Who’s Telling This Story?

If you’re about to begin writing a novel, you will have definitely thought about which point of view you’re going to use.

Whether you’re writing a short story or a full-length novel, you have to decide:   

  • What is the best point of view for your story?
  • Whose point of view will engage the reader most effectively?

In the olden days, when things were so much easier, we’re told, novels were often written from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, hopping from head to head to get everyone’s perspective. This strategy gave the reader access to all the characters’ thoughts and feelings as the story progressed, and allowed them to be in on the action from inside the heads of all the characters.

This device gradually lost favour as ‘head hopping’ was deemed confusing, and the novels that followed used either the 1st person pov, where the reader is inside the head of the main character –the ‘I’ of the story – and all the action is seen through their eyes, or the close, or limited, 3rd person, where the story is told from the perspective of one character – usually the ‘he’ or ‘she’ of the story. In practice, this means that the reader only sees and hears what that character experiences. We can’t solve the problem or guess the ending ahead of time because we don’t have all the story. It can only unfold as the character discovers each element.

Unlike TV and movies, where the camera can focus on secondary characters and convey an enormous amount with a single facial expression or gesture, the narrative in a novel will only concentrate on the character who is telling the story. 

However, I’ve noticed in my reading that many modern novels are bucking this trend. They aren’t going back to the old omniscience per se, but they are presenting the story from various directions, moving between the various characters’ heads through the chapters. The reader is kept abreast of the action as it develops within the lives of the main protagonists, though the characters themselves are kept in the dark about the way the rest of the story is unfolding until everything dovetails in the last pages.

They say that trends resurface every seven years and this is a way of reinventing a good idea. The technique avoids the use of clunky, revelatory dialogue and awkward chunks of flashback to fill in the backstory and when used skillfully it can be a satisfying method of working through a complicated, many-stranded plot. It also gives the writer the opportunity to tell several stories that would have been almost impossible to explore using a more traditional one character point of view.

This leapfrogging is a very effective device but it needs careful handling to maintain tension and keep the reader guessing (and drawing the wrong conclusions). Reveal too much, too soon and the suspense is diluted, or dissipated entirely. It makes for a very satisfying ending for the reader as they disregard the red-herrings and put all the pieces together successfully.        

I wonder if the omniscient narrator is making a comeback, albeit in disguise.

Subplots: Enough is enough

I’m a novelist and an unashamed eavesdropper. This superpower has often come in useful in my short story writing, and my novels. So when an intriguing snippet of conversation drifted over the cubicles in the changing rooms at my local swimming pool, I dashed out to the car (remembering to get dressed first…) and wrote it down fast. The scenario I’d just overheard would make a great subplot.

Subplots are useful for a number of reasons. I’ve previously written about their advantages here: but the main ones are:

  • Character development, revealing the flaws and traits of a one-dimensional character
  • Adding interest to the story, bringing drama, pathos and mystery to a flat storyline
  • Bringing in a fresh set of characters to add impediments or obstacles
  • Providing an alternative ending to add a twist or complication
  • Putting the reader off the scent and delaying the outcome

They are best avoided if the only reason to add a subplot is to inflate the word count.

I was at the halfway mark with my WIP when I realised the novel was going to come up short in the word count. I needed another subplot.

Be careful what you wish for, is my advice.

The WIP was languishing, stuck in a saggy middle of my own making, when I had the flash of inspiration at the swimming pool. What if, I thought, the writer of the letters was the mysterious, absent sister, and not the character I originally had in mind? Brilliant! I am a literary genius.

I’d already written an exciting subplot concerning said sister, but I proceeded to dismantle this and write the new storyline. Trouble is, I’m telling the story from three separate points of view, so this little change had a knock-on effect on everyone. You know how it goes: if A did this, B would have to do that and C would reveal something she shouldn’t even know about.   

What started as a small tweak morphed into a major rewrite and many wasted hours trying to get my characters to fit this new narrative. It changed everything.The novel became a different story. A very complicated one.

I found myself constantly checking backwards to make sure the different elements agreed with each other. I wasn’t making much headway. This, after promising myself at the start that I would write this novel to the very end before starting any editing. But everything I wrote was coloured by this new idea, and not in a good way.

It had to go.

I’ve just finished another major rewrite, taking out this ridiculous subplot and developing my characters into more rounded and credible individuals without any deviations from my original plot. I feel much happier now. My story and I are progressing.

Subplots? Meh.

New Shoots

Now that Spring finally seems to have arrived in the garden, my thoughts have turned to my own green shoots – those budding ideas I’ve actually turned into stories. How did I get to this point?

My writing journey (is that a cliché these days?) started several years ago. Although most of my friends and family were encouraging, I doubted I had the staying power when I set off, but I wanted to try. And here I am with two novels published and a third in progress. Wow.

Along the way I’ve encountered difficulties and disappointments, highs and lows, but I’ve never lacked Advice. So, in retrospective mood, here are my reflections on the huge amount of writing advice available. What’s actually been useful?

Continue reading

Should I Let My Characters Write Their Own Ending?

Who says exercise is useless? I may not be losing any weight but my brain is definitely benefiting. During my swim this morning I had a brilliant idea for a subplot in my WIP. The new story line slid easily into place, with all the attendant connections and foreshadowing (was I dreaming? This doesn’t usually happen to me) and I couldn’t wait to get out of the pool and make some notes (my memory isn’t to be relied upon these days). This is doubly important because the novel has recently hit the buffers. It’ll mean a bit of rewriting, but it’s so worth it. But I digress… Continue reading

Writing the Kinks Out

Are you the sort of person who listens to music that reflects your current mood and reads novels that imitate your life, or do you prefer your listening and reading choices to challenge the status quo? I’m certainly in the former camp: I want mournful music when I’m anxious or depressed; uplifting tunes when I’m happy. I don’t want to be cajoled out of my sulk; I want to wallow. My reading material has to mirror my current frame of mind and, if I’m going through a particularly blue period, it should suggest an escape, or a way forward.

Committing thoughts to diaries and journals is an established method of exorcising our demons. Writing negative feelings on a sheet of paper, wrapping it round a stone and throwing it into the sea or off a cliff is still a popular way of ridding ourselves of bad vibes, so could the same effect be gained from writing fiction? Just as we use reading novels and listening to music as therapy, can we use writing to ease the kinks out of our lives? Continue reading

Changing the Landscape

For a variety of reasons I’ve been having a funny old time, writing-wise, just lately. The old mojo seems to have packed its trunk and run away to the circus. I didn’t invite me along, though I think I’d be pretty good on the trapeze, so rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself, gazing gormlessly into space, I’ve been doing something worthwhile.

I’ve been writing in my head. Continue reading

The Gift of Time

I’ve recently been given a gift.

We’ve managed to get my mother-in-law booked into day care for two days a week. Mum lives with us and suffers from acute Alzheimer’s but anyone who is responsible for an ageing relative will understand what this turn of events really means.  I have been presented with that most valuable of commodities – long, uninterrupted tracts of time. I can hardly believe it. Continue reading