’ verbs and filter words. Having linking verbs in your writing itself is not a bad thing; there are times to use them. A problem occurs when page after page contains more linking verbs than action.

Here are two examples. One is filled with linking verbs, the other action. Compare the two, and you’ll see how the action verbs give the writing more life.

Example with “to be” verbs:

It was morning when Jolene stepped into the forest. The sunlight and thick branches were above her, and wildflowers were by the trunks of the trees. There were many critters on the dirt road. This place was Jolene’s favorite spot whenever she wanted time alone.

Example with action verbs:

At morning, Jolene stepped into the forest. Sunlight shone down on thick branches, and wildflowers grew near the trunks of the trees. Critters scampered along the dirt road. Whenever Jolene wanted time alone, she came here.

Adjectives and Adverbs:
A sign of weak writing is when there are too many adjectives and adverbs. You may have heard to avoid using these words before from other authors and editors. While adjectives and adverbs are not bad themselves, the problem is when the writer uses weak nouns and verbs and tries to spice them up by adding adjectives and adverbs. Pretty adjectives and adverbs are not going to hide the fact that the nouns and verbs are weak.

Most nouns and verbs are strong enough words that they don’t need adjectives and adverbs, and sometimes adding these words will hurt your voice more than help. A common problem I see is when the adjective is actually redundant to the noun and the adverb is redundant to the verb.

Examples: big mountain, blue sea, soft whispers, loud shouting, pink flamingos, running quickly, whispering quietly, laughing happily, stomping nosily

Another problem with adjectives, many of them are subjective. What is nice, pretty, beautiful, ugly, tasty, etc. to you is not the same for another. And because they are subjective, they become vague and boring to the reader.

Example: What is a cute dog?

Is it this one?

Or this one?

(Answer: both of them)

The more specific and precise you are, the more vivid your writing will be. And to prove my point more, here are some more examples:

Vague: The weather is nice.
Specific: A breeze blows by.
Even more specific: A breeze brushes back my hair.

Real Life Examples
The following examples come from published books. I wrote the “vague” version so you can compare it to the real one, which is in the quote box. Compare the nouns and verbs. Compare the sentence structure. See how these authors use specific words and vary sentences to give their writing life.

Example 1:

“The ghost went forward. It had long black hair and only one eye. Disgusting, old skin was tightly and firmly holding onto the yellowish bone of the cheeks. The lower jaw was swinging loosely at a weird angle above the collar. The body was rigid. The arms weren’t moving around. Every now and then the figure shook slightly.”

“The ghost drifted steadily forward […] Long black hair flapped around the skull. Remnants of one eye showed in the left-hand orbit, but the other was a void. Curls of rotting skin clung to spars of bone of the cheeks, and the lower jaw dangled at a rakish angle above the collar. The body was rigid, the arms clamped to the sides as if tied there. […] every now and then the figure quivered, as if still dangled on the gibbet, buffeted by wind and rain.”

“Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull”, Chapter 1, Jonathan Stroud

Example 2:

“When they went near the cave’s entrance, Catarina took Luce’s hand, and they went up to the surface. A few enormous stars were brightly radiant in a small space in the clouds, and their lights were visible on the very jet black water. Caterina was so close to Luce, and because of that, Luce felt overwhelmed.”

“When they came near the cave’s entrance, Catarina caught Luce’s hand and guided her to the surface. They floated upright facing each other in a spot where the shore bent close around them. A few enormous stars flared through a gash in the clouds, and their light leaped in white sparks on the jet black water. Catarina’s gray eyes were so close to Luce’s that she felt like she was falling into a twisting, gleaning pool.”

“Lost Voices”, Chapter 5, Sarah Porter

Example 3:

“Ribbons drove the Dodge so fast that he hit a row of cars behind him, and sparks went up into the air. Because of his mask and the blood, Ribbons couldn’t see as his car rolled quickly toward the garage entrance, so he accidentally crashed through the ticket machine, which was empty. He then entered Pacific Avenue.”

“Ribbons burned rubber. The Dodge peeled out so quickly it slammed into the row of cars behind it and sent up a shower of sparks. Half blind from the mask and the blood, Ribbons shifted into Drive and barreled down the slope toward the garage entrance. There was no attendant in the booth this early, which was good because Ribbons couldn’t see where he was going. The beat-up Dodge crashed through the ticket machine, swiped the booth, and fishtailed onto Pacific Avenue.”

