Tag Archives: pov

Annette Lyon’s Secret Sauce: Point of View

by Annette Lyon

Annette Lyon-FALL 2012When I first started writing seriously (back in the Jurassic era), the more I tried to learn, the more there seemed to be to learn. And there was so much.

For me, the language side of writing came relatively easy; my brain simply works in a way that grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation are easy to grasp. It was the bones of writing, the structure, the storytelling aspect, that took longer.

As I continued to write and study the craft, I began to see a pattern: whether it’s showing instead of telling, creating great description, rounding out characters, writing riveting action or just about anything else, one of the best ways to do all of those things is through a single tool in my writer’s toolkit.

My secret weapon is simple but powerful. Chances are if a scene isn’t working or the pace is aging or any number of other problems crop up, I can fix it by improving one thing: point of view.

I won’t go into the types of point of view here (first, limited third, tight third, omniscient, and so on). Study those yourself to learn contemporary trends and why different types work in different situations. (A great place to start: Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint.)

Here’s the secret: When you know who your POV character is for any given scene, the world of your story opens up to you.

For example, a writer recently asked me how to make his descriptions better; he wasn’t sure how much description to include of a room or some other location, or how to create a description without stopping the plot.

No surprise, my answer went straight to POV. I used the lobby at the conference we were at as an example. If it’s a man who has just walked in from the hot sun after hours of working on his car, chances are he’d first notice the Pepsi machine. Maybe he’d then be annoyed, because he’s a Coke guy. Maybe he then looks for a drinking fountain or settles for a Dr. Pepper before finding one of the couches to relax on—feet propped on the coffee table.

Or if it’s a business woman with a design background, maybe she’d first notice the decorative metal piece hanging on the wall—and either think it was tacky or unique and fun. She’d probably wonder who picked out the puke yellow paint for the walls, and if she took a seat on the couches, instead of reclining, she’d find a plug in the wall and prop open her laptop to work—likely giving Mr. Smelly Mechanic a look and wishing he’d put his arms down so he wouldn’t be quite so odiferous.

In both cases, I picked a specific personality to view the very same room, and each person found different items they noticed first. That’s the key with POV—what is the lens through which your character sees the world? What does this particular character notice? What does he or she like or dislike? What does he or she want?

If an eight-year-old girl obsessed with princesses came into the room, what would she notice first? What about a ninety-year-old retired biology professor? A middle-aged homeless woman?

What your character notices—whether in the description of a room, in dialog with other characters, what they see in another person’s demeanor—is just as important as what they don’t notice. How they do and do not feel about those things matters.

Imagine what the Harry Potter series would have been like written from Draco’s POV. Snape would be a total hero from page one. We’d think Hagrid is a nincompoop and view Dumbledore as a has-been.

The more I’ve played with POV in creating characters and scenes that come alive, the more POV almost feels like the best cheat ever—I can show without trying so hard, simply by remembering to look at the story world through my POV character eyes. My plot moves forward, the conflict intensifies, and more, all by staying true to POV.

Which is also why not knowing how to use POV well can have a disastrous effect of your story. Instead of pulling your reader into your world and holding them there, poor handling of POV pushes the reader out and constantly reminds them that they’re reading a story that someone else created.

Or worse, bad POV can confuse readers to the point that they shrug and simply give up, closing the book (or turning off the e-reader) and moving on to something else.

I’m almost a nerd about how excited I get over POV and all the many uses it has. It’s definitely my secret sauce, no matter what kind of story I’m writing.

About the Author
Annette Lyon is a Whitney Award winner, a two-time recipient of Utah’s Best in State medal for fiction, and the author of ten novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide as well as over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon

This year, she’s released Band of Sisters: Coming Home, the second edition of There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd, and novellas in the Timeless Romance Anthology series.

When your character’s observing

Having a character act instead of react is generally better in fiction, especially when it comes to our POV characters. So, in general, it’s better to choose a POV character who’s participating in the action of a scene. But sometimes the discoveries that come from a character observing are worth the “reactive” POV character.

Binocular Bonanza

Constructing these scenes with POV characters that are more like narrators is a challenge. It’s easy to let our POV character disappear and simply focus on the action. However, readers can quickly forget about a narrator who never says anything—and when the narrator speaks up again, it can be a bit of a jolt. The action playing out needs to take center stage, but we also need to balance the narrator with that action, especially since the narrator’s reactions are the whole reason we’re in this POV.

