POV and Dialogue /Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts knows how to have fun writing a fast-paced story; describing detailed sexual intercourse without turning us into a kibitzer; giving relevant and succinct background; mentioning clothes that are not an inventory list and realistic setting that’s weightless along the plot-line. However, the two things that Nora Roberts does best are POV and DIALOGUE.

She’s one of the best examples of how rules don’t apply to published authors – especially when she’s been creating bestsellers for more than 15 consecutive years and writing for 31. (BTW: she started writing the same month I was born, February of 1979.)

Maybe her style is so surprising because it goes against all creative writing rules and she still manages to get away with it. Such rules are bend the most when she changes point-of-view within the same scene. Although I had to go back a few lines and read it again, it may have been because I’m an enthusiast of the craft – AKA think about these bits-and-pieces too much – and not as much for lack in readability. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for her, but let’s face it, who am I to talk about readability? Roberts is a superstar by New York Times standards…

Am I still the reader, here? The one and only who matters?

Honestly, a few times the bouncing POV became confusing, but it made the style different, daring and challenging to read. I think the best way to describe the feeling is: it sped up the pace. In one line we’re in a character’s head, the next we’re inside the villain’s. When done sparingly and elegantly – which is very hard and daring for a newbie – it’s similar to a cinematographic experience/ action movie.

This POV style is achieved with an omniscient narrator: sees all, knows all. This technique is difficult and the fact that Nora Roberts does it so smoothly follows along the fact that this author is one of the fastest, active writers I know of, with at least 190 full-length novels published so far – translation? She had a lot of practice!

In her website, Nora claims to write 8 hours a-day

Now, after almost 200 books and countless bestsellers, she writes eight hours a day — every day.

and in a public interview at The Washington Post she says she writes 5 to 6 hours a day. Either way, the point is she claims to have a lot of discipline because she spent some time in a Catholic School being educated by nuns and therefore she deals with her writing as a full-time, guilt-related, everyday job, even now.

In How Not To Write a Novel, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark advise that ‘Generally, any point of view that lasts for less than a page should be cut.’

Nora Roberts is, again, the exception to the rule because in ‘High Noon’ the villain’s point of view lasts only for few, short paragraphs along the story-line. They work perfectly as they give us only little glimpses inside a psychopath’s mind, making us curious and aiming at the number one job of any good writer: a page-turning novel.

Here’s an example from ‘High Noon’ where the POV changes within the same scene with a very slight transition. So slight that I missed it and thought for a moment that the main character’s lover was pondering on killing our dear protagonist.

After a romantic dinner on his boat, Swift kissed Phoebe, she praised the knack, he joked around saying he’d been practicing kissing since he was twelve and has developed a few variations so far…

He stepped off, onto the pier, held out a hand for hers. “Variation Seven’s been known to cause temporary unconsciousness.”
“That’s a straight dare.” She stepped from boat to dock. “And I haven’t taken a dare since I was seven. We’re walking, Mr. Swift.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
As they walked, she angled her head to study his face. “Variation Seven?”
“I’m required by law to give the previous warning before use. Now that you’ve been warned, I’m in the clear.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Her laugh floated over the water. And her face, bright with it, filled the field glasses.
He dug into the takeout bag for his fries as he watched her, watched her, watched them. And he considered how quick and easy it would be if he had that face of hers in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
Too quick, too easy.
But before much longer, she wouldn’t be laughing.

High Noon, by Nora Roberts

Concerning what is for me her second best skill – dialogue – Nora Roberts writes with a sparing use of speech tags (he said/asked/shouted). That’s possible when the author knows how to convey a different voice for each character so we know exactly who’s speaking just by the ‘sound’ of his/her voice. This is harder than it looks and she does it so well that I have to study deeply to understand the differences in structure given to each character.

Usually writers do this by giving a set of words that a character is always using here and there along his speech lines. Or by limiting a voice to very short speech lines and another to elaborated sentences. Another example is to give an idiomatic touch to a foreign character and an intellectual grade to a professor or snob character.

