Posted On May 27, 2011 by Print This Post

Toni McGee Causey POV Workshop – Final Wrap up!

Thanks so much to everyone who fearlessly posted their work this past week! We hope you learned a LOT! I know I did! Toni will be in later this evening/Saturday morning to answer any questions – so make sure you ask!

Toni McGee Causey’s The Art and Soul of POV Tips and Tricks

Want words of wisdom? We got ’em! Too big for a tattoo, but print it out next time your WIP needs a POV fix!

Toni McGee Causey - The Art and Soul of POVI think of text without any setting/visual cues as the equivalent of my reader being forced to wear a blindfold. Sometimes the word count limit forces me to go over a page or section multiple times until I can find a way — usually simply through choosing just the right verb — to convey the imagery. It might be as easy as saying someone walked across the carpet instead of floor, or they glided across the linoleum or they stomped across the ancient flagstones… all of those are floors, but each of them conjures a completely different type of location.

I also try not to repeat that detail again unless needed, once I’ve set it up… *unless* the scenes using that location are really far apart in the text and the reader will probably have forgotten. Even then, I try to use other descriptors to jog their memory.


I prefer to do what I think of as “seeding” the text — giving out the imagery on an as needed basis, as we move through the scene. Basically, in the same way you’d move through the world – you don’t see all of the rooms of a building at once… you see them as you move through them, and you’re used to orienting space that way. You are also used to then mentally accumulating all of that imagery in your mind to form a “whole” concept of that building, in spite of the fact that you only saw it in pieces. Description in text works the same way — you can drop bits in as you go, as long as you’re keeping the reader oriented in that place in that moment — and you’re golden.


Likeability. I’m going to change that word on you, because I think the word itself–likeability–is part of the problem. It implies that all of our heroes/heroines/minor characters have to be likeable, and then where’s the conflict? We end up working so hard to make them likeable, that we don’t have versatile, unique characters.

Instead, think of the idea of empathy. We want to have empathy with the characters, to be able to identify something about them that resonates with us–so that we can step in their shoes for the short moments we’re reading their POV. And empathy doesn’t mean they have to be likeable–it just means that we have to understand where they’re coming from, their motivations, their goals.

Obviously, you can’t elucidate all of the goals and ideals of a character the first moment we meet them, but we do get them by layers. Brushstrokes, if you will. So what we need to see from their POV is their attitude or their perception of the place and *within that* attitude or perception, we need to be able to identify that, feel some empathy for it.


Every character thinks this story is about them. They may be minor, but in their own life, they’re the main character and everyone else is minor. I have to remind myself of that sometimes when I’m tempted to just do a brief character stroke and not go to the trouble of making them unique.


I like to say that characters come fully formed, but that’s never true; I’ll know what kind of character I want to write about, and I’ll know a bit about the world that character is going to live in. Those two things–the kind of person and where they’re from, their socioeconomic background, their level of education–are sort of rapid-fire decisions. What makes them come alive, though, is a combination of attitude, losses, goals, and shame.

Their attitude about the world is often formed by the other three: what they’ve lost/won, what their goals are, and what they’re ashamed of. Attitude is one of the best tools when you’re thinking about how a character is going to view that scene. Are they cocky? shy? resilient? defeated? etc. And most people are rarely just one thing, they’re several, but there’s usually a key to who they are, a key way of being in life that’s their default, and once you hook into that, you’ve got the soul of the character. Once you have the soul, everything else is details.


When I’m looking at a scene, though, I want to see *just* that scene, and if I read the scene in the order of the story, I start assuming some things are on the page that aren’t. So I pluck out the last scene and read it and see if it’s clear? are the senses represented in some way? (not all of the senses are appropriate for every scene, but I try to make sure that I have grounded the reader in some reality that feels tangible) I’ll look at cadence of the dialog–does each person sound like themselves and only themselves? I want to make sure they don’t all sound alike or have the same verbal tics. I’ll then make sure that the physicality of the scene makes sense–that they went from point A to point B in a clear way, not muddled, and that the reader can follow that action in their mind’s eye. I’ll then look for repetition of beats–have I gone over any of this information before, earlier in the scene? (later, I’ll do this for the whole story) I’ll read it out loud and watch for how smooth it feels, are their repetitive words, etc.