“Ghostman”, Prologue, Roger Hobbs

What’s The Best Way for Me to Improve My Voice?
I don’t have any new, groundbreaking advice that differs from any other writing blog. Want to improve your voice? Read and write. A lot.

Read so you can see how other authors string their sentences together. See what words these authors are choosing. You’ll build your vocabulary and find new words that you’ll love to use. Writing is a process of choices, so you have to know what your (word) choices are before you can use them. And reading is fun! Why would you not read?

Write a lot because, obviously, you’re a writer. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

If you’re a writer with a dry voice, ask yourself these questions as you read your writing:
-Am I using the best, solid word?
-Am I using the best noun?
-Do I have more action verbs than linking verbs?
-Am I using too many adjectives and adverbs? Do my nouns and verbs need these adjectives and adverbs?
-Am I varying my sentences?

Should I Write in Third Person Limited?

There are two ways to look at third person limited.

1. A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns, but this narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character, usually the protagonist. This narrator follows the main character throughout the story and stays in this character’s perspective.

2. The main character narrates the story but, instead of using “I” and “we”, uses “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. The main character is indirectly speaking to the reader, and the character’s voice is in the narration. Some people call this POV third person close or deep third person limited.

Third person limited has evolved and skyrocketed in popularity over the last few decades. Overall, third person limited is limited to one perspective. On most writing websites, you’ll find the first definition to define third person limited. The traditional one is like third person omniscient, where there is a narrator, except that you focus on only one character. Nowadays, more third person limited books are written in deep POV.


What is Deep POV?
Deep POV means going through the eyes of the character. First person is naturally a deep POV because we are already in the main character’s head. For deep third person limited, we are eliminating that third-party narrator and letting the protagonist tell the story, only except with first person pronouns, the protagonist is using “he”, “she”, and “they” instead. I describe deep third person limited as the protagonist indirectly telling the story because it helps new writers distinguish third person limited and omniscient.

In the traditional third person limited, the narrator would have a neutral voice. For deep third person limited, the character’s voice is in the narration. Since the character is the narrator for deep POV, the reader experiences what the character is doing, thinking, and feeling, like in first person.

Here’s what traditional third person limited looks like:

The crowd packed the whole arena. There were so many people that the heat was pushing past the tolerating point, but Ryan didn’t mind. He was having the time of his life as he listened to his favorite rock band performing on stage, just a few feet away from him. I hope this night never ends, he thought.

In this example, there is distance between the person who is telling the story and our main character. The sentence “The crowd packed the whole arena” gives an image of the whole arena, rather than zooming in on Ryan. The narration is neutral and doesn’t have Ryan’s voice.

Here’s what deep third person limited looks like:

The vibrations of people stomping and dancing resonated in Ryan’s chest. How many were here in this arena? Hundreds? Thousands? Well, enough bodies packed together for a scorching heat wave to possess the air, but whatever. The best rock band was playing on stage, and Ryan had scored the best place in the show—first row, so close that the singer could kick him in the chin. If only this night would never end.

In this example, there is little distance between the reader and Ryan. The biggest evidence that we’re in deep POV is how Ryan’s voice is in the narration. Sentences such as “How many were here in this arena? Hundreds? Thousands?” and “The best rock band was playing on stage” and “so close that the singer could kick him in the chin” come from Ryan. These lines have Ryan’s personality and his voice. Also, we didn’t have to say, “I hope this night never ends, Ryan thought” because the line “If only this night would never end” is Ryan thinking that. For deep POV, we can omit dialogue tags for inner monologues.

So here’s a quick review of traditional and deep third person limited.

Things Traditional and Deep Have in Common:
-We follow only one character throughout the story, usually the protagonist
-We only know what the character knows and experiences. If the character does not see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it, we don’t know it
-We get to know the thoughts and feeling of this one character

Only In Traditional Third Person Limited:
-There’s a third-party narrator
-The voice in the narration is neutral
-The character’s thoughts are expressed with dialogue tags
-Some filtering is okay

Only In Deep Third Person Limited:
-The character is telling the story, indirectly
-The character’s voice is in the narration
-There are no dialogue tags to express the character’s thoughts
-Filtering is highly discouraged
-Deep POV is more limited than traditional. For deep, we are looking through the eyes of the character (meaning you cannot write about actions from your character’s facial features because we cannot see our own faces. So for example, you can’t say that your character’s face turned red. You would have to write these actions in the sense that your character felt them)


Compare to the other third person point of views, third person limited allows closeness between the reader and character. Whether you’re writing in the traditional or deep, the reader is much closer to the character compare to objective and omniscient POV, though deep third limited is much closer than traditional.

