How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 3

How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 3

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

At this point, you should know that:

  • Prose is constructed by using thirteen different types of beats to create three different styles of prose.
  • The first or “base” style of prose, Direct Character Experience (DCE), reflects the perceptions and activities of a character, with no sense of a narrator.
  • The character through whom these DCE perceptions are reflected, and through whom the reader experiences them, is the focal character.
  • There are six basic or “primary” beat types called NORTAVs. That is, Narration, Observations, Reactions, Thoughts, Actions, and Vocalizations.
  • Five of these six beat types are used to create DCE: Observations, Reactions, Thoughts, Actions, and Vocalizations.
  • So far we have covered Actions.


  • Now let’s move on to Observations.

    Observations

    Observations describe what the focal character perceives through his or her five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. To show how beats are linked one to another, and to maintain the narrative context we established in the last part, I will add examples of observations following (and linked to) the previous Action examples I used in Part 2. But before I do, let me bring up two important concepts.

    First, the reader must ALWAYS understand how and why you have linked one beat to the next, else they may become confused. There are several ways to accomplish linking such that the reader will follow along the logical chain of your story from beat to beat to beat. Using a stimulus/response relationship, you can describe one beat and then describe the next beat as a ‘response’ to the first. For example, if you create an Action beat in which a focal character puts a hand into a fire, the next beat might be a Reaction in which you describe the immediate pain shooting through his hand. The stimulus (putting hand in fire) triggers and immediate response (the pain). Readers will follow this intuitively. Or, you may use a more logical relationship in which the context makes it clear how and why you have jumped from one beat to the next. For example, your focal character might step into a room (Action). You could immediately follow that beat with an Observation of what the room looks like. It’s logical to assume that when a character enters a new setting, he or she will observe the surroundings. Thus, the context of the situation at hand can lead the reader from one beat to the next. These are the two most common ways of linking beats, but there are others. To learn more about linking, see the book.

    Second, it helps when describing beats or when performing beat analyses to label the beats. The convention I use for labeling beats is to but a beat marker ([N], [O], [R], [T], [A], [V]) at the start of the each beat.

    Observation examples:

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]Ginny grinned.
  • [A]Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand. [O]It was slick, covered in hamburger grease.
  • [A]The boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air. [O]”Don’t come any closer!” the man said.
  • [A]She took a long, deep breath, blew it out, and started for the door. She grabbed the knob and pushed. [O]A reek of moth balls and mold wafted out of the room.
  • [A]The bulldog wagged its tail. [O]The bone tasted like heaven.


  • Can you sense how the focal character established in the Action sets up the context for how you perceive the subsequent Observation? Look at the first example. “Ginny grinned” is an Observation because it is what Harry sees. If Ginny were the focal character, “Ginny grinned” might be an voluntary Action that follows her own Observation of Harry nodding. Or it might be a Reaction if her grin came involuntarily. Also note that the Observation “Ginny grinned” is logically tied back to Harry’s Action. Harry’s Action is not a stimulus that prompts a response, but rather these are events that are occurring, one after the other, and the logical context of those events makes is clear and easy for the reader to move from one to the next. Notice in the next example the link is different. Sally’s Observation of the slick ketchup bottle is a direct response to the Action Sally performs.

    Notice in the third example we have a boy running across a lawn. He then hears a man say “Don’t come any closer.” What the boy hears is reflected to the reader through the boy’s Observation. This is not a Vocalization beat. Here the man’s vocalization (lower case) is what the boy observes. It comes to the reader through the boy. If the boy were to speak, then we would have a Vocalization beat. Make sense? Also note that there is no such thing as a Dialogue beat. The term “dialogue” is used to generically refer to a conversation. It’s also used to describe a category of grammar rules (dialogue punctuation). But it is not a prose beat type.

    A note about keeping your narrator’s presence out of Observations: Do not make the focal character the subject of the Observation. By doing so, you are adding a “narrative tag” that is essentially the narrator “telling” the reader what the focal character is experiencing. Also, especially avoid the passive voice within Observations. It will imply a narrator as well as making the writing less clear and concrete. Check out the changes to the examples below, and see how they differ when the narrator intrudes into the Observation.

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]He saw Ginny grin.
  • [A]Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand. [O]She could feel it, slick and covered in hamburger grease.
  • [A]The boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air. [O]”Don’t come any closer!” he heard the man say.
  • [A]She took a long, deep breath, blew it out, and started for the door. She grabbed the knob and pushed. [O]She smelt a reek of moth balls and mold wafting out of the room.
  • [A]The bulldog wagged its tail. [O]The bone tasted like heaven to the dog.


  • Characteristics of Observations:

  • The focal character is usually not the subject of the Observation. Often what is being observed acts as the subject.
  • Again, Observations and all other NORTAVs can be as short as a word, or as long as a few paragraphs.
  • Construct your Observations, and all other ORTAVs, as if you were the focal character, performing the perception yourself. Minimize any sense that you are a narrator “telling” the reader about the ORTAV. Be the focal character. Describe what the focal character is sensing.
  • These Observations contain ONLY focal character observations. There is no focal character thoughts, no actions, no reactions, no vocalizations presented within the Observation beats. When the perception or activity changes, the beat type changes.


  • Remember: 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 Observations. You saved your work from Part 2, right?

  • Take some time and create at least 30 Observations linked to the Actions you created.
  • Vary the length of the Observations.
  • Vary the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) of the Observations.
  • Vary the links back to the Observations. Make some direct responses to the Action. Make some the next event in a logical sequence.
  • Put yourself deep into your focal character and describe only the perceptions of that focal character that follow the Action.
  • There should be no sense of a narrator in your Observations.
  • Don’t mix in information reserved for NRTAVs: no narration and no focal character thoughts, actions, reactions, or vocalizations.
  • Save your work!


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

    Another reminder: 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 3. See you at Part 4!

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

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