Here are three steps to keep your narrator-POV character present in the scene!

Anchor the scene in the character

Have the scene start with the narrator-POV character doing something, some physical action—even something small. Opening with this anchor is a great way to establish the POV.

If we can establish the narrator-POV character well enough by showing them as an acting character, readers are that much closer to the character, and that much more sympathetic to his/her actions and reactions.

Ground the scene in the setting

The narrator-POV character must regularly observe his surroundings. This is more difficult to remember in scenes where the narrator-POV character’s observations are mostly heard, whether they’re hearing something they can’t see, listening to a transmission, or simply watching an argument.

By grounding the scene in the narrator-POV character’s observations of the setting (or the people he’s watching), we not only keep the narrator-POV character on the scene (and present in our readers’ minds), but we also keep the scene the narrator-POV character is observing grounded. Instead of showing talking heads floating in a vacuum, we can present a full scene through our narrator-POV character’s eyes.

However, stating, “Jimmy observed the large crates behind Peter,” is actually counterproductive here. Instead of being in Jimmy’s head, seeing things with him, it’s more like we’ve been kicked outside of Jimmy’s head, watching him watch the scene. Instead, we want to carefully construct the grounding to show instead tell:

A stack of large crates loomed behind Peter. Worry wore at Jimmy’s gut. This wasn’t going to end well.

Which brings us to the most important step to keeping our narrator-POV character present in the scene:

Show the character’s reactions

The point of showing a scene through a narrator-POV character is to show that character’s reactions to the scene as it happens—but sometimes it’s easy to forget to include those reactions! We need to have our narrator-POV character react with thoughts and, if necessary, even visceral reactions.

Once again, this is a balancing act. Unless the scene is very slow paced, we don’t need a reaction from our narrator-POV character every sentence, so save the wry commentary for the best moments, when it carries the most impact. At the other end of the scale, we can’t go too long without the reactions, or we give our readers that kick-me-out-of-the-story jolt when we suddenly remind them of our narrator-POV character.

I’ve found the sweet spot is every few lines of dialogue or every few paragraphs. This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary guidelines, but I like to make sure I have a reaction at least every 3-5 paragraphs (including lines of dialogue). (Some of my other personal guidelines include action/speech tags every three lines and using names every half-page or every third time I use a pronoun for the same character. That’s gold, right there, folks!)

Caveat: make sure it’s necessary

If you’re struggling to come up with reactions from your narrator-POV character, maybe it’s time to reconsider whether it’s truly necessary to show the scene through his/her eyes. If the most important thing about this scene is the action of the scene, consider showing it through one of the actors’ eyes. If the most important thing about this scene is your narrator-POV character’s reaction, then use the narrator-POV character.

Read more about choosing a POV character

An example in my work

1983-JULY-Yosemite2-Fuji-RD100_A_0035For one of my books, the climax of the book revolved around revealing two major secrets: the hero unmasking the murderer, and the hero unwitting revealing that he’s undercover and not who he’s been pretending to be, in front of the observer, the heroine.

Originally, I planned to show this sequence from the hero’s eyes. I planned to have him unmask the murderer, then reveal his true identity to the murderer—and then turn and see the heartbroken heroine there, who’d fallen in love with his false pretenses. Can’t you just imagine the guilt the hero would feel? And the surprise for him (and the readers)!

But as I approached this scene, I realized I wanted to show it from the heroine’s POV, because not only would that convey all the information we’d get in the scene from the hero’s POV, but it would also show her immediate reaction—the shock and the hurt, before we get to the anger that she’d probably be at by the time we got to her POV in the next scene.

So to do this, I made sure to anchor the scene very carefully. It starts off with the heroine arriving at the scene, interacting with people, then settling down, trying to sort through her feelings on the last big event. Then the murderer and the hero arrive, not seeing her, and have their confrontation. In my first draft, I didn’t have enough of the heroine’s reactions, and it created that “oh yeah, we were in her head” jolt I’ve mentioned.

Through a couple drafts and some editorial guidance, focused on her reactions, grounded her in the scene (she was sitting, so I had her turn in the chair, grip the armrests, etc.) and strengthened her visceral reactions to keep her reaction the star of the show.

