Posts Tagged Alice Sebold

First person or third? How to decide point of view

Which point of view should you choose for your novel? Some points to help you decide

1 If the focus is on the events, you’re better off with third person – most commonly this is historical fiction, family sagas, epic fantasy, crime, thrillers. If the story is more about the characters – and the events might seem insubstantial compared to the psychological journey, first person is generally best.

2 In first person, you see the world and all the other characters as the character does. It’s especially useful if the character may not be sympathetic or has dubious qualities – such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. First person lets you add layers of irony and unreliability – all part of the fun.

3 If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, be consistently unreliable from the start. Don’t turn them suddenly unreliable half-way through.

4 Whose POV do you show? With character-based novels, the same events told by a different person would make a different book. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother in a confused, conflicting relationship with her son. Kevin in the same novel is a child growing up with a mother he knows hates him. Which story do you want to tell?

5 First-person narrators might be aware they’re telling the story, like Eva in we Need to Talk About Kevin, or they might be experiencing the events in real time with no sense of explaining themselves – like Carol in My Memories of a Future Life. (And I chose first person because her experience is more important than the events.)

6 The narrator isn’t always the protagonist – Dr Watson narrates Sherlock Holmes, showing someone extraordinary through his more sane, relatable eyes – yet preserving the mystique of his more remarkable moments.

7 Usually the first-person narrator doesn’t know the thoughts or feelings of other characters, or what happens when they are not present. Writers of first-person narratives have to make use of letters, chance conversations, listening at a keyhole, online eavesdropping – without being cliched. However, Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones writes a first-person narrator who spiritually snoops on the private moments of others. Ghosts do that.

8 You might have filter characters for some or all of the story, like Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy to first-person Mr Lockwood.

9 Sometimes there is a central character who is the story’s exclusive viewpoint, but the novel is written in third person. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a story of multiple adulteries seen through the eyes of a child. James chose third person because he wanted an innocent who notices far more than she has the vocabulary to describe. This is sometimes known as limited third-person.

10 Third person can show a godlike view of many characters, but it’s usually better for the novel to focus on the thoughts and feelings of just a few characters – subjective viewpoint. Decide whose heads you will get inside – and stick to that main cast. Less important characters can be shown from outside through their dialogue and actions. If you suddenly add the intimate POV of another character late on in the novel that’s very dislocating – although you might just get away with it if they’re a long-lost sister who we’ve been curious about.

11 Crime novels and thrillers, which are generally more about plot than character, get away with introducing new characters, in close up, anywhere in the story. They will often devote a chapter to a character who is about to meet a sticky or spectacular end, narrated so we share their thoughts and feelings. Or they introduce a new assassin half-way through. This works because the main hook is the events, not the characters.

12 Most scenes are better if written from one character’s POV. But what if you’re narrating in third person and you have put two key characters together? You can either narrate it all from a more distant perspective, trusting the reader to understand the tensions. Or you could shift point of view. Yes, honestly, you can if you…

13 Use POV shifts with care. The best way to do this is to start the scene from one character’s POV and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action so that we know we are tuning into a different person’s experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again.

14 You can have alternating first-person chapters, first and third, so long as you establish the pattern early on and do it consistently. And you have a good reason.

15 You can mix omniscience and subjective view. In Lifeform Three, I have a hybrid of omniscient narrator and limited third person. The narrator is never a character (but is me the storyteller), is able to talk loftily about some parts of the world that the main character doesn’t know, but aside from that is glued to the main character. I made strict rules – the narrator knows about the world in general but does not know about the main character’s history or what happened to him before the story started. Some fairy tales are like this.

16 You can do what you like, really, so long as you make your boundaries clear. Write in second person if you must, or plural instead of singular – although you do risk wearing out the reader. Unless you’re writing about Siamese twins.

Thanks for the pic, Jenny Downing and wonderferret

Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!

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3 fixes to make your first novel fly: 1 – hook your reader by the head AND the heart

Over the next 2 posts I’m going to look at 3 common problems I see in first novel attempts. Today I’m dealing with possibly the most important. How you hook the reader.

This week I’ve seen a number of posts by writers looking back on what they wish they’d known when they embarked on their first novels – literary agent  and writer Weronika Janczuk and writer Krista Van Dolzer. Speaking with my editing hat on, I find there are three major problems that crop up time and time again in the manuscripts of first-time writers – so I thought I’d talk about them here.

Today, I’m going to talk about hooking the reader.

No one is obliged to finish your book – or even read beyond the beginning

When we’re at school we’re taught that if we start a book we must read it all the way to the end. It’s usually a rite of passage when we decide we won’t respect that rule any more, but once we do, we never again stay with a book out of polite duty. We need to be made to read on.

Quite often, first-time novelists have thought of a story, but not about how they will actively reach out to the reader and persuade them to pay attention. They need to approach this on two levels – intellectually and emotionally.

Creating intellectual curiosity

You can reach out with mystery, intrigue, drama, comedy, and atmosphere. Perhaps a body is found in a mysterious situation; a noise is heard every night at a particular time that can’t be explained; a girl fancies the guy who’s going out with her best friend. These hooks generate curiosity, so that the reader thinks, what is going on, what will happen next, what is the answer?

But that’s the easy bit – comparatively.

Creating the emotional connection – engagement

This is much harder and a lot of first manuscripts miss this element. Good stories have a bolt of emotional recognition that binds the reader to the characters. They put you in the characters’ shoes.

Perhaps she is Everygirl, like the MC in the opening of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones:

‘My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair…’

Sebold goes on to sketch a picture of a recognisable schoolgirl – good at some subjects, disastrous at others, who is just discovering the wider world. These details are not just scene setting, they are the emotional link to who she is – an ordinary girl like us, who was robbed of the chance to grow up.

Here’s another example, the opening of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver:

‘Even the dead tell stories.

Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead.’

With these few deft words, we’re in Sig’s shoes.

You don’t necessarily have to launch straight in with the plot. One of my favourite openings is F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Cut Glass Bowl:

There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age , when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly moustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents… After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard … the glasses were set in the china closet … – and then the struggle for existence began.  … the last dinner glass ended up, scarred and maimed, as a toothbrush holder…

It’s brilliant, a timeline for a marriage seen through a couple’s wedding presents, and so human. We don’t know who the characters are yet and we haven’t a clue what they are going to do. But on a different level, we know them very well. We feel connected to their problems and their dramas – and we want to read on.

Many first-time writers think about grabbing the reader intellectually – from the outside – but not from the inside. It needs just as much attention – if not more.

Part two of this post will discuss two simple plotting problems that I often see in first novels

In the meantime, thanks to Ell Brown on Flickr for the photo – and guys, share the novel openings that really engage you!

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