Another trick is to print out just one character’s scenes at a time and read them and *only* them, in order, to make sure their emotions and motives and actions track and stay in character. I tend to do this on the screen now without actually printing it out, but I have been known to print out sections and use a highlighter just to make sure a certain point was tracking and wasn’t being repeated…. or undone by accident.


Most of the time, if you’re narrating what had happened… you’re putting a sense of distance between the reader and the character’s action. The reader isn’t *in* that moment, experiencing it. They’re hearing about it (already completed) and they don’t get to experience it, which means they feel a slight (or even great) disconnect between themselves and that character. Which means they’re no longer closely identifying with that character… which means the tension isn’t going to feel as important… which means they can put the book down more easily. I love showing–the action of the story. I try to view every scene as an action scene, and show the conflict as it happens, not as someone is reflecting on how it happened.


The metaphor trick I’ve learned is to write the three or four (or five or six) metaphors that spring to mind in a scene and then later, go back and pick the most powerful one. I try not to do too many per scene–one or two powerful ones, a couple of smaller things that evoke strong imagery sprinkled in.


Remember, as your character walks through the world, build it for us.


Join us on Monday when Mystery writer Al Leverone discusses his journey to publication.


Bio: Toni McGee Causey is the author of the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling “Bobbie Faye” novels—an action/caper series set in south Louisiana; the series was released last summer in back-to-back publications, beginning with CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS, and WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON. While pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting, Toni had scripts optioned by prominent studios and, just this year, produced an indie film, LA-308, which now has offers of distribution pending. Toni began her career by writing non-fiction for local newspapers, edited Baton Rouge Magazine, and sold articles to places like Redbook and Mademoiselle. She was recently a contributor to the anthology Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, as well as Killer Year: Stories to Die For. She has had several of her blogs syndicated nationally from the group blog, “Murderati,” and she can also be found at “Murder She Writes.”

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35 Responses to “Toni McGee Causey POV Workshop – Final Wrap up!”

  1. Hi Toni,

    Thank you TONS for spending the week with us! Like your checklist, I’m keeping this lecture close to hand.

    I like the word you substituted for likability. Empathy is something I can better connect with. The initial feedback I received on my heroine was about her likability. She’s gone through some tough times, which has made her wary of men. It took a while for me to realize I needed to show the reader a softer, more vulnerable side to her, so they would understand why she was acting the way she was.

    Probably Writing 101, but I can be a slow top sometimes. LOL

    Thanks again!

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | May 27, 2011, 4:29 am
    • LOL, Tracey — well, put me in the seat next to you, because seriously, I’ve had that same battle. There’s another character I want to write about who is unapologetically a criminal, and yet… she just rivets me. I hope I can eventually bring her to the page and do so well enough to make the reader care!

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 6:34 pm
  2. Great stuff here! I too love the flip from likeability to empathy because I get knocked for that frequently. Unlike Tracey, I haven’t figured out how to fix it yet. LOL I’m so grateful for the time and effort this week Toni. Can’t wait for your new book. 🙂

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | May 27, 2011, 6:53 am
    • You know, I’ll tell you how I came about making that distinction, because maybe the process will help someone else. I kept bumping up against rules like that–the characters had to be likeable–and yet, I could name quite a few characters that we are absolutely fascinated with, who are the main characters, and we still cannot put the book down.

      One character that springs to mind is the Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character in the ABYSS — named Lindsay Brigman. She’s one very very tough broad, and *everyone* hates her when she shows up and she describes herself as a cast-iron bitch. That movie goes a loooonnnng time before we see the softer side of Lindsay, and yet… we care. We really keep wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt.

      So… faced with that evidence (and many others), I knew that the word “likeabiity” wasn’t really what we were looking for, and it occurred to me that sometimes when people are trying to define a problem, they use terms that work for them and somehow, those get passed around like they’re a universal truth… but maybe that term wasn’t really accurate. With as many slants on writing as there are out there, how could there be a rule, a term, that is one-size-fits-all.

