Point of view & narrators

Running with Wolf Hall

When Wolf Hall was published, I was up to my neck (and frequently out of my depth) in writing a novel. I love Hilary Mantel's writing, but I didn't dare go near it. A novel about high politics and low violence set only fifty years after A Secret Alchemy, and built round real historical characters? Might it just make me throw in the towel forever? Well, yes: the book is astonishingly, magnificently good, in everything from the big ideas to the small words. When I put it down yesterday I was about half-way through, and it took two hours and... Read more →

Keep, bend, break and nonsense

Right, let's start with this blog's theme song. All together now: They're tools, not rules! Okay. And having let off a bit of steam and told the world where we stand on this issue, I'd like to remind you about the rule that a sentence should have a full stop at the end. And the one that says you should have started that sentence with a capital letter. And please remember to keep the rule that you should start writing at the top, left-hand corner of the page and write horizontally. Shall we agree that those are as close as... Read more →

Less, more, and Apollo in his chariot

You don't need to have been reading the Itch for very long to know that when we're talking about prose, I'm usually going to talk about specificity - particularity of experience - precision. It's an aspect of Showing, as opposed to Telling, and a way of making even your Telling Showy. As I put it in that post, "Crudely, They met at the big tree isn't as Showy, because it isn't as particularised, as They kissed under the rotting willow, or They fought beneath the sapling oak". And so much of the power of the paragraph I was anatomising in... Read more →

All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

I'm just back from the Festival of Writing at York, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, my post from the same point last year is here, and from 2010 is here. Apart from the usual frustration at having been too busy running my own workshops and doing 1-to-1 book doctoring to sit in on any workshops for myself, it was as much frantic, rewarding, alcohol-and-caffeine-fuelled fun as ever. The ducks were a bit quieter - maybe because it's September, not March - but other than that I'm going to need just as long to recover this time.... Read more →

Real readers won't notice?

Shortly after a bunch of aspiring writers start wrangling over the rules (which aren't rules, but tools, of course) someone will say, "But real readers won't notice, so why should I worry?" This is particularly true if some professional feedback has indicated that something technical is awry: point-of-view, say, or showing-and-telling. One way of fending off such feedback is to say that it's missing the point: who cares, if it's a good read? And it's backed up by the first handful of books you grab off your shelf. If it was good enough for Woolf/Rowling/Dickens/wotsername-who-wrote-50-shades-of-grey then it's good enough for... Read more →

How would you describe it?

Aspiring writers often seem to agonise about the thing they call Description, as if it was a whole, separate kind of writing from the rest of the narrative. They know they should have some, but they can't seem to get it right: it's "floppy" as one such writer put it, or "slows things down" as one of my students said. And most of all, there's the looming fear of clich√©, of off-the-peg words or settings, which every aspiring writer knows they should be trying to avoid, without actually knowing how to do so. I think the problem has two faces.... Read more →

Blow by blow?

Back when I was talking about writing sex scenes, I talked about how they can confuse your writerly compass into forgetting a basic rule of writing: "you only need to write as much of the scene, and as much of the detail, as needs to be in there for the larger purposes of the story." Of course "larger purposes" doesn't just mean the bare bones of a plot - the particular details in a detective story which are red herrings or express the character of the victim are just as important as the actual clues and the murderer's motive. But... Read more →

A novel is not the singular of data

Recently, I came upon a neat phrase to use on those people who refuse to hear the fact that there has been net emigration of central Europeans from Britain, because all the waiters in their local Pizza Express come from Warsaw: "Data is not the plural of anecdote." But it reminded me of how a writer friend wanted her ancient-Persian heroine to start up a cottage industry making dyestuffs in her kitchen. "But it wasn't done like that," said the friendly expert at the British Museum. "The evidence is that dye production was on an industrial scale, and they wouldn't... Read more →

Are you Showing too much?

Over on her excellent blog, The Elephant in the Writing Room, Sally Zigmond's been talking about Showing and Telling. And as well as flattering the Itch by linking to my own post about it, she makes a very good point that trying to Show often leads writers into endless, endless details about missing the alarm-clock switch, and scrambling out of bed and tripping over the dog and dropping things and running out of breath and tumbling onto the train and feeling sweaty when shaking the MD's hand.... and all to Show what could be told: John arrived at the office... Read more →

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories

This is Part Four of a four-part series. Part One: the basics is here, Part Two: internal narrators is here, Part Three: external narrators is here. MOVING POINT OF VIEW: how to do it Obviously you can just switch from one limited viewpoint to another: a double-line space, or a new chapter, and as long as the first sentence or two grounds the reader, so that (even unconsciously) they sense that we're not in the previous point of view, and where we are instead, that's fine. But what if you want to use the usual, "traditional" technique of a narrator... Read more →

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators

This is Part Three of a four-part series. Part One: the basics is here, and Part Two: internal narrators is here. EXTERNAL NARRATORS A narrator who isn't a character in the story will tell everything in third person, because as an "I" they're not present in the events. Evelyn was thinking about seducing Alex, while on the other side of town Joanna was planning to seduce Evelyn. But, of course, it's up to the storyteller - you - which consciousnesses you allow the narrator to lead the reader inside. And it's up to you whether the narrator can tell things... Read more →

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators

This is Part Two of a four part post. Part One: the basics is here. INTERNAL NARRATORS (i): The character as narrator If your narrator is internal, a character-narrator, then the question of point of view is usually assumed to be simple. A character who is inside the story tells their story in first person, because "I" was there. So Andy narrates: I saw John with the stolen brooch in his hand - I guess he stole it, but I don't blame him. His baby was crying in the next room, so he must have stolen the brooch to buy... Read more →


Point of View seems to get more aspiring writers in more of a fuss than almost any other technical issue... with the inevitable result that there's also more nonsense talked about it, and more prescriptive "rules" bandied about, than almost any other technical issue. I've even heard "first person" described as a point-of-view, which is a category error. But it's not, actually, that complicated to understand the basics, so this is the first of my fourt-part breakdown of the issues, for you to decide for yourself how you're going to handle it. And, indeed, many writers handle PoV naturally and... Read more →