In Part Seven we're thinking about point-of-view. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short(ish) prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.
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So how were things after you revised your scene? Did you find it went on popping up in your mind over the weekend? Perhaps you were tempted to go back and do more? Perhaps you were frustrated because you couldn't? Having these people and situations and words buzzing is always a good thing - and so is the strength to resist actually fiddling with it.
As I was explaining last time, one of the challenges of learning to write is learning to stand outside your own work and read it like a reader. Writers develop all sorts of tricks to help do that, but all are easier if you don't keep dipping in for little pokes and fiddles. For one thing, you're likely to make muddles, but it's mainly because after you haven't looked at the writing for a while, there's a short time while it's fresh to you again, as to a reader. The longer the time away, the longer that fresh-again stage, but after that it slips back into familiarity. So you don't want to shorten the time away, or use up what little fresh-again time it's earned, with lots of little trivial dips and prods; instead, resist the temptation to get it out, until you're ready to sit down and do a specific job on it.
But today we're taking another tack, and exploring what is possibly the single most fundamental way that, as a writer, you create and control the reader's experience of your fiction: point-of-view. Some people find it a daunting topic but we're going to break it down into manageability.
So you have your scene, written for Part Four, and revised in Part Six, in which your equivalent of my Alex narrated the story of being in a certain place, and trying to get/do/escape/avoid/make/win something.
1) Pick another person who was in that scene, preferably not just a bystander but someone who had some role in what happened. This is just brainstorming, so if you don't have anyone from before who fits that brief, swap two characters around, or invent someone new.
Spend five minutes jotting down a few notes about who they are. The key for this exercise is to make them different from Alex; if I am making notes about Bobbie, I might think about some of their
- physical and mental skills or deficits
- faith or religion
- mood at the moment
- height or build
- strength or agility
- clothes and possessions
Don't by any means try to do all of these, just jot down some ideas about Bobbie which will make them nice and different from Alex. If you're starting someone new and it helps, you could pop back to Part Two and play with some of those ways of getting to know a character as well.
2) The writer's concept of point-of-view draws together several different things into a single label, but luckily in real life we do the same all the time, so it looks worse spelled out than when we put it back together again. It goes like this:
a) Any human being can perceive certain things through their senses, and not perceive others: as visual animals we talk about "view", but it encompasses all our senses: we can't physically see behind our own head; we can smell something and know bread is being baked next door; we can touch something furry in a drawer but not know what it is till it squeaks; we can't hear a song being sung in China unless it's live on the radio: technology extends our bodily capacities.
b) In writing (as in the rest of life), this idea widens to include what a particular human "knows" from their own memory, from their own knowledge and what others tell them; again, technology - from a didgeridoo message, to live-streaming from a hurricane in Florida - extends and enlarges their knowing. And, of course, our imagination uses what we know to go beyond what we know, to create in our minds new things and understandings which don't (at least yet) exist.
c) But we are bound inside our own bodies, minds and personalities which shape and limit (or facilitate) what each of us does, but also how each of us experiences and understands the world: our individual consciousness. So, crucially for us writers, each human consciousness shapes what each human perceives, thinks and says, and therefore how they say it. As someone might say in a meeting, "From my point-of-view he is being extremely foolish, and he ought to get on with it or there might be serious consequences," while another might say, "Ah, don't be hard on him! He's lost. He's lonely. He'll come round. Trust me - he will."
d) "What each says and how they say it" doesn't only mean dialogue, however: it includes how each of us talks about things and thinks about them: how each of us would tell a story, what each of us would sound like as a narrator. This is why, when we talk about writing in a certain point-of-view, it's a real portmanteau term: it includes
- what the viewpoint character can physically perceive
- what they would notice, mention, ignore or not notice
- what they'd give prominence to and what they'd minimise
- what they know (or don't) beyond this immediate place: what they know about the house they're in, or the politics of this town, or the history of the other person in the room
and in order to write those, and get the reader to sense that what they're reading is shaped by the viewpoint character's situation and personality, in writing it we may draw on
- the words that character would choose from the word-hoard that their family, reading and education have given them, and the sentences they'd arrange the words into.
- how their personality affects that choice of words and sentences, and (perhaps differently) how their mood of the moment colours them further.
This is where point-of-view starts interacting with "voice"; more on that later.
e) If you find this idea hard to grapple with, imagine a car accident, and how differently the verbatim record of police interviews would be from: the driver spouse, then the passenger spouse, and then in the back seat the six-year-old, the non-driving teenager, and the grandparent who was a tank driver in the war. That's five different narratives, each shaped by the physical/mental/emotional point-of-view of its narrator, about exactly the same event.
e) i. The full-fat version of this thinking about how point-of-view shapes any narrative goes a step further, but feel free to ignore this if you're only just hanging on as it is. If you're fine, consider this: these different characters are all talking to a police officer, which means that what/how they tell their story will be shaped by their different feelings about and relationship to the police. Maybe the teen dreams of being a police officer? Maybe the grandparent is an army snob and despises them? Maybe the non-driving spouse is annoyed by the officer's assumption of authority - or fantasises about people in uniform?
The last bit of this thought-experiment is to take one of these people and imagine different scenarios where they would later tell the story: a sceptical boss, a friend in the pub, a playground rival, an insurance assessor, an anxious absent parent on a bad Skype connection... What/how would they tell their story then? We'll think more about this later, when we think about narrators.
3) I asked you to write in Alex's first person in the earlier version of your scene, because casting your viewpoint character as the narrator helps bring out your innate awareness of how the words which convey what happened are shaped by who Alex is.
Now you're going to write a new version of the same scene as your Bobbie experiences it. Again, use first person - I held back - I wasn't sure - "Don't you love me?", I said. - but this time it's Bobbie saying "I". Try to be faithful to the events of the original version, which might include, say, Alex not being visible from where Bobbie's standing. What did Bobbie do then? If it gets really problematic, remember this is an exercise and don't worry.
But what we're really after here is developing a sense of how Bobbie, being a different person from Alex, tells, as it were, a different story: Bobbie's story of those events. Get a rough first draft down, give a quick once-over to tidy it up, and then set it aside. Next time, we'll think about the story that (at the moment, sort-of) you're telling.
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.