What do you think? Do you have the occasional scene where the POV character is only observing? How do you handle it?

Photo credits: Binocular bonanza—Laura Gilchrist; photographing the photographer—David Prasad

Handling multiple POVs: first person

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Sometimes, using more than one POV in a novel can be tricky. Handling multiple POV styles can be even trickier. Last time, we looked at how to transition effectively between multiple POV characters in third person, and today we’re looking at multiple first person narrators and mixing first and third.

Multiple first-person POV characters

Ooh, now we’re getting tricky! Is that even allowed?

Oh yes. However, you want to be careful in doing this. It’s easy to confuse the reader when both or all of your POV characters call themselves “I.” So here are some quick guidelines on keeping the “I”s dotted straight.

  • Only change POVs at chapter breaks. Absolutely never head hop within a single scene. It might be possible to change first person narrators at a scene break, but it still might be jarring. (One of my books has two first person narrators and I always changed narrators ONLY at chapter breaks—and I didn’t use a chapter break unless I was changing viewpoint characters.)
  • Don’t be afraid of the “idiot light.” Put the viewpoint character’s name at the top of the chapter! (My band director in middle school used this term to describe a dome light that came on when you opened your door, as if you didn’t realize your door was open. He was using it to describe accidentals in music designed to cancel out the previous measure’s accidentals, which are automatically cancelled by a measure bar—just a reminder in case you’re not smart enough to remember those accidentals are no longer in effect.)
  • Make sure your characters have truly distinctive voices. This is important in third person, but critical in first. If they sound too much alike, your POV probably isn’t deep enough—and your readers are going to get confused, no matter what other precautions you take.

Multiple narrators, different persons

Whaaa? Can you even do that?

Yes! You can mix first- and third-person narration. My multiple first-person POVs book I mentioned? It also had some interspersed “scenes” that weren’t “in” chapters—and those were in third person, present tense (vs. past tense for the rest of the book). I needed a more distant POV for the narrator in those sections—and I really couldn’t put his name at the top of his chapters (since it would give away the villain’s identity, a major twist in the novel).

As with everything else we’ve discussed, if you’re going to mix first person and third person, do it on purpose and with purpose. You can even use different persons for the same character (in different scenes)—just be sure you know what effect you’re going for, and make sure it’s working for that effect. Another example would be Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence. It has six or more narrators, all in first person except for the character who is an elective mute. But at the end of the novel, <spoiler alert!> the elective mute breaks her silence and concludes the novel in a first-person epilogue.

Just in case you’re wondering, as with multiple first person stories, I think it’s helpful to label the chapters with the viewpoint characters’ names, especially if two or more of your POV characters are in first person. (In The Weight of Silence, the chapters were all labeled with the viewpoint character’s name.) You can do this in third person as well, but I find it a lot clumsier than handling multiple third person narrators organically.

What do you think? What’s the most unusual POV or the most unusual POV combination you’ve ever used? How did you handle it? Come join in the conversation!

Photo credits: couple eating—Mr. Thomas; I-Spy badge by Leo Reynolds; Silent—Jennifer Moo

Handling multiple POVs

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Sometimes, using more than one POV in a novel can be tricky. Handling multiple POV styles can be even trickier. Today we’ll look at how to transition effectively between multiple POV characters in third person, and next time we’ll take it to the next level, looking at multiple first person narrators and mixing first and third.

Multiple third-person POV characters

In general, the guideline is that we don’t change POV characters within a scene. I’ve even seen this rule phrased as “you can’t change POV characters within a chapter” but from all that I’ve read and seen, I think that’s far stricter than general publishing guidelines. I’ve also seen some writers state that you can’t change POVs within a chapter, but that’s patently ridiculous, to put it mildly.

When changing between viewpoint characters with all third-person POVs, you will want to use a scene break (denoted by white space or other marks in novels, denoted by centered asterisks or octothorpes in manuscripts) or a chapter break. As with any scene ending, you’ll probably want to give us something to look forward to for the next time we see that character or we get that character’s POV (a hook, if you will).

In the new scene, orient the readers to the new POV character as quickly as you can. You have a number of options of narrative modes to start the scene, but orienting to the POV character can make it a little tougher. Using dialogue can be hit or miss. Thoughts, in general—such as the sequel from the previous scene in this character’s POV—aren’t the best way to switch off the POVs.