Along with first person, third person limited can help new writers build their craft. Focusing on one character can help you discover your writing voice and style. Also like in first person, it’s easier for the reader to know and understand the protagonist’s goals and motivation in third person limited.

Lastly, while deep third person limited isn’t as intimate as first person, this POV is the only third person that allows the readers to pretend that they’re the main character. The readers can feel they are part of the story.


Like first person, the reader is only exposed to what the character experiences. This POV limits your story. The character cannot reveal any events that happen without his or her presence.

Also, the same disadvantage that first person has, the protagonist can be unreliable. The main character could misinterpret another person or an important detail, though in some books, the protagonist is not supposed to be reliable.


Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Limited Person:
A common problem with third person is that a writer can accidentally write in BOTH third person omniscient and deep limited. I mentioned this problem already in my third person omniscient post. This problem occurs because the writer doesn’t know the difference between the two third person POVs.

Another problem is inconsistently switching back and forth from traditional third to deep third. As said before, these two limited POVs have two different narrators, and inconsistencies in the narration are jarring to the reader.

Should I Write in Third Person Omniscient?

Third Person Omniscient Definition: A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This narrator knows everything, including events prior to and after the story and all the feelings, emotions, and opinions of every character.

Omniscient means “knows all”, so this narrator knows everything. It’s as though the narrator is a God-like being.

The thing to remember about omniscient POV is that the narrator is his or her own separate being. The characters NEVER tell the story. Usually, the narrator is neutral, though narrators can have strong opinions and biases. Sometimes the most interesting narrators are the highly-opinionated ones.

Omniscient used to be the most used POV, but it has declined in popularity in the last few decades. Nowadays, you will find this POV more in adult books, as it’s rarely in modern children’s, middle grade, and young adult books. Despite its declining popularity, omniscient POV still has its place and is definitely a POV writers can consider.


The narrator knows all, so you have no limitations. Omniscient POV allows the reader to know all the characters and how the characters are interpreting events.

Omniscient POV is a good choice for epic, grand, adventure tales (Lord of the Rings, anyone?). If your story covers a lot of characters, spans over a course of many years, and covers many landscapes, omniscient is a good choice because it provides the freedom you will need.

Another advantage is having more freedom to craft your voice. With first person and deep third person limited, you have to share the narration with your protagonist. If your protagonist is a sassy, back-talking rebel, then that personality better come through in the narration. Omniscient POV doesn’t share the narration with the characters, and you, the author, have more authority over the voice.


Like third person objective, third person omniscient doesn’t have closeness. Knowing all the characters doesn’t mean you can bond with them, and there’s distance between the characters and the reader. This POV is losing popularity because most of today’s readers want to bond with the characters.

While the narrator doesn’t have to reveal everything, sometimes having someone who know all can kill the suspense in a novel. Part of the fun of reading, especially thrillers and mysteries, is figuring out characters’ secrets and who’s really good and who’s really bad.


Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Omniscient:
Omniscient POV is the hardest to master, and when new writers attempt this POV first, the amateurishness shows. Omniscient is about strategy, and if you go into a manuscript blindly with this POV, it will not work.

While omniscient has the advantage to give writers more authority over their voice, if you lack voice in the first place, the narration will be really dry. The reason teachers and mentors recommend starting with writing in first person is that writing in the POV of a character helps build your craft.

Besides voice issues, another problem is accidentally slipping into third person limited. This happens because the writer doesn’t understand the difference between the two POVs.

There’s also the problem of head hopping. Head hopping is when a writer jumps from one character’s perspective to another. Jumping from what one character is thinking to another is jarring and can pull the reader out of the story. Another head hopping problem is when the voice of the narration changes among the characters. Again, in this POV, the narrator tells the story, not the characters, so none of the characters’ voices should be in the narration.

I know these problems are complicated, so I will talk about them in another post.

Should I Write in Third Person Objective?