      Which, for me, was kinda a breakthrough. I redefined it for myself in a way that worked for me. You all might find other terms that work for you. The beauty of novel writing is that there are so many different ways to write a book. It’s truly an amazingly beautiful thing. 🙂

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 6:41 pm
      • Toni,

        The ABYSS is one of my favorite movies. Love the drowning scene. I have never quite looked at MEM (no way am I going to try and spell her name!) character that way, but you are absolutely correct. She was a tough broad because she had to be to survive in such an environment. But she loved her ex-husband deeply–enough to die for him. How can you not care about that kind of heroism?

        I really applaud your ability to dig in and find the root cause of a problem. Sometimes I can identify that there is a problem, but I can’t always put my finger on the cause. It’s just been awesome having you here.


        Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 28, 2011, 1:06 pm
      • That’s a great example! I um, haven’t seen that movie. I’ll have to rent it. Thanks for the tip. I’m not sure I know how to do empathy either, but I’m determined to figure it out. Like you say, maybe there’s another word that will work for me…:)

        Posted by Kat Cantrell | May 28, 2011, 4:49 pm
  3. Thanks again Toni! I agree completely with the empathy discussion. That’s critical as we stretch and grow our characters.
    What really resonated for me is the camera analogies. I’m such a visual person, that gives me a tangible sequence – establishing shot, tight focus, gradual expansion. That’s a wonderful way for me to remember to ground the scene and pull the reader into my world.
    Looking forward to your next story

    Posted by C P Perkins | May 27, 2011, 7:09 am
    • Thanks, Cathy! I’m so glad that worked for you. I started off more as a visual artist than a writer–I painted since the age of 8 and was a photographer all through high school and college…. through now, really.

      One thing to watch out for on that technique is to vary it from scene to scene (which is probably something you already thought about, but just in case)… or else the rhythms will start feeling too similar as your book goes on.

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 6:44 pm
  4. Hi Toni,

    I like the attention to secondary players. They don’t know the story isn’t about them. Make them feel special and let them help the story along.

    Thanks for your comments and time this week,

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 27, 2011, 7:27 am
  5. Toni –

    You have been so generous to spend the week with RU and our readers. After reading your feedback on my excerpt yesterday, I had a 10-minute discussion with my husband about why POV is so important. Of course, he sort of got that glazed look, but I just plowed on. It helped cement some of the concepts in my mind, and I *hope* will help me with the revisions I’m working on now. It definitely helped me see some of the major differences between the way my hero and my antagonist see the world around them.

    Thanks again, Toni!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 27, 2011, 7:36 am
    • LOL… Kelsey, I have had so many of those conversations to a poor glazed-eye husband, I know the feeling. But I’m so delighted that you’re jazzed about it! I used to teach this class and titled it “voice — how to know your strengths, weaknesses and how to improve it” — until I realized that the *majority* of “voice” which is actually teachable is the deep POV techniques. Everything else is going to be so subjective, what works for one person it hit or miss for someone else. (It’s a fun class to teach, but that one’s better in person.)

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 6:53 pm
  6. Toni…thanks SO much for joining us this past week….I know everyone is thrilled with their critiques and we’re all going to remember every tidbit of POV from now on while writing. Right? right….=)

    I too am dying to read your new book, I’m positive it’s going to be AWESOME….

    Question – You mentioned every character thinks this story is about them. My characters think so too! To the point some of the secondary characters attempt to run off with the show….=) I don’t give them a POV scene, and yet by actions and words, they always seem to run off with the best lines. How to you show a secondary characters POV, without letting them run wild?

    Thanks again for posting with us, and hope you’ll join us again soon! =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 27, 2011, 7:47 am
    • Carrie — thank you! I’m so relieved to know that the critiques were helpful. I didn’t think to say this up front, but I wanted to point out that I recognize that nobody workshops their very best work that they already know has no problems. (I mean, what would be the point?) And that brave writers put up things that they want insight on, because we’re always learning. I so admire you all. Truly. I can see every single one of these as a book that I would buy and enjoy. (And believe me, if you all saw my rough drafts… you’d die laughing at the idea that I’m teaching something!)

      re: on secondary characters running away with the scene… LOL. Man, I know that feeling.

      I’ve sort of narrowed down this phenomenon to a few of different potential problems. (There are probably more–these just tend to be most common for me.)

