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.

Are You Ready For Your Close Up?

I’ve just discovered how to embed a Kindle preview in my social media posts.  It’s a very useful addition to the self-publisher’s promotional arsenal, as, like the ‘Look Inside’ facility already offered by Amazon, it gives our readers a chance to sample our work before buying. This has got me thinking about those all-important first chapters and how they’ll stand up to this scrutiny, divorced, as they are, from the rest of the narrative. Is your work polished enough to withstand such a close up, critical examination?

The same rules are in operation as in the usual submission process, but how many of us who are going it alone actually apply them before hitting the ‘publish’ button?

I’ve read some pretty awful previews – bad punctuation, poor grammar, non-existent editing. You might think these things aren’t important any more, but if you’re hoping to attract a wide readership, with positive reviews, you should aim to tick as many of the boxes as possible. The professional services of editors and proofreaders might be beyond the budget of most self-publishers, but there’s still a lot we can do to help ourselves. We want to produce the best manuscript we can, which means paying attention to all the things mentioned above. Your story has the potential to be a best seller, a real page-turner, so you don’t want to turn prospective readers off before they’ve even started.

And that’s another thing – if you’re guilty of admitting, ‘the story doesn’t really get going until chapter six’, you need to take a long, hard look at the structure of your novel and consider starting it in a different place, such as a point of conflict, or where the action begins. A preview two or three chapters full of meandering, irrelevant material will not reveal your master plan or show off your story-telling skills to their best advantage. Tempt your readers in by laying a trail of tasty breadcrumbs that they can’t resist. 

I’m presuming that now you’ve reached the point of publication you’ve already got all your tenses agreeing, points of view sorted, spelling checked, punctuation and grammar perfected. But have one final read of your opening chapters with these questions in mind:

  • Do they entice the reader with a promise of a cracking good read?
  • Is there too much description? Be honest!
  • Does the reader know immediately whose story you are telling?
  • Are the characters too numerous for the reader to distinguish?
  • Are the introductions rushed, or too brief?
  • Are there too many adverbs/adjectives?
  • Is the story already too complicated? Or not interesting enough?
  • Does it start in the right place?
  • Is there too much irrelevant backstory?

It’s notoriously difficult to read your own work objectively, to look at it with new eyes and spot the problems that a dispassionate reader would notice immediately. But I promise you it will be a worthwhile exercise and result in a more engaging opening if you give those initial chapters a little more attention.

The same…. but different. Finding the perfect word.

How often have you paused, pen in hand, fingers over keyboard, trying to think of an alternative word to avoid a repetition?  How often have you looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? Or worse, had it pointed out to you at your writing group?

It’s time to grow your vocabulary.

Continue reading

Period Features

At the writing group we have one of those pot-boiler issues that circulate and resurface occasionally – should we include cultural references in our writing? Opinions are divided. Some argue that drawing attention to elements specific to an era risks alienating readers who don’t ‘get’ them. Others, myself included, think that as fiction is mainly disposable, why should I care if future generations might get hung up on my references to popular television programmes or magazines?

I want to establish a connection with my readers so I try to create well-rounded, credible characters who inhabit the real world. I want that world to be reflected in how a character interacts with it and that means utilising their particular terms of reference. Imagine a twenty-something character in a story set in 2017, who doesn’t mention social media. Unreal, right?

However, there’s still room for caution. My own experience made me think.

After I’d finished writing my first novel I passed it to my beta reader, a much younger woman, prior to sending it out to agents and publishers. I always regard this process as a valuable opportunity for someone disassociated from the process to point out any glaring errors I might have missed. The reader was wholly complimentary – one of the dangers of using a friend as a sounding board – and I allowed myself a brief moment in the sun. But she did make one comment that made me sit up.

She queried a reference I’d made to the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

As I said, the friend is much younger than me, and she hadn’t known about the famous 1940’s TV cowboy and his Native American sidekick. She’d taken the trouble to look them up but this had taken her out of the story. And my carefully constructed cultural reference had failed to impress.

So what, you might say? Not everybody will get every reference and besides, I’ve used lots of modern references and turns of phrase elsewhere in the novel. Maybe it’s because my fiction tends to feature elements of autobiography that I almost subconsciously allude to my past. Besides, isn’t it part of our job to entertain, to inform, to educate and enlarge our readers’ horizons?

You’d be right. Up to a point.

But, and it’s a big but, my novel is aimed at my friend’s age group. If there’s one cultural reference she doesn’t understand, there may be others, and I’ll have disenfranchised my target audience. I took out the Lone Ranger reference and substituted Lady Gaga. The trouble is, in my head, I’m still 28. Which might explain why I wrote my novel for this age group – it’s the demographic I thought I identified with, after all. But referencing TV programmes and pop songs from my past won’t win me any plaudits from readers too young to remember them. They might just stop reading.

Cultural references add colour to a story and establish a sense of time and place. Our fictitious characters are defined by their cultural influences. But we have to be circumspect. In these days of ebooks and downloading, where our work can be seen all over the world, by people of all ages and backgrounds, popular references can alienate readers. On the other hand, if we leave them out we risk producing bland, featureless work which lacks texture and interest.

With this is mind, my second novel features a minor character called Ariel. As far as the narrator is concerned, the name comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the character herself is ignorant of this connection; her parents named her after the animated Disney heroine from The Little Mermaid. Covered both bases there. Phew.

So it’s a balancing act.  As I edit my WIP I now check for era-specific cultural allusions, as well as relying on the beta reader barometer to point them out. The next novel is targeted at women nearer my own age, my real age. Any artistic or lifestyle references I make, any period details I see fit to include, will resonate with the correct peer group. We’ll all experience that warm, fuzzy sensation we get when we’re reminded about something from our past – that comforting feeling of being part of a larger collective memory.

The cultural landscape is constantly changing and I think it has to be reflected in our writing, otherwise we’re trapped in an uneventful time-warp. My characters’ vocabulary echoes that in common usage at that time. If that means that they echo what’s happening in the world in the way they express themselves, then so be it. That’s our shared history, right?

Keep the faith, and take your readers with you.

Characterisation

character One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.

All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?

So how do you build a character? Continue reading

Plotting with dialogue

Stuck with your plot? Bogged down in description? Janet Gover discovers a novel way of  building a story.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser? This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in d…

Source: Plotting with dialogue

Creating an Atmosphere

hickling

Writers approach reading differently from other people. They dissect the writing, eager to understand how the author has created an enthralling plot, a cast of sympathetic and believable characters and a strong sense of atmosphere.

By atmosphere, I’m not talking about ghostly happenings or unexplained creepiness, though these also have their place. I’m talking about creating a mood to draw your readers in, build expectations and provide important information about your characters. By using sensory detail to bring scenes alive your readers will see the world through the eyes of the characters. Encouraged to experience the story at first hand, they will inhabit this imaginary world, be part of the characters’ lives, sharing their pleasures and disappointments. Continue reading