Third Person Objective Definition: A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, “it”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” can only narrate the characters’ external actions—anything they express or do. Some people just call this third person. It’s also called third person dramatic.
Out of the three third person point of views, third person objective is the uncommon one in modern fiction. The most popular example of third person objective is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.
This POV is what people describe as “fly-on-the-wall”, as the narrator describes what the characters are doing, as if observing them. The narrator gives an objective (hence why it’s called objective POV), neutral, unbiased perspective of the story. The narrator cannot give his or her interpretation of the characters’ intents and unspoken opinions. This narrator can’t even know the characters’ inner feelings or thoughts.
For objective POV, you have to show. The narrator can’t tell the reader that John is sad, happy, angry, or whatever. You have to show how John is feeling, just as the narrator can’t tell us that Jane is thinking happy or bad thoughts toward another character. It all has to be shown.
If your novel’s plot is driven by not knowing the character’s intentions, then objective POV could work, especially if writing mystery, thriller, or suspense. Concealing feelings and thoughts can make a plot more interesting.
Objective POV is also all action. That’s why it’s sometimes called dramatic POV. After all, you can’t stop to talk or interpret feelings and thoughts, so the action has no interruptions. If your story involves a lot of action, objective POV might work too.
If you want your novel to have multiple interpretations and leave the reader still guessing at the end, maybe give this POV a try.
Third person objective doesn’t go inside any of the characters’ heads or reveal anybody’s feelings or thoughts. This causes distances between the characters and the reader. If your novel is character-driven, then this is not the best POV to use. Objective POV is the uncommon third person POV because readers want to connect with characters, and most modern fiction relies on the character/reader relationship.
This POV also involves a lot more work and pressure on the author. Without the character’s thoughts or feelings, you have to work more to convey all that needs to be communicated. Conveying information from the character’s internal actions makes writing so much easier.
Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Objective Person:
Voice can easily become dry when writing in objective POV. Writing in the perspective of a character can spice up your writing. Since objective POV is supposed to be neutral and unbiased, it can kill a writer’s voice.
Another problem is clear character motivation. In general, with all POVs, writers struggle to show what motivates their characters. Without clear motivation, the story won’t make sense. Showing motivation is easier in third person omniscient and limited (and especially first person) since the characters’ thoughts can tell us what motivates them. We don’t get that with objective POV. If you’re writing in objective, you will have to work harder to make sure character motivation is clear.

Should I Write In Second Person Point of View?

Second Person POV Definition: This narration addresses the reader as the protagonist, using “you” and “you all” pronouns.

Second person is rarely, almost never, used in literature. Most readers feel it’s unnatural and pulls them out of the story. There are a few second person books such as Choose Your Own Adventure and Bright Lights, Big City, but overall, this POV is more for guides, self-help books, advertising, poetry, and lyrics.

Since second person is so rarely used, should you bother trying to write in this POV? Well, anything is possible when it comes to writing. You can always try. There are just somethings to consider.

Because second person is rarely used in fiction, there really aren’t any advantages for it in the sense of traditional storytelling.

However, that doesn’t mean second person is a no no. After all, it worked for Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. For second person to work, the reader has to suspend all disbelief and believe what the author is telling is true. Most of the time, a reader picks up a book to be entertained, but if the reader wants an experience deeper than entertainment value, second person might work. Second person is a good POV if you want to go outside traditional storytelling. If you’re a writer who loves risks, experimenting, and using non-traditional techniques, give second person a try.


While most readers like to pretend they’re in the story, they themselves don’t want to be the protagonist. They like forming bonds with characters and reading about other people.

This POV is just jarring and unnatural to readers. Nobody likes anybody telling them what they are doing or feeling.


Note: Second person is not the same as breaking the fourth wall, when the protagonist or narrator addresses the audience.

Should I Write In First Person Point of View?

First Person POV Definition: The main character narrates the story, using “I” and “we” pronouns.

Just about every writer knows what first person point of view is, and if you’re an avid reader, then you have read many books in this POV.

First person allows the protagonist to speak directly to the reader. The reader can enter the protagonist’s head, and the relationship between the character and the reader (and the writer) is quite personal.

Many writers are drawn to this POV, though before picking it for your novel, there are some considerations.

First person is the most personal, intimate POV. After all, we’re right inside the main character’s head. First person allows us to build a connection with the character and a desire to follow his or her story. The reader always knows the protagonist’s feelings, even if the protagonist doesn’t reveal them to the other characters. Readers experience unfiltered emotions.

First person is the best if you want the reader to have an intimate connection with your protagonist, though in order for first person to be successful, your protagonist must be fully DEVELOPED and FLESHED OUT. If the character is boring and flat, the reader won’t care.