I think of opening with thoughts like starting a movie scene with a black screen and a voiceover—without the advantage of recognizing the voice right away. There’s a certain stark effect there, but if you’re not going for that, use the anchor and marble in those thoughts amid the present action.

The easiest way to orient the reader to the new POV character is to begin with a physical action anchor. I do try to avoid falling into a formula, but this beginning is also a good place to orient the reader and character in place and time, include a short sequel from the last scene we saw the POV character in (especially if something important happened and we need their reaction) and state the scene goal (which is often related to the sequel).

Seems like a lot? You can do all that in as little as three sentences.

Another personal rule that I use with multiple POV characters (and this is totally my option, a guideline I gave myself, you don’t have to follow it, but I do) is that any character whose role in the story is important enough to warrant getting their own POV should probably have their POV introduced within the first 3-5 chapters or 30-50 pages.

I find POV characters that jump out of nowhere jarring, especially later in a book (especially if it’s for a single scene—drive-by POV—and most especially if that single scene isn’t needed or didn’t need an additional POV character). They don’t have to come up in a regular rotation, but I try to keep the “minor viewpoint characters” in the loop every few chapters as well.

Multiple third-person POVs within a single scene

Seriously? Didn’t I just say we shouldn’t do this?

All right, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in published books. At this point, I avoid this (I’m very strict on myself about POV, actually). But if you really, really, really want to do it, here are some tips:

  • Make sure the transition is necessary. Gratuitous changes can feel like indiscriminate head hopping. Limit the number of heads you pop into in a single scene
  • Make sure the transition is obvious (i.e. obviously intentional). The reader needs to feel like we’ve passed the POV baton onto this new character and the character has accepted it, not like “we’re just in this character’s head for a visit, and then we’ll pop back into the real POV character’s head.”
  • Make sure the transition is smooth. (Obvious and smooth? I’m not asking much, right? Maybe this is why this has fallen out of favor.)

This is not quite like omniscient POV, because in omniscient, you don’t have to be quite so strict about transitions. You want to be systematic in omniscient, but once you’ve established your POV expectations (that you can dip into all characters’ thoughts), you can continue to operate in those parameters.

Unless you’re already published, you have to prove you know what you’re doing with POV, so tread carefully here.

What do you think? What “person” do you typically use? How many viewpoint characters do you typically have? What is the most you’ve ever juggled? Come join in the conversation!

Photo credits: couple eating—Mr. Thomas;
anchor & compass (Falkland Islands War Memorial)—Ambernectar 13; leap frog (for head hopping)—TRiver

Choosing the right POV character

Each book, each character and even each scene requires you to make choices about what POV to use. If you have more than one POV character in a scene—as you will in many of your most pivotal scenes—you have to decide which character should control the scene, or whose eyes your reader gets the scene through. The way you use the POV in a scene and in a whole book affects the way your characters and your story are perceived. It’s important to get it right!

Today we’ll look at one aspect of POV: choosing the right POV character.

Choosing POV Characters

Sometimes it’s very easy to pick who to use as the viewpoint character—they’re our only viewpoint character in the scene. But quite often, we’ll have more than one viewpoint character in a scene and we’ll have to choose between them. Whose scene is this?
Continue reading Choosing the right POV character

Getting close to your characters

One of my many (many) pet peeves in writing is being pushed out of a character’s head while I’m reading. We read to experience life from others’ eyes, and I’m very sensitive to being “ejected” from the story. Here are some of the main offenders that pull me out of the story.

Emotional reportage
Does it suddenly sound like the character is summarizing her feelings, like she would in talking about the experience later in a journal or letter or conversation? We’re reading to live vicariously through the characters, to experience these events alongside the characters. When a character starts telling us what she was feeling instead of describing her emotional reaction as she experienced it, it’s that much harder for us to live through her.

Think about it: which gives us a better experience: “I felt sad,” “I was devastated,” or “My heart felt like it had gone hollow, then caved in”? Writing emotions isn’t easy, but it can really bring your story and characters to life instead of leaving them flat.

Jumping to conclusions
When we’re in someone’s point of view, seeing their thoughts right alongside them, obviously we don’t need to see every piece of mental input they receive. But skipping too many logical steps, necessary processing information or even just observations and facts makes it harder for readers to follow.

