How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 2

How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 2

If you didn’t start with Part 1 do so now.

I mentioned a few important things in Part 1 that need a tad more discussion before we dive into the first NORTAV.

First, I defined prose as…

writing that reflects either the perceptions and activities of a character, or the thoughts and opinions of a narrator, or a combination of both, in order to tell a story.

This is a very specific definition. It implies that prose comes in three general types or styles: 1) perceptions and activities of a character, 2) the thoughts and opinions of a narrator, or 3) a combination of both. And this is true. The base or primary writing style we are going to concentrate on in this primer is Direct Character Experience (DCE). That is, the first type of prose: the perceptions and activities of a character. In DCE we are going to attempt to remove any and all sense of a narrator. We want to make the reader experience what a character is experiencing directly, moment-to-moment, through that character’s perceptions and activities. Now, it is impossible, technically, to remove every sense of a narrator, as there is ALWAYS a narrator in all types of prose (see the book for more on this.) But we can construct our perceptions and activities such that the narrator will be nearly invisible to the reader. To sum up, this primer will cover how to create the first style of prose, DCE, which is prose that reflects no sense of a narrator and only the perceptions and activities of a character.

Second, we call the character through whom the reader will experience these perceptions and activities the focal character. Some people call this character the point of view character. Don’t. The term point of view is WAY overused. I may use it for clarity now and again. You should shoot the term and bury it in your back yard.

Third, I mentioned that only five of the NORTAV beats are used to create DCE. These beats are Observations, Reactions, Thoughts, Actions, and Vocalizations (ORTAV). N stands for Narration, the sixth primary beat that is used to create the second type of prose: the thoughts and opinions of a narrator (Narration). We will cover Narration briefly at the end of the primer. So, sometimes I will refer to NORTAVs, which means I’m talking about all six primary beat types. Sometimes I will refer to ORTAVs, which means I’m referring the beat types within DCE.

Now that you understand a bit about the big picture, let’s dig into our first NORTAV: Actions.


Actions describe the voluntary activities performed by a focal character—walking, grabbing, running, sitting, looking, smelling, etc.

Action examples:

  • Harry nodded.
  • Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand.
  • The boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air.
  • She took a long, deep breath, blew it out, and started for the door. She grabbed the knob and pushed.
  • The bulldog wagged its tail.

  • As you read these Actions, how did you perceive them? Did you perceive them as if perhaps you and the subject of the sentence (i.e. the focal character) were performing the action together? Or maybe they made you feel like you were right there with the focal character, hovering over his/her/its shoulder, as the Action was taking place? Maybe you perceived these Actions as if a narrator was telling you about the focal character’s action? In truth, there is no context surrounding these Actions, so there is nothing to guide your perception (we will get a little more into this later.) You may have experienced these as direct or as if they were narrated. Try reading each of these Actions again, except this time force yourself to imagine the subject as the focal character, the character through who’s eyes you should be experiencing these Actions. Notice any difference? All these Actions (once a context is established) should invoke little to no sense of a narrator.

    Characteristics of Actions:

  • The focal character is usually the subject of the action.
  • Actions, and all other NORTAVs, can be as short as a word, or as long as a few paragraphs.
  • Construct your Actions, and all other ORTAVs, as if you were the focal character, performing the perception or activity yourself. Minimize any sense that you are a narrator “telling” the reader about the ORTAV.
  • The subject of the Action is usually singular (or listed individually, with the focal character coming first). Avoid grouping your focal character’s actions with the actions of other characters in a subject pronoun. This is true with all ORTAVs. To keep the narrator behind the curtain, it’s better to say “Harry and Ginny raced down the hall”, where Harry is the focal character, rather than “They raced down the hall.”
  • These Actions contain ONLY focal character actions. There is no other ORTV information represented here, no focal character thoughts, no observations, no reactions, no vocalizations. When the perception or activity changes, the beat type changes.

  • Now, to illustrate how NOT to create DCE Actions, here are the same focal character actions as before, except this time the narrator intrudes into the beat, making his/her presence known to the reader. When the narrator intrudes into a focal character action, the beat is no longer considered a DCE Action. It becomes one of the other thirteen beat types, which belongs to a different type or style of prose. For more information on this, see the book.

    Focal character actions with a narrative presence:

  • Harry, not knowing the murderer was watching, nodded.
  • Sally, blue eyes blazing with sudden indignation, reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand.
  • In a desperate attempt at distraction, the boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air.
  • She took a long, deep breath, blew it out, and started for the door. A good hour passed before she grabbed the knob and pushed.
  • The bulldog, a runty, odoriferous example of canus lupis, wagged its tail.

  • Can you sense how these Actions are perceived differently than their previous versions? Did you feel yourself experiencing these beats through someone else, rather than through the focal character? Or perhaps somewhere in between?

    Keep in mind, examining NORTAVs is not like examining grammar. With grammar there is an objective right or wrong answer. With NORTAVs, things are far more subjective. Sometimes a beat is clearly of one beat type. Sometimes a beat is clearly of one prose style. (This is your prose construction goal!). Many times, however, if the narrative context is poorly established or if the beats are poorly constructed, a beat might be experienced (and therefore defined) as more than one type of beat, and therefore it could be defined as belonging to more than one style of prose. Thus, two readers can arrive at two different, yet equally valid impressions. The result: potential confusion. As a reader, this is a bad thing. As a writer, it’s absolutely lethal to the quality of your prose.

    Let’s end this part by creating some Actions.

  • Take some time and create at least 30 Actions.
  • Vary the length of the Actions.
  • Use different focal characters for your Actions.
  • Put yourself deep into your focal character and describe only the voluntary activities of that focal character. Actions are not involuntary reactions or responses.
  • There should be no sense of a narrator in your Actions.
  • Don’t mix in information reserved for NORTVs: no narration and no focal character thoughts, observations, reactions, or vocalizations.
  • Save your work!

  • Done? Great! Post some examples here if you’d like!

    Remember: You are learning how to work with NORTAVs (by using ORTAVs and avoiding Ns) to create one specific, “primary” style of prose: DCE. You are not attempting to change your current writing style! You are attempting to learn the fundamentals of prose construction so you can use that knowledge consciously (either during your writing phase or your editing phase) to eventually create professional quality prose in your own style. Or, if you are already experienced, your goal is to learn the knowledge so you can polish your prose to an even more professional shine.

    That’s it for Part 2. See you at Part 3!

    Click here to view list of all parts of this post series.

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