This POV is also the best at getting the reader right into the story. Many readers pick up a book to escape reality, and with all those “I” pronouns, it’s easy for the readers to pretend they’re the protagonist facing the story.

First person is also the easiest to experiment (note, I said experiment, not write). If you’re a new writer, writing in first person and focusing on only one character will help you discover your voice and style.


The protagonist cannot reveal anything that happens without his or her presence, so first person limits the story. If the protagonist can’t see, hear, touch, smell, or taste it, it can’t be included. Your main character also can’t know or reveal the unspoken thoughts and feelings of other characters.

You also can’t always trust that the protagonist’s account is 100 percent accurate. The main character could misinterpret another person’s intentions or an important detail, though there are some stories where the protagonist is NOT suppose to be a reliable narrator (which can make for an interesting story).


Problems That Occur When Writing in First Person:
A problem that arises when people write in first person is the tendency to tell rather than show. Writers fall into the trap of info-dumping and analyzing everything to explain what is happening instead of showing what is happening.

Too much inner monologue can be a problem also, as it slows down or stops the story. The protagonist can trail off, focusing too much on emotions or details rather than plot and conflict.

Another problem that occurs in first person manuscripts, and this is a problem for memoir writers too, is unvaried sentence subjects, particularly repeating the subject “I”. Too many “I” and “me” will make the story redundant, dry, and make your protagonist sound narcissist.

Describing your main character’s appearance is tricky in first person too. Many writers result to describing their character through a mirror (don’t do this! It’s clichéd!). Some also don’t establish who the “I” is within the first few pages of the first chapter. I have seen too many manuscripts where I don’t know who “I” is until much later.

How Many Point of Views Are There?

Understanding point of view is crucial to novel writing. I have found that POV issues are the most common problem in the manuscripts and submissions I read. POV issues are not an easy fix–  almost an instant rejection from agents and publishers who don’t have the time to help you correct them.

From the writing classes I’ve taught, I’ve found POV issues arise because writers don’t know how many point of views there are. Writers are always surprised when I tell them there are FIVE POVs.

Yes, five, not three. Many writers can tell me there’s a first person, a second person, and generally a third person, but not the other two.

Here’s a list of all five point of views:

-First person
-Second person
-Third person (objective)
-Third person omniscient
-Third person limited

I’ll dedicate a post about each point of view in the future, but for now here’s a brief definition for each one.

First person:
The main character narrates the story, using “I” and “we” pronouns. The character is speaking directly to the reader, who is inside the character’s head.

Second person:
This narration addresses the reader as the protagonist, using “you” and “your” pronouns.

This POV is rarely seen in literature, though there are a few second person novels, such as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. It’s more common in how-to books, help guides, opinion articles, poetry, lyrics, and other non-fiction.

Third Person Objective:
A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” can only narrate the characters’ external actions—anything they express or do. This “narrator” does not know the characters’ internal feelings, emotions, and opinions. This POV is sometimes just called third person.

While not as rare as second person, you won’t normally find this POV in modern day literature. It’s usually more for non-fiction and short stories.

Third Person Omniscient:
A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” knows everything, including but not limited to events before and after the story and all the feelings, emotions, and opinions of every character, whether the characters express them or not. However, the “narrator” is a separate being. The narration should NOT contain the voices of the characters.

Usually, the author considers him or herself the “narrator”.

Third Person Limited:
There are two ways to look at third person limited.

1. A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns, but this narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character, usually the main character. This narrator follows the main character throughout the story and stays in this character’s perspective.

2. The main character narrates the story but, instead of using “I” and “we”, uses “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. The main character is indirectly speaking to the reader. The character’s voice is in the narration. While the reader is not completely inside the character’s head, the reader is not separated from the character either. Some people call this POV third person close or deep third person limited.

The first definition is the traditional definition of third person limited, though more of today’s books are being written in deep third person limited. Deep POV means going into the head of the character, allowing the reader to experience what the character is doing, thinking, and feeling. Deep third person limited eliminates that third-party “narrator”, and since third person limited uses third person pronouns, the main character is indirectly telling the reader the story.

Is it Ever Okay to Switch Point of Views?
POV issues arise when the writer (unintentionally) switches POVs within a sentence, paragraph, or scene. POV should be consistent throughout a scene (usually a chapter). However, you may switch POVs at a line break, scene break, or chapter break, and the reader should be able to see that you are intentionally switching POVs.