The point is, there are some ways to differentiate speech, but every other line we all need a speech tag or we’ll lose track of who’s saying what. But when we master voice and know a character so well that he comes alive in our head, we can convey that cadence onto the page and speech tags can be deleted more often.

And that’s when Roberts breaks another rule and good, fast-pace writing follows:

“I spoke with the attorney you hired on Joe’s behalf. He seems very competent.”
“And then some. So… I wanted to ask you if I should visit Suicide Joe –“
“Excuse me? Suicide Joe?”
“Sorry, we got to calling him that last night. It stuck in my head. Should I visit him, or is it better for him if I step back?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like we were pals or anything. But yesterday’s loop keeps running through my head.”
“It’s more to the point what’s running through his.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I had this dream.”
“Did you?”
“I was the one sitting out on the ledge in my underwear.”
“Boxers or briefs?”

High Noon, by Nora Roberts

I have to finish this post with a full circle and go back to the feelings I had when reading Nora Roberts for the first time. To be honest, she’s a great technical writer and she even knows how to convey emotions up to a certain degree, but it’s easy to understand that such a fast-paced cinematographic style would get some down side.

In Nora Roberts’ writing we know how everyone feels because those feelings are conveyed to the reader through action – and don’t get me wrong, that’s the well known rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ – but the magical touch of intimacy and empathy when we are connecting with the main character’s feelings is not there.

This is very hard to explain. I believe the basic formula is there; all characters have a backstory, a reason for each action, glee and sorrow, qualities and faults, but they don’t have enough depth to mesmerise us and shift our thoughts in ways we never thought before.

Nora Roberts’ ‘High Noon’ does the job if the job is pure entertainment (and that’s why it’s been so appealing to turn her novels into a movie, I guess, as they’ve made with so many), but it doesn’t make you think outside the box. That’s probably why she’s a ‘writing-machine’, because it’s easier to apply the same formula if you have nothing more to convey than action, one scene after another.

After reading it in detail, I’d recommend ‘High Noon’ to aspiring writers because it’s a great way to study all facets of the craft. It’s a very well written book. POV, Dialogue, Action, Backstory, Setting, Clothing, Phisicality, Pace – it’s all in there, done to perfection.

After you master and understand the basics, try and take away that robotic, industrialized feeling where there’s the good guy and the villain. I guess it all boils down to who you are as a writer and what do you want to convey in your novels.

It’s not easy to write every chapter with some moral underline, or to fill your manuscript with original metaphors and similes, and it may take you more than a year to achieve that inner depth. I personally believe I couldn’t do it before I was 25 or even 30, because I was still learning about my own thoughts; I had little more than a chick’s novel inside me.

It took Tifanny Murray 5 years to finish ‘Diamond Star Halo’. Maybe because she was working 8 hours a day in her other full-time job; maybe because she lost track of the story at some point (I’m wondering here, as it happens to published authors as well) or maybe because her goal wasn’t just another book to fill in shelves with her name, but a memorable story we keep to read again in years to come.

6 thoughts on “POV and Dialogue /Nora Roberts

    • It’s a piece of information that insists on advertising how fast she is as a writer, which seems to be the number one (if not only) asset valued again and again on her own website.

      In the interview I’ve mentioned, she jokes around saying ‘I could fill in all shelves in a bookstore if only they got rid of every other writer’ and I believe part of that joke sheds light on how some people are victims of their own success in this mass-production era… …

  1. LOL Laborious !!
    Great post V, educational and interesting at the same time, something a lot of teachers don’t seem to manage.

    Perhaps you’ve missed your calling in life?
    Ever thought of going for teacher training? Languages perhaps or even creative writing?? Your English is excellent which means you have that natural flare that affects one in every ten people in the world so perhaps it’s worth a thought?

    Or shall I shut up? ;-D

    • Wow!

      That’s a very big compliment! Especially because you’ve been reading since my first mess-ups with english. Am I really getting closer to a native writer?

