How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 4

How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 4

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 and Observations.


  • Now let’s move on to Reactions.

    Reactions

    A Reaction beat describes the involuntary internal or external reactions of a focal character—-fear, disgust, joy, lust, a jerk of the head, a stagger backwards, a scream, etc.—-as the story unfolds, moment to moment. To continue to show how beats are linked one to another, and to maintain the narrative context we established so far, I will add examples of Reaction beats that follow (and are linked to) the previous Observation examples I used before. Keep in mind, a reader must ALWAYS understand how and why you have linked one beat to the next, else they may become confused. The relationship between beats can be formed by stimulus/response, by logic, or by any other means (explicit or implicit) that will guide the reader from one beat to the next. Also remember, we will label the beats in our examples using beat markers such as: [N], [O], [R], [T], [A], [V].

    Reaction examples:

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]Ginny grinned. [R] A warm feeling rushed through Harry.
  • [A]Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand. [O]It was slick, covered in hamburger grease. [R] “Gross!”
  • [A]The boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air. [O]”Don’t come any closer!” the man said. [R] The boy froze in mid stride.
  • [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. [R] Her stomach roiled.
  • [A]The bulldog wagged its tail. [O]The bone tasted like heaven. [R] His tail went berserk, slamming a happy rhythm onto the hardwood floor.


  • A few things to notice with Reactions. First, the subject of the reaction can be the focal character or the reaction itself. It depends on how the Reaction is being expressed to the reader. In the first example, Harry’s feeling of emotion toward Ginny becomes the subject. In the third example, the boy remains the subject because he performs a reactionary action to what the man says. Second, Reactions can often appear as other types of beats. In the second example, Sally appears to make a Vocalization “Gross” as a reaction to the slimy ketchup bottle. And in the third example, again, the boy performs what appears to be an Action. It’s critical to remember that Reactions are INVOLUNTARY. They are the sudden, subconscious reactions to a stimulus. The reaction can take the form of an emotional response, a physical response, or a vocal response. So don’t confuse Reactions with Actions or Vocalizations. Actions and Vocalizations are VOLUNTARY.

    A note about keeping your narrator’s presence out of Reactions: Again, sometimes the difference between the reader experiencing a beat directly through the focal character (DCE) or feeling as if a narrator is telling him/her about the beat (NCE) is in the phrasing of the beat. Like with other beat types, avoid using narrative “tags” in your reaction beats. Tags are the verbs that describe the beat type itself. For instance “he saw”, “he smelt”, “he tasted”, “he heard”, “he felt” are all tags for Observations. In reactions, “he felt” can often creep in and give away the sense of a narrator. Check out the following examples and notice the different ways the narrator can sneak into Reactions:

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]He saw Ginny grin, [R] and he felt a warm sensation rush through him.
  • [A]Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand. [O]She could feel it, slick and covered in hamburger grease. “Gross!” she said before she could stop herself.
  • [A]The boy stumbled across the lawn, waving his hands in the air. [O]”Don’t come any closer!” he heard the man say. Immediately, the boy froze in mid stride.
  • [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 and felt her stomach roil.
  • [A]The bulldog wagged its tail. [O]The bone tasted like heaven to the dog. As a result, his tail went berserk, slamming a happy rhythm onto the hardwood floor.


  • Characteristics of Reactions:

  • The focal character may or may not be the subject of the Reaction. Often what is being felt by the focal character acts as the subject.
  • Though NORTAVs can be as long as a few paragraphs, Reactions are usually short, as they reflect the immediate, sudden, involuntary reactions of focal characters.
  • Construct your Reactions, and all other ORTAVs, as if you were the focal character, experiencing the reaction 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 experiencing.
  • These Reactions contain ONLY focal character reactions. There are no focal character thoughts, no actions, no observations, no vocalizations presented within the Reaction beats. When the perception or activity changes, the beat type changes. Remember, Reactions can sometimes look like an Action or a Vocalization. Don’t confuse them.


  • Repeating Reminder #1: 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 Reactions. You saved your work from Part 3, right?

  • Take some time and create at least 30 Reactions that are linked back to the Observations you created.
  • Vary the length of the Reactions, though most will be short by nature.
  • Vary the type of reaction: emotional, physical, vocal.
  • Put yourself deep into your focal character and describe only the involuntary responses of that focal character that follow the Observation.
  • There should be no sense of a narrator in your Reactions.
  • Don’t mix in information reserved for other beats: include no narration and no focal character Thoughts, Actions, Observations, or Vocalizations in your Reaction beats.
  • Save your work!


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

    Repeating Reminder #2: 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 4. See you at Part 5!

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

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