There are many ways to write a novel, so how do you decide on the best way? Get it wrong or muddled, and you could end up having to rewrite the whole story. With that in mind, it’s well worth taking the time before you start to think through the method and the mode you want to use to convey your story, to write your novel.
One of the first things to consider is whose story it is and who you want to tell it. Once you have decided that, you must write the story from that chosen perspective, at least for a chapter or a section of a chapter. While you are writing from that person’s point of view it is important to stay in that person’s head. You can only think or feel as that one person.
“… when you are writing a scene, you follow the character almost like a camera on the character’s shoulder or in the character’s head. You are looking at the character performing a specific set of actions or important actions in vivid detail.” — Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013
If you want to tell your reader what someone else is thinking or feeling, you should wait until it’s their turn to tell their side of the story – in a new chapter, or at least a new section, often denoted by leaving a blank line between the sections.
What is not a good idea is to head-hop between characters, telling us what they all think and feel in one mish-mash of information. It can become confusing and does not make for easy reading.
If it is a story you as the author want to tell, or it is your story as the author, but you want to tell it as though you are an observer, if you are telling it, narrating it, rather than showing it, then you, the narrator, are limiting yourself to what you can see, hear, or assume about the characters. You cannot know what they think or feel, only what they do or say. This gives an unbiased point of view, an outsider’s point of view.
In the third-person narrative mode, each character is referred to by the narrator as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, or ‘they’. In third-person narrative, the narrator is not involved, not a character within the story, but conveys the story to the reader. This is the most flexible and most commonly used point of view used by fiction authors.
In a first-person narrative, the story is revealed through a narrator who is also a character within the story. In this case, the narrator can only express his/her own opinions, thoughts or feelings, and cannot convey any other character’s thoughts, feelings, opinions or perceptions unless the other character expresses them in dialogue or shows them in action.
The second-person narrative mode, in which the narrator refers to him or herself as ‘you’, is not often used in fiction. It distances the narrator from the story. If he/she is also a character within the story, it is as though he/she is watching his own life from a distance. An example of this:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.”— Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
This can be an interesting way of handling your story, but sometimes difficult to maintain and can become confusing when other characters enter the story and want to play a part.
It is, of course, possible to switch between points of view within one story, but such switches really are best kept to within chapter boundaries if possible, section boundaries at least. Never within a section, a paragraph or a sentence.
So how do you decide how you want to convey your story to the written page? How do you decide from whose point of view the story should be told? This goes back to the first question: whose story is it?
Through whose eyes are you going to let your readers ‘see’ the story?
The Writer’s Workshop says:
“Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys. If you use a particular POV repeatedly, then you must fully characterise that person. That means, a fully developed inner life; a fully developed character arc; a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change. If you work from a POV where the character in question is only partly developed, then this part of your writing will never come to life. if you aren’t sure whether a particular character is fully developed, then he/she almost certainly isn’t.”
This is such good advice. What is required is that you understand your characters. If you are a man writing from a woman’s POV, can you do it convincingly? Or do you write what you wish women were thinking? Can you imagine how a woman feels? Or do you assume she’ll feel much the same way as a man?
Similarly, if you are a woman writing from a man’s POV, you’d need to ask the same questions: can you imagine how a man might think and feel in a certain situation? Can you ‘put yourself in his place’? ‘Walk in his shoes’?
What about age and ethnic origin? These are also areas where research is needed to try to sound authentic. If you are writing your story from a child’s point of view, it would be important to find out how children think, feel, talk and walk. Don’t rely on your memory of being a child. That becomes overlaid with your adult interpretation. If you don’t have children of your own, go meet some children, ask your friends who have children if the family would like to join you for dinner so you can talk to them, play with them, observe them. *** I’d recommend caution here – you don’t want to seem creepy. Explaining that you are an author and need to do some research on children might be a good idea.***
Ethnic origin can be approached in a similar way, get to know some people of the ethnicity you want your character to be. Learn about their culture. Endeavour to understand where they come from.
Already written your novel but wondering why it doesn’t feel quite right? Try editing with coloured highlighters, highlighting when you are speaking with each character’s voice, one colour for the person whose story it is, different colours for when you pop into someone else’s head for a sentence or two. The whole of each chapter should be one, uninterrupted colour. If it is not, you’re head-hopping and that is a big no-no.
To correct it, look at each portion of a different colour and decide if it is necessary for that information to be included there. If not, remove it. If yes, find another way to convey it. Think about it: would the viewpoint character know what that other person was thinking? No, of course not. Not unless they told them or showed it in their facial expression or actions.
The Writers’ Workshop also offer this helpful handful of no-nos. Few of them are absolute rules, but if in doubt, you’d be very well advised to follow them.
- Don’t switch Points of view in the middle of a scene. If you start a scene with Mary, don’t end it with Tom.
- Don’t write a scene from the Point of view of somebody who is killed in the course of it. If you really want the last minute on tape, as it were, then you can end a scene with a final sentence like ‘He looked up. The gun barrel was pointing straight at him. He felt nothing, only emptiness …’ But not much of this, please.
- If you are writing a scene from Jo-Jo’s perspective then don’t relate information that only Ki-Ki could have seen. Choose a Point of view and stick to it.
- If you are writing a scene from Roger’s perspective, then you can’t relate emotional information about Fanny. If you want to tell us something about Fanny, you have to do it via information which Roger could plausibly have access to. ‘Fanny’s lips were tight and white. He knew the signs of her fury well enough by now …’
- If you start a book with a good number of scenes from Laura’s perspective, then you can’t just ditch her halfway through – or at the very least, you need a jolly good reason to do this. If you’re not sure if your reason is strong enough, then it certainly isn’t.
I hope you find them helpful.
Christine Campbell, author.
Family Matters ~ Making it Home ~ Flying Free ~ Here at the Gate
Searching for Summer
Traces of Red
Searching for Summer ~ Traces of Red ~ Rusty Gold, coming soon…