Most books stay in one POV throughout the novel, but there are some that switch back and forth from first person to omniscient or omniscient to limited. Again, these switches are intentional and used for creative purposes. Most POV switches I see in manuscripts are unintentional and problematic.


Switching Perspective Among Characters:
Currently, many published books have multiple main characters who give their accounts of the story. These narratives are for first person and third person limited (which is then called third person subjective rather than called limited). There are two types of narratives with multiple perspectives.

Dual Narrative:
Dual narrative is when there are two perspectives instead of one. The story switches back and forth between each narrator/character.

Multiple Narrative:
Multiple narrative is when there are more than two perspectives, usually several. POV changes between characters are at intervals. Writing multiple perspectives for third person is called third person subjective.

How Empty Subjects Weaken Your Writing

Writers know words are important. After all, words build our stories and give them meaning, but there are some words that don’t refer to anything and can weaken your writing.

Those words are called empty subjects.

What Are Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects are subjects that don’t mean anything. We speak with them all the time, and the two most common ones are “it” and “there”.

It is sunny.
It is one o’clock.
It was a shame that we had to leave early.
It should be everyone’s right to have clean air and water.
There were ink stains on the table.
There are some snacks in the kitchen.
There are so many weeds in my backyard!
There is a spider in my bed.

In all of those examples, “it” and “there” didn’t mean or refer to anything. “It” didn’t act as a normal pronoun because it didn’t take the place of any noun.

Subjects aren’t the only ones that can be empty. Direct objects can be empty too.

She doesn’t like it when you don’t clean your dishes.
How long will it be before we’re seated?
I find it amazing that you passed all your AP courses.

What’s Wrong With Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects themselves are not bad. We use them all the time, they’re grammatically correct, and sometimes they convey a message faster than a specific subject. Using them from time to time is perfectly okay. However, because empty subjects lack meaning, they can weaken your writing, especially if you use them all the time. Writing is all about choosing the best and strongest words—words full of meaning.

Let’s rewrite some of our earlier examples and see the difference.

1. “It is sunny.”
Rewrite: “The sun blazes up above.”

2. “It was a shame that we had to leave early.”
Rewrite: “I can’t believe we had to leave early. What a shame!”

3. “There were ink stains on the table.”
Rewrite: “Ink stained the table.”

4. “There are so many weeds in my backyard!”
Rewrite: “Weeds are taking over my backyard!”

The rewritten sentences are stronger and make the writing more interesting. Using specific subjects will boost your writing.

Again, using empty subjects from time to time is fine, but let’s look an example where we overuse them in a paragraph:

It was raining when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. It was a surprise to me that my cynical ex wanted to talk there. There were inspirational phrases on the walls, heart-shaped cakes in the desserts display, and pink roses on the tables. It seemed that this place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, there was only a clerk and a barista. It looked like Bill was going to be late.”

Now let’s look at a stronger version:

“Rain poured when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. The café was the last spot I thought my cynical ex would want us to talk. After all, inspirational phrases hung on the walls, the desserts display was filled with heart-shaped cakes, and pink roses lay scattered all over the tables. This place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, a clerk stood behind the cashier and a barista cleaned the tables. Nobody else was here. Bill was late.”

Other Problems with Empty Subjects:
Sometimes, I call empty subjects “it” and “this” sentences because a writer is unintentionally using empty pronouns as subjects. In this case, the writer uses a pronoun, usually “it” or “this”, to refer to a whole phrase or sentence. The writer thinks the pronoun is taking the place of something, but it’s not, therefore making the subject empty. I normally find this problem in non-fiction manuscripts rather than fiction projects.

Here’s an example:

“Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. This went on for hours.”

“This” is an empty subject because it’s not truly taking the place of anything. I understand the writer is trying to convey that all the chaos and noises went on for hours, but the word “this” cannot take the place of that whole sentence. That usage is grammatically incorrect.

A better way to write this sentence is, “Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. All these noises went on for hours.”

Another problem with empty subjects is that they can cause writers to tell instead of show. I’ve already discussed this topic on my blog, and you can click here to read my post. Telling usually involves weak, vague words, and empty subjects are vague and weak. My first example from up above (“it is sunny”) is telling while my rewrite (“the sun blazes up above”) is showing.

Strong Words. Strong Sentences:
Writing is all about finding the best word and making each one count. Empty subjects themselves are not bad, and it’s fine to use them from time to time. However, using too many will weaken your writing. Readers will be more engaged in your novel when the writing is strong and uses each word to its fullest potential.