      1) I have lost focus on the conflict in the scene and who’s got what at stake. This is probably the hardest one to diagnose because sometimes there can be “conflict” in the scene…. but I’m skimming on the surface of it and whatever really should be driving the scene is absent. Sometimes I can fix the conflict right there… and sometimes I have to go back several scenes because I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. (grin)

      2) I’ve lost focus on what my main characters’ want and need, and what their obstacles are. This plays into conflict, of course, but it’s more about motivation. If they’re standing there while the side characters are getting the best lines, something’s out of balance, and them just standing around, letting someone else have the best lines is worrisome… because why are they just standing around?

      3) I have too many scenes where the characters are sort of treading water… I haven’t increased the tension enough (haven’t thwarted them enough, haven’t made them hurt enough, angry enough, want something enough)… and quite often, I’ll look at the scenes before and after and look for ways to combine the actions in those scenes. (Sometimes the action can be folded all into one scene… sometimes it needs a whole new scene.)

      4) They are a really cool character and they need their own book and someone in the story probably ought to duct tape their mouth shut or kidnap them. 🙂

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 7:06 pm
      • Carrie – I can relate to the secondary characters running away with the show. The story I’m working on now started out as a NaNoWriMo story back in 2008. At that time it was VERY dark, but that isn’t the biggest change.

        My original idea was to write a trilogy with Sloan and Willa (who had a different name then – I have to change character’s names when their personality alters) reuniting in the first story. Their friend Dante was going to get his story next. The problem was, Sloan was so freaking depressing and I was having a lot more fun writing about Dante.

        I did two rounds of complete revisions before deciding that a) I wanted to make it a lighter story and b) I was going to switch things around and make Dante the hero. It was an epiphany! I like the story soooo much better now!

        Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 27, 2011, 7:13 pm
  7. Toni – Thanks so much for all of the awesome information. This particualr statement resonated with me:

    “Every character thinks this story is about them. They may be minor, but in their own life, they’re the main character and everyone else is minor.”

    A’nt that the truth?! I think I’m going to print that out and put it on my workspace.


    Posted by Robin Covington | May 27, 2011, 7:48 am
  8. Good morning, Toni!

    Thank you for your time and generosity and another amazing workshop. I think you should write a book on POV, in your spare time, of course!

    Am I crazy to think that POV could be used to increase tension in a scene?

    Posted by jennifer tanner | May 27, 2011, 8:15 am
    • Oh, wow. I hadn’t thought about doing a book on it. hmmmmmmmmm. You know, that would be fun. 🙂

      POV can absolutely increase tension. What the character can see vs. what the reader can see is paramount to increasing tension. Sometimes, we want the reader to be slightly (not a lot, but slightly) ahead of our main character. (It’s tantamount to us seeing that someone put a bomb under the seat in a movie theater and then flashing forward to the young couple sitting there, with the timer counting down.) Sometimes, we want the reader to be slightly behind the characters (they see something before we do), and sometimes, we combine those techniques. But we do it almost always through POV. 🙂

      (um, you’re right… I just realized there’s a whole layer there I didn’t go into and give examples of. That book is looking more and more likely.)

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 7:12 pm
  9. Toni, Toni, Toni, I am completely ecstatice over that tip about printing the scenes of one character. It’s like angels are singing in my head right now. I LOVE that tip. I just turned in content edits where I tried to fix an issue with the hero’s voice, but I was still on the fence about it. Now I know what I need to do to figure out the problem. Thank you!

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 27, 2011, 8:21 am
  10. Toni,

    This really is great information. After your workshop started, I’ve gone back and revised and revised. It’s so easy to let a scene just happen, but following your checklist and adding imagery from inside the character just brings it alive.

    I agree about the empathy thing too. I tend to write really cynical, jaded people with damaged pasts. That makes the entire likeability thing a real challenge.

    Question about the showing and telling part– how does one handle flash backs? In my mind a flashback is still being experienced but the reader, not ‘told’ — but the experience has already happened, right? so does that distance automatically distance the reader?
    Is a backstory scene, still a scene or does it need something extra to remove the distance?

    Thanks again,


    Posted by Sonali Mayadev Thatte | May 27, 2011, 8:22 am
    • Sonali, that is just such a high compliment, that you found it useful as you’re going through your text. I’m so thrilled.

