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Power-up World Building through Point of View with Anna Steffl

I’m happy to welcome Anna Steffl [1] to the RU campus. Anna shares her tips on enhancing setting, description, and character development through POV. One randomly chosen commenter will receive an e-book copy of Anna’s Solace Trilogy. 

Great to have you with us, Anna! 

“The author has crafted an intricate and believable fantasy world filled with complex heroes and heroines who are fated to battle a horrific evil.” Victoria Vane, award-winning author

Let me just say that I’ve had the honor of meeting Pharaoh, and Kelsey, of course. To now be on RU is the chocolate in this writer’s croissant. Ha. Your mouth will be watering for the rest of this post. Fantasy chocolate croissants. I’m mean like that.

So, let’s think about pastries, fantasy, and point of view in world building. You can do it. Writers push to the next sentence, the next page, to the end of the chapter—to get to a food break. Chocolate croissants are the best because they combine buttery goodness with chocolate. You need to write a whole chapter to earn one.

One of the things I most admire about romance writers is their skill at using point of view for world building. I recall being at a RWA workshop that Anna Steffl [2]demonstrated expert POV with a Nora Roberts excerpt. A woman, looking at a ruined garden, was imagining what it could transform into with her care. In a paragraph, I understood not just the setting, but the heroine’s tastes and aspirations. I wanted to write like that because the one thing that bothers me most about fantasy is the overuse of narrator world building, especially at the start of the novel.

Someone is going to give me grief for what I write next because there are probably great books that do start this way, but each time I open a fantasy that begins with the narrator first describing the woods and then zeroing in on the healer gathering herbs in her weathered basket, I throw up a little.

That ruins my longing to savor a croissant while I read.

Why didn’t the writer bother to put me in the healer’s head so I’d be with her stamping through the grass, swatting flies from her tattered frock, and grousing to herself that she’s pissed at having to gather liverwort for a prince she’d just as soon see die? Because that writer didn’t study romance craft. I’d get the same info—we’re in a pastoral world with non-traditional medicine—but I’d also know my healer isn’t necessarily a stereotypical good-hearted herbalist and some aspects of nature annoy the crud out of her.

Inspired by the romance craft, I open Solace Arisen, the third book of the Solace series, this way:

Pale light crept into the bottoms of the gathering room’s east windows and into Superior Madra Cassandra’s consciousness. It would be a fine day for travel. In a moment of amused reflection before calling the sisters sitting behind her from their meditation, she noted that the high windows were designed to let in light but not the distractions of the courtyard outside. They did little, however, to deter inward distractions. But today, perhaps, it was allowable to be distracted. Last night was Princess Lerouge’s Coming of Age Ceremony and today Musette and Arvana would be coming home. The duty with the relic was over. Hera Arvana’s letter, announcing she’d made Lerouge champion, had come two days ago. What a mercy that Hera Arvana had fulfilled the Founder’s duty within the time allotted and before the draeden made any show of force.

Madra Cassandra lifted the small bell that rested on the wide arm of the Prioress’s Seat, a heavy chair whose back was to the assembly so that she, as the other sisters, could face the Founder’s icon during meditation. She rang the bell once, and it chimed so pure and clear in the confines of the room’s stone walls. The sound would be lost in the wider world. So was the case with her soul. It had found within these walls its place to sound most pure and clear.

Hopefully, you see a bit of the room, understand that the scene is taking place inside a cloister not only by the words superior and sisters, but also by the inward word choice of the POV character. You know that she is devout and is eager for our heroine Arvana to return. There’s something about draeden. They don’t sound good. And it is fantasy because of the few odd terms thrown in.

Not bad. But, why stop there?

What is especially powerful about using POV for world building and character development is how you can exploit it for dramatic irony. The reader, coming off the previous book, knows that Arvana is returning, but everything is the opposite of what the superior is hoping and thinking. There is no champion. The heroine has broken her vows by falling in love. Her heart soul wouldn’t sound most pure and clear within the walls. Plus, she’s been sucked into Hell and will stay there if the hero doesn’t get her to the cloister in time for the superior to recall her soul. Dramatic irony takes reader engagement to a new level. The reader is the knower of secrets that burden the spirit.

I could have opened Solace Arisen with a description of ancient buildings and how the sound of the sisters chanting drifts from the windows into the fine morning sky. Heck, I did that in a draft.

But it wasn’t croissant worthy—certainly not chocolate croissant worthy.

Now, who can supply the Nora quote?

How do you reward yourself for writing? Don’t tell me it’s its own reward. Wine and chocolate were invented by writers.

Handsome Hansel returns on Wednesday, September 3rd. 


Solace Arisen [3]

SOLACE ARISEN [4]  (Released on September 1st)

This final installment of the Solace Trilogy finds Arvana contending with the choices she’s made and the fate of the world on her shoulders. In the depths of winter, the Scyon releases the powers of Hell to bring forth a second Reckoning that will overturn world order. But from the deepest desperation, the fugitive outcasts reluctantly embark on an impossible quest. Armed only with a single blessed sword, a dangerous relic, and the remnants of a shattered love, will solace arise?


Bio: Anna Steffl lives in Athens, Georgia, home of the New World gods of football and alternative music. She has held a string of wildly unrelated jobs, from frying chicken to one that required applying for a Department of Defense security clearance. She is a past president of Georgia Romance Writers and a Golden Heart Award finalist.