      I guess my only wish has always been that, someday, I’d be writing in a way that no one could tell english is not my first language, but I’m afraid that’s asking too much… and I don’t know how far I can rely on Editors (from publishing houses) to work around my faults in the future.

      It’s that same old question of mine: how do we see ourselves from the outside in? And I’ll always feel like a blind-man writing, never knowing when and where my writing sounds as a native and when and where do I read as ‘stupid’. Weird feeling.

      After writing a post, I often see typos that I’ve missed and can easily go back to correct. But that’s the easy part, seeing typos like the one Laborious Living just made with the “their” instead of “they’re”… making sure a sentence is written with the correct verb tense, meaning and order, that’s tricky.

      About teaching, it’s a possibility I’ve thought of before, and what you see here is really how I am – enthusiastic about sharing what I know, – but as I didn’t like any of my University teachers who gave classes on Web & Graphic Design not knowing the first thing about Flash/Photoshop/DreamWeaver/Etc and not having themselves any type or sense of a real career in Design whatsoever, I don’t think about being a teacher before I have a real career as a novelist.

      (If I’ll have one it’s another topic altogether…)

      With at least 20 books on Creative Writing read, re-read, studied and questioned I guess something good would have to come out in my posts, sooner or later.

      Never shut up Reg. You’re a good friend. Remain honest, at all costs, it’s all I ask of you :)

  2. I am honest but I can be a slimy, old flatterer sometimes, lol.
    As to your written English, you do still make minor mistakes but good grief, go to my Facebook page and read some of the comments there! And these people are native speakers/writers!!
    In fact, you don’t even have to do that; just go to my Blog and knock yourself out on my parade of written ineptitude ;-)

    You’re right about having a sound basis in anything before trying to teach the subject. It’s a good point which didn’t even occur to me, lol.

    It’s strange and probably bad practise but I have never taken any lessons in writing.
    All I ever had were a set of rules in regard to plots and prose in general.
    They were written by a chap called Allen Guthrie and they have set me in good stead since, )I hope!)
    You probably know them already but here they are, all 32 of them.

    ‘Hunting Down the Pleonasms’

    I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.

    1: Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.

    2: Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.

    3: Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won’t say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they’re okay! What’s not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To ‘walk slowly’ is much less effective than to ‘plod’ or ‘trudge’. To ‘connect strongly’ is much less effective than to ‘forge a connection’.

    4: Cut adjectives where possible. See rule 3 (for ‘verb’ read ‘noun’).

    5: Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The ‘big, old’ man walked slowly towards the ‘tall, beautiful’ girl. When I read a sentence like that, I’m hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that’s probably a cue for a ‘noisy, white’ ambulance to arrive. Wailingly, perhaps!

    6: Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.

    7: If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.

    8: Show, don’t tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila’s face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let’s hope so. So cut it. If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!

    9: Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?

    10: Don’t be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named Si Coe.

    11: Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.

    12: Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you’re in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you’re already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren’t necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what’s confusing and what isn’t.

    13: Don’t confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.

    14: Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”

    15: Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.

    16: Start scenes late and leave them early.

    17: When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.

    18: Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.

    19: Don’t allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.

    20: Torture your protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.

    21: Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.

    22: Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make.

    23: Don’t allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.

    24: Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. ‘He felt’, ‘he thought’, ‘he observed’ are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.

    25: Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I’d gone to the hospital. They’d kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I’d seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I’d gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.

    26: When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene and cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.

    27: Don’t plant information. How is Donald, your son? I’m quite sure Donald’s father doesn’t need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.

    28: If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.

    29: Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.

    30: Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.

    31: Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John D. MacDonald put it: “Freeze the action and shoot him later.”

    32: If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.

    Those are the words I lived by while I wrote Division the first time around. I literally questioned every chapter, as best as I could with my limited experience, against this list.
    Unfortunately a lot went astray when I cut the manuscript down but what remains still bears a nodding respect for Mr. Guthrie’s list.
    So now you know V. :-)

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