How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 5

How to Construct Professional Quality Prose–An Introduction to The NORTAV Method: Part 5

If you haven’t read the previous posts to this series, do so now, starting with Part 1.

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, Observations, and Reactions.


  • Now let’s move on to Thoughts.

    Thoughts

    A Thought beat describes the conscious or semi-conscious thoughts of a focal character—-analyses, memories, realizations, musings, calculations, prior knowledge, 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 Thought beats that follow (and are linked to) the previous Reaction 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].

    Thought examples:

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]Ginny grinned. [R] A warm feeling rushed through Harry. [T] He was beginning to like Ginny. A lot.
  • [A]Sally reached over and snatched the ketchup bottle from Mary’s hand. [O]It was slick, covered in hamburger grease. [R] “Gross!” [T] She should have known better than to let Mary use it first.
  • [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. [T] What was the man planning to do?
  • [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. [T] No one had been here for a long time. A very long time.
  • [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. [T] Yum. This is a good bone, the dog thought.


  • A few things about Thoughts. First, Thoughts can often be confused with Narration. Look at the Thought portion of the first example. Who is telling the reader “He was beginning to like Ginny. A lot.”? This could come across as a bit of narrative intrusion, but because we have put the reader deep into Harry’s perceptions and activities, the reader perceives this as Harry thinking to himself. This is important to note. The narrative context you create will determine how the reader perceives your beats. If you don’t understand that you are creating a narrative context with your prose, or if your context is not consistently rendered, you risk confusing the reader. Also note the narrative tag in the last example: “the dog thought”. This is a minor narrative intrusion. There will be times when in crafting your Thoughts it will not be abundantly clear that the beat is a Thought as opposed to a bit of Narration. Or, you may find that you need to insert a tag for pacing or other purposes, such as to make it clear which character in a group of characters is having the Thought. As long as these thought tags are infrequent, and as long as the rest of your prose is rendered in as pure DCE as possible, this is fine, as the reader will gloss over the narrative intrusion and still perceive the beat from “within” the focal character, much as the reader will in a Vocalization beat when you are forced to use a tag (“he said”, “he answered”, etc.). More on that later.

    A note about keeping your narrator’s presence out of Thoughts: 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 Thought beats except when absolutely necessary. Tags are the verbs that describe the beat type itself. For instance “he thought”, “he considered”, “he wondered”, “he mused”, “he contemplated” are all tags for Thoughts. Narrative commentary on the Thought itself is another form of narrative intrusion. Check out the following examples and notice the different ways a narrator can sneak into Thoughts:

  • [A]Harry nodded. [O]He saw Ginny grin, [R] and he felt a warm sensation rush through him. [T] It occurred to Harry that he liked Ginny, which for a boy his age was unusual.
  • [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. [T] She should have known better than to use the bottle after her, she chided 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. [T] He wondered what the man was going to do.
  • [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. [T] No one had been here for a long time, she realized. This was her first thought, but it wasn’t the last.
  • [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. [T] Yum, the happy dog thought.


  • Characteristics of Thoughts:

  • Thoughts can be as direct as the character having a conversation with himself/herself in his/her own mind, or as subtle as a subconscious feeling or idea at the surface of the focal character’s mind.
  • Thoughts can be as short as a word or as long as a few paragraphs of internal considerations and musings.
  • Construct your Thoughts, and all other ORTAVs, as if you were the focal character, experiencing the thought or impressions 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.
  • Thoughts contain ONLY focal character thoughts. There are no focal character actions, no observations, no reactions, and no vocalizations presented within the Thought beats. When the perception or activity changes, the beat type changes. Remember, Thoughts can sometimes appear as Narration. 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 Thoughts. You saved your work from Part 4, right?

  • Take some time and create at least 30 Thoughts that are linked back to the Reactions you created.
  • Vary the length of the Thoughts.
  • Vary the type of thought: analytical, musing, a subconscious impression, etc.
  • Put yourself deep into your focal character and describe only the internal thoughts of the focal character that follow the Reaction.
  • There should be no sense of a narrator in your Thoughts, though you may have to slip in a narrative tag to keep the beat clear.
  • Don’t mix in information reserved for other beats: include no narration and no focal character Reactions, Actions, Observations, or Vocalizations in your Thought 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 5. See you at Part 6!

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

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