      Flashbacks are tricky, and there are a couple of things I use when I do them (and this book has several)…

      First, the transition in and out of that flashback has to be clear. It can be subtle, or like dunking the reader into the deep end of an icy swimming pool. As long as it’s clear that we’re not in present time, you’re okay. Second… it has to be absolutely compelling for it’s own sake, for the action we’re living in *that* moment… because essentially, a flashback just stopped the forward motion of your story dead in its tracks while you’re showing something about the past. That something has to be so freaking compelling, so revelatory about your character and his or her motive, that we’re riveted and then when you bring us back to the scene we left before the flashback, we have a whole new perspective that’s going to inform the rest of the story. I try not to use too many, but there are novels which have used tons of them, to great effect. It’s a tough call as to when it’s best to use one… but as long as it’s fascinating, and the action is *action* — not passive tenses — you should be golden.

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 7:21 pm
  11. Toni – This is AMAZING! I’ve bookmarked it, printed it out and pasted it into a document in my Writing Craft folder. I’ll probably have it memorized before long!

    Thank you so much for spending the week with us! I want to go to one of your real-world workshops now – do you post a full list of your upcoming workshops on your website?

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 27, 2011, 10:38 am
    • Thank you, Becke!

      Um. The in person workshops sort of went the way of the unicorn. 🙂 I got so burned out traveling a couple of years ago, I’ve been staying close by home. That said, I have had several invitations for in-person retreats that I will probably do, so sometime later this fall, I’ll probably update the calendar (which, right now, is blank, because I am very very slack about updating that sucker).

      Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 7:25 pm
      • I suggested you as a possible speaker for a workshop or retreat/workshop sponsored by the Ohio Valley RWA chapter. Other people are putting forward names, too, so I don’t know what’s happening with this. Don’t be surprised if someone contacts you regarding fees and availability, though.

        Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 27, 2011, 7:30 pm
  12. Oh, and I forgot to thank Toni for an amazing week of lectures and fantastic feeback. Such great info. When are you coming back? 🙂

    I’d also like to thank everyone who submitted their work for Toni’s critique. Putting our work out there for critique by one person (never mind the internet!)is never easy and I give anyone who does that a ton of credit.

    I’d like to add that we have an open forum here at RU and it seems readers had differing opinions on some of the submissions. If any of the entrants were offended or upset by comments made on this blog, I’d like to apologize for that. We want this to be a supportive environment and our goal is to simply have our readers walk away knowing they have learned something.

    Thanks again, everyone.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 27, 2011, 12:30 pm
  13. Aw, you guys, you just sooooo rock. Thank you! You truly TRULY made this a great day.

    I have so much fun here. I’d love to come back… Carrie and I are emailing on dates for a structure / pacing lecture/class. I’m truly impressed with not only the talent here, but the grace and the courage of what you’ve created here. It’s so encouraging to see so many writers supporting one another, helping and learning together. I think I learn more when I teach than any other time, because I get to interact with such cool people and it forces me to figure out how to articulate things that are sort of instinctive or dumb luck. (grin)

    Thank you so much for having me!

    Posted by toni mcgee causey | May 27, 2011, 6:32 pm
  14. Thank you, Toni. I’m sure everyone who participated in this workshop learned a lot. I know I did.

    In case my feedback upset or angered anyone—well, no law says you have to take it seriously. You don’t even have to pay attention to it. Quite likely I’m not in your target readership. Therefore my reactions don’t matter.

    William Faulkner once told how he dealt with adverse criticism of his novels: “This is a free country. People have the right to send me letters, and I have the right to ignore them.”

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | May 27, 2011, 7:32 pm
  15. Thank you, Toni, for everything this week! I did read along and read through the entries but it’s now 4:05 on Saturday afternoon and this is the first chance I’ve really had to catch my breath. I’m going to work on the rewrite tonight and though this is over, I’m sure with your example to go by, it will be so much the better for it.

    And I might take this next week to go through and comment on the others. 🙂

    Thank you for all your time. You always have such great insights that I totally miss.

    So…when are you coming back? 😉

    Posted by althea preston | May 28, 2011, 2:07 pm

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