“He’s great. I like him a lot,” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But enumerating a love interest’s good qualities—including little details, and unique interpretations/spin on actions—shows us not only that a character is enamored, but how and why. Jumping to conclusions doesn’t let us follow along—it just tells us what to think.

Head words/ “scaffolding”: done all wrong
Head words” are the narration verbs that remind us that the narration we’re reading is the character’s thoughts. But while using these words might look like a great way to “ground” us in the character’s POV, it can often have the opposite effect by constantly reminding the reader that we are reading about a character instead of being fully immersed in them, putting up a scaffolding around the story instead of letting the story shine through.

Sometimes, however, these head words are absolutely necessary: they can add important shades of meaning. “She realized he was wrong” is different from “she knew he was wrong,” “she thought he was wrong” and “he was wrong.” Use head words when they add necessary shades of meaning, and take them out when they don’t. (One of my biggest pet peeves: “wonder.” I will almost always recommend writing “How would he survive?” instead of “She wondered how he would survive.”)

Not using deep POV
It’s been years, but once upon a time, I did a series on deep POV, focusing on some easy-to-apply tips including using the kind of language your character would use, seeing the world as he’d see it, and anchoring in a character’s POV and head early on in a scene and more.

Slavish adherence to “rules” without regard for readability
One example here: we’re told again and again to avoid the past progressive tense (which is NOT the same as the passive voice!!). In general, it’s a good idea: past progressive is wordier and does carry some aspects of passivity. However, those reasons aren’t enough to eliminate it entirely: sometimes past progressive is absolutely necessary for a sentence to make sense.

Reading is a linear kind of thing. We read one past tense verb, then another, and we think they’re sequential when they’re supposed to be overlapping. Compare “He walked in and she leaned against the wall” and “He walked in and she was leaning against the wall.” To me, the first sentence sounds like two sequential actions: he walks in and then she leans on the wall. The second is clear: she was already leaning when he walked in.

When I come across a sentence in a book where one of the actions may or may not be intended to be ongoing, I have to stop and think about the words, instead of continuing to enjoy the characters.

Response, stimulus
In our world, we drop something, and then it falls. Someone surprises us and then we jump. We see a picture of yummy food, we feel hungry, and then we go get something to eat. We have stimuli, and then responses.

The fictional world acts the same way. We have to see the stimulus first, not the response. When I read that someone ducks without seeing a low-hanging branch or something hurtling through the air first, it pulls me out of the story. (Unless, I guess, they have psychic powers.)

Authorial intrusion
There are also lots of ways more subtle ways we can unwittingly popup in our own stories. Roni Loren has a great list of 12 common authorial intrusion pitfalls. Several of them involve putting words in the character’s mouth (or head) that they wouldn’t say or think—“as you know, Bob,” dialogue, things they couldn’t or wouldn’t see, notice or know (yet),

Okay, I admit that as a writer, I’m a sensitive reader. How about you? What pulls you out of a story?

Photo credits: frown—Jacob Earl; scaffolding—James F. Clay

Burying clues using context and interpretation

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

This technique is similar to using framing for burying clues, but distinct enough I think it warrants its own entry in the series.

In this method, the clue really is in plain sight. No tricks to cover it up or conceal its importance—only its meaning. Using the viewpoint character’s perspective, we explain away the clue because we’re seeing it out of context. Perhaps the POV character isn’t hunting for clues right now, or maybe we’ve moved from the plot with the mystery into a subplot involving other characters—anything to move the POV character’s frame of mind somewhere else so that the clue doesn’t seem to bear any extra significance.

To cite an example I gave in the comments of an Edittorrent discussion on burying clues (although this is a mystery, the concept applies across genres; emphasis added):

Let’s say that your plot is structured so that the hero is a detective and there’s been a murder at our heroine’s office (her supervisor was killed [with a staple gun, which our heroine doesn’t know], and there’s an obvious suspect). In her free time, our heroine has been helping her best friend start her own cafe.

Our heroine is helping to decorate the cafe (in her subplot). Her BFF asks her to hang the grapevine lattice on the ceiling, since she’s afraid of heights. The heroine takes the lattice and the staple gun up the ladder and obliges.