To learn more about Anna, visit her website [1] or follow her on Facebook [5] and Twitter [6].



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17 Comments To "Power-up World Building through Point of View with Anna Steffl"

#1 Comment By Mark Morris On September 2, 2014 @ 2:48 am

Immersion, not explanation covers it. The book is both a portal and a barrier until such time as the reader ‘gets’ the lead character and enters her (or his head). And that’s why we’re always told to show, rather than tell, because there’s no more powerful way to hook a reader than to engage their senses directly. As soon as the reader begins to connect with the character, their barriers are down and they’re in your world…

#2 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 6:41 am

Mark, that’s it. Your comment made me think that an even better way to illustrate the difference between immersion and explanation would have been to include the ugly draft to show how to translate telling into showing. I read lots of unpublished manuscripts and all the writers know the show don’t tell thing, but they don’t really get what that means until someone takes their showing scenes and rewrites a couple sentences with immersion. The light bulb always goes off at that moment, when they see the power locked within their own ideas.

#3 Comment By Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar) On September 2, 2014 @ 8:42 am

Anna & Mark, agree, agree! I write in 1st, so then there’s challenge of ‘staying in the character’s voice’ as well. This is unflinching immersion. Which means must know that character utterly. Maybe some strong stomached crit partners would give you permission to do just what you suggested, show showing, Would be great to see you back at RU.

Mark, are you on Twitter or have a site. I’ve already followed Anna. It’s so great to meet other fantasy writers how have enthusiasm for romance.

#4 Comment By Mark Morris On September 2, 2014 @ 8:52 am

Hi Morgyn. I’m on Facebook and also at [13] I’m a budding writer and although I’ve started submitting works, I’ve yet to get my first proper nibble. But it won’t be long now.

#5 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

Hi Morgyn,

Writing in first is exceptionally difficult–I only go there when I need to get a better grip on a character. Then, I translate back to third.

Many new writers mistakenly start writing in first because they think it is easier. LOL. It takes a skilled writer to manipulate that POV to full advantage.

#6 Comment By Mark Morris On September 2, 2014 @ 8:07 am

The problem with a lot of writers is that they show too much and what was meant to be a sensory panorama becomes a painted backdrop that has colour but no texture. And, more to the point, it feels fake. Subtlety trumps a flood of detail every time. It’s like when you introduce a story world or a back story, too much at once interrupts the narrative and if you’re only just starting off from page one, it could just as easily put the reader off as pull them into your world.

#7 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

Right. There is nothing that puts me off a story faster than detail flood and/or slabs of back story far too early in the narrative. Sigh. Those things tend to happen together. When editors and agents urge writers to have something happen on the first page, it doesn’t mean there has to be an explosion or a death, but that you start in a forward moving POV…not with the panorama, not with the back story.

#8 Comment By Carol Opalinski On September 2, 2014 @ 8:33 am

Great post, Anna. In my own writing I’m much better with dialogue than description so I have to work hard to get enough in. I thought I had succeeded with the opening to my novella but when a fellow writer read it, he said “Psst,Carol your omni is showing.” 🙂 Now whenever I write description I check it carefully to be sure my POV character is describing the setting and not me.

Your post has helped to cement that in my mind. Not that I’ll always succeed on the first try but one can hope. Thanks again for the post!

#9 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

Hi Carol,

It seldom happens in the first try 🙂

I start each scene by writing the dialog, then I imagine what the scene looks like as a movie, then think about what that scene means to my character…and sometimes, they are so clueless because of their limitations.

#10 Comment By Carrie Spencer On September 2, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

Hi Anna!

Great post! Rewards for writing? It’s generally chocolate, although if it’s late at night it can be a toddy. =) occasionally a quick burst of online shopping as well…=)

I actually took a writing class where the instructor said make something big happen on the first page…an explosion or fire, something huge!! =)

Thanks so much for an awesome post – gives me a lot to think about before I start my next ms!


#11 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

Oh, the shopping reward. I plead guilty of Modcloth binging.

That is so funny about the instructor telling you to have an explosion or fire. One of the best book openings that pops into my mind is by Piers Anthony. He has this uptight hall monitor girl doing her patrol. It works cause we’re all scared of that girl, can remember her from high school.

The problem I have with the page one explosion is that I don’t care yet about anyone. The reader has to be invested in or connected to a character a bit first. At the end of the chapter, fine, blow something up. Same thing about opening with a funeral. I don’t care. Ah, I’m so hard-hearted 🙂

#12 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On September 2, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

Hi Anna,

Filtering description through a character’s POV provides insight into their view of the world. Great point about word choices. Your post reminds me of another blog post I’ve read about authorial intrusion and getting out of the way of the story.

Thanks for posting with us today!

#13 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 2, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

Thanks for the opportunity to be on RU. It is a fabulous resource for the writing community. Wish this had been around back in the dark ages when I started writing.

#14 Comment By Jenn On September 4, 2014 @ 6:38 am

love the Nora quote… forgive my ignorance, but Roberts or Ephron?

#15 Comment By Anna Steffl On September 9, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

Ah, this one if from that husky-voiced wonder, Roberts.

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