In a situation where a POV character isn't lucid enough to see or interpret what's going on around them, I find myself constantly describing things either in passive voice, or by using the word 'something' or 'someone' in every other sentence.

An example in which someone is on the floor and an unknown entity is poking them can be written like:

Something poked her shoulder.

Or like:

She felt a poke in her shoulder.

Her shoulder was poked.

The former is better in short doses, but can you recommend a few other structures to spice up a scene where many of such descriptions are necessary?

Thank you.

2 Answers 2


Forgive me if I'm making a false assumption here (EDIT: it turns out I was), but I don't think you have a real problem. I think you believe you do because you've been told (or have otherwise decided) to avoid the passive voice where possible. I think this is a mistake.

Writing "rules" are really little other than "things to watch" while you're writing. As evidence of this, open your favourite book (or anyone else's favourite book). The odds are you'll find plenty of examples of "universal writing rules" that have been broken.

Where the rule is "use active over passive voice", interpret this instead as "be acutely aware of whether the voice you're using is passive or active". The point is to use the form that's the most appropriate, and produces the desired effect. Since many people write books of a sort where the active voice is the best choice pretty much throughout, people who read and like (and probably also write) these sorts of books have over-generalised and assumed passive is always bad.

It seems to me though that in your case, in this particular scene, passive voice is exactly what you need. The character doesn't feel like things are being done, she feel like things are happening to her. If you want to put the through that experience with her, using the passive voice is a perfectly reasonable way to do that.


As for ensuring variety, or having more options that just the two, I think the issue is that at a fundamental level you really only have the two. You don't know (or don't want to reveal) the thing that's responsible for the doing, so either you make note of what's done without (or with only oblique) reference to the thing that does it, or you say that something did the thing without saying what. I think those are your choices.

What you can do, though, is disguise it a little by varying the language. "Something poked her shoulder", "an object poked at her shoulder", "she had no way of knowing what or who it was that poked her shoulder", etc..

I would say though that if you're repeating the same idea over and over (in this case that something she's not lucid enough to comprehend does some thing she's only vaguely aware of) you're likely to run into repetition issues regardless. The issue might not be to do with how you word it so much as what you're saying. (Note: I'm saying that is the case; it's just something to watch for).

  • 1
    Perhaps I should have worded this differently. This isn't so much a problem of active vs passive--although I personally think passive voice sounds awful, regardless of circumstance--so much as a problem of variety. Choosing between 'something did an action' and 'an action was done to me' is fine, but I'd like more than two choices. Apr 13, 2017 at 8:55
  • Noted, and edited accordingly. Apr 13, 2017 at 9:42

A character that is not lucid enough to see or interpret what is going on around them is not lucid enough to have a POV. If they are not lucid and you say:

Something poked her shoulder.

Then the reader is forced to assume that we are in omniscient narration. And if we are in omniscient narration, then you are free to say whatever you like about the thing doing the poking.

Alternately, if you want to stay in the character's point of view, then they are not going to have a POV until they are lucid enough see and recognize what is going on around them, at which point you can have them try to reconstruct what happened to them, and again you are free to say whatever you like about the thing doing the poking.

Remember this about POV: it is just a camera angle. The very early movies were filmed by bolting a camera to the aisle in a theatre and recording a stage play. But producers very quickly realized that the genius of the cinema is that you could move the camera. You could use different camera angles to tell the story. Prose has always had this privilege, that you can change the POV to suit the needs of the story.

Some people get the idea in their heads that they have to pick one POV and stick to it. They fear they will be accused of "head hopping" if they change their POV. But "head hopping" is not a universal condemnation of POV changes. It is a condemnation of a particular kind of clumsy POV change. Just because you should not do it badly does not mean you should not do it at all. The corrective here is to read a favorite book with particular attention to POV changes. Once you look, you will likely find lots of them. The ones that work don't call attention the themselves simply because they do what human beings naturally do for themselves when they are interested in something: shift their POV for a better look.

Indeed, there are few things more frustrating in life than to be unable to shift ones POV to get a better look at some interesting scene. The same is true in literature or film. The reader needs to shift POV to get an uninterrupted view of the scene and it is the writer or director's responsibility to make the POV shifts for them at the right time.

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    I agree with everything you've said except the first bit. I don't see why a character has to be lucid in order to have a POV. They have to have some kind of conscious experience, sure, but it doesn't have to be lucid, well-observed or even coherent in order to be worth communicating. If what the character is experiencing is a state of confusion, and we're going on a journey with them, we may want to go through that confusion with them, and thus to be made half-aware of the things they're half-aware of. Apr 13, 2017 at 11:09
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    In theory, maybe. In practice, you can't simulate the experience of confusion without being confusing. If done literally and in real time it will be as confusing for the reader as it is for the character. But the reader will be confused in a different way since they are, in fact, fully conscious at the time they are reading the confusing words. As a reader you can enter into many states of mind along with the character, but not ones that compromise your lucidity, because you need your lucidity to read at all. Thus confusion is generally reported after the fact.
    – user16226
    Apr 13, 2017 at 11:19
  • By similar logic, one shouldn't try to write from the perspective of a blind character because one needs to be able to see in order to read, or from the perspective of an unintelligent person because the reader clearly needs to be smarter than that in order to understand the text. That just seems completely nonsensical to me. Trying to use words to capture experiences that can't be put into words is exactly the point of fiction, in my view (i.e. we can get around the limitations to some extent by making things up). Apr 13, 2017 at 11:50
  • You don't need to be able to see to read; there is braille. And now often do you find a story told from the perspective of a stupid person? But more importantly, not all stories are recieved or meant to be recieved by immersion in the experience of a character. It is not the experience of being, but the experience of meeting that is most natural in life and in literature. Characters gain our sympathy, not our identity. We remain who we are through the encounter, and we remain lucid.
    – user16226
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:12
  • Yes, well there are also audio books, but unless you think such stories should only be available in brail and audio, I think that's beside the point. I'm not arguing that the experience has to be immersive at all (like I said, I agree completely with the rest of your answer), only that I disagree with the idea that certain kinds of scenes never should be, which is what you seem to be saying in the first part of your answer and your response to my comment. Apr 13, 2017 at 12:39

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