But really, the BFF is avoiding the staple gun because she killed the coworker (insert motive here). But because we’re out of context, given a plausible alternate explanation, and not in an investigative POV (and note the BFF doesn’t mention the weapon of choice), it’s easy to dismiss it (as long as there’s a clear purpose in the scene, too).

Plus, now the BFF can frame our heroine with her prints on the murder weapon.

Jami Gold also gave a great example of a slightly different methodology for doing this in the comments. The POV character interprets the clues into a context that might make sense to them, but it’s not correct. The heroine thinks the hero’s giving her A Look because he doesn’t approve of the friends she’s going out with (or doesn’t care about her); the hero can’t believe she’s ditching him.

What do you think? How do you use context and interpretation to bury clues?

Photo by Scott Vandehey

How to write a foreign language character

I love languages. I have a Bachelor’s in Linguistics, which entailed a minor in Spanish. For my last MS, I’ve taken Irish lessons online. In my current WIP, I have a Russian Soviet trilingual heroine who doesn’t want our American monolingual hero to know she speaks English. Oh, and it’s set in Paris. Hooray! (For some reason, it’s always my heroines that are the polyglots.)

It’s only natural that I run into language issues. (And/or give myself language issues.) So when Theresa Stevens posted about using foreign languages in English works today, I started to comment. . . . Halfway through my novella comment, I decided it might be better just to blog about it myself.

I think Theresa has some great guidelines for foreign language usage:

  • Length. Shorter bits are easier to absorb than longer ones.
  • Frequency. A once-in-a-while [words] will go down easier than long dialogue exchanges.
  • Familiarity. Some foreign words are just better known that others. If an Italian guy says, “Salut,” we probably all know what that means. But how many of you can parse a Polish guy saying, “Dziekuje”?
  • Common roots. Some words appear similar to their English counterparts because of shared linguistic roots. . . . So when Edith Piaf belts out, “Je ne regrette rien,” a mindful reader will see “regrette” and recognize it as a fancified version of “regret.”

I tend to think that dialogue and narration use slightly different solutions for the same issue. Here’s what I think is working for me (but I’m sure my CPs will have their own opinions when I let them read my WIP!).

In my WIP when I’m in his POV, I figure the foreign language is pretty much incomprehensible to him (and my readers), I don’t write out the full Russian or French. I have been making exceptions like the above: if it’s very, very short (Eto Lissa), common (oui), or homophonic (téléphone). I figure anything longer/less common is just a wall-o-sound to him—he can’t distinguish the words or even phonemes. (Think about what it’s like to tune in to a Spanish channel. I speak Spanish and it still takes me a minute to “code switch,” as we call it in linguistics.)

I tend to summarize the foreign language dialogue in his POV. It’s a bit harder in her POV, since she’d understand any of the three languages. Here, I do another thing Theresa mentions: trying to make it obvious from the context. For example:

[They’ve just gotten out of a car.]

Mademoiselle?” the driver called. I turned back. He stood by the still-open car door, holding my father’/s brown leather briefcase aloft. “Votre mallette?

Of course, if both characters are speaking Russian (and no one else is around), I just write it in English. I do take a look at the syntax and vocabulary of Russian, but I wouldn’t change either of those aspects to make the English weird or unintelligible.

In internal monologue, I use English as well, of course, and again, wouldn’t change the syntax or vocabulary too drastically. I actually think this can actually be more loyal to the character’s voice, and I’ve commented on why before (but I’ll repeat it here).

I think it’s entirely possible to stay true to a character’s voice without actually phrasing things the exact way their thoughts might translate. A “character’s voice” is already an artificial construct. Most people actually think in pictures, not words. And if my character is a native-born Russian, she probably thinks in Russian. Russian pictures != marketable English-language novel. Translating thoughts into words and Russian words into English ones is, I think, a bigger change than rephrasing said thoughts in English.

For example, in Russian, the stressed element of a sentence is at the beginning (“To the store I went” isn’t odd, just emphatic), but that wouldn’t convey the meaning well in English. Or, for example, if the Russian character thought “nose has not grown,” a Russian idiom, the English reader would be just as confused as we all are now. (No idea what it means.)

It’s more loyal to the character’s voice to make sure that their thoughts are as eloquently expressed (or not) in English as they would have been in their native language—and that’s pretty much always going to require some rephrasing.

What do you think? How would you convey a foreign language in narration and dialogue?

Photo by Eric Andresen