Posts Tagged point of view
7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot
I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.
I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.
Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.
Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.
Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!
Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?
Which brings me to…
Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.
This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.
There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.
Choosing point of view
When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’
If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.
And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.
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.
Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!
Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)
Today: Caprica – series pilot
Caprica started well enough, with a group of teenagers sneaking away to their secret online world. Then these characters are killed, and the focus switches to the fathers of two of the girls.
Writing sin 1: jarring POV shift.
Not all POV shifts are jarring, but this one is. We spend quite a few scenes with these teenagers, getting to know the world and what matters to them. After they die we need to shift to someone else – but instead of that being someone we are interested in, it’s the characters who so far seem to have had the least exciting lives. Although the parents will be trying to find out what their kids were involved in, we were promised the teenagers’ experience. For this reason, the generational shift is jarring.
Writing sin 2: character is inexplicably stupid for the sake of the plot. Later, one of the fathers tries to put the avatar of his dead daughter into a military robot. Inexplicably, once he has done this he deletes her from the computer – and this is clearly going to be important. Now, I’m no expert, but I never transfer a computer file anywhere without having a backup – and the only things I make are textfiles. A cybernetic scientist would, we would think, be neurotically careful, especially if the files were consciousness of his dead daughter. But for the sake of making the transfer a once-only thing, he had to do something stupid.
Tomorrow: Doctor Who Christmas special – The Runaway Bride
Do you see your novel as a movie in your head? That’s great for vivid storytelling – but you might be making these common mistakes.
We often learn storytelling techniques as much from movies as from reading. But novel-writing has its own laws of physics, as every medium does. Here are three techniques that work well in movie storytelling but not in prose.
1 Scenes with a lot of characters at once
In a movie you can put as many people as you like in a scene – because we can see them. But in a novel, that’s hard to manage. You have to keep them alive in the action and so you are constantly reminding the reader that they are there – fidgeting, scratching their nose or fiddling with their cup of tea. It’s cumbersome and interrupts the flow.
Some writers make it policy never to have more than three people in a scene. Others say it should only be two. One of my ghosting projects was an adventure series with five main characters. I split them into pairs as much as possible. It led to more intimate scenes, with better conflicts and development.
Sometimes, an ensemble scene is unavoidable – in which case it’s better to put it late on when the reader is well acquainted with the characters and what matters to them. Probably the most disastrous place to put an ensemble scene is at the opening.
Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino did precisely this in the opening of Reservoir Dogs. I know it only too well. I’ve seen so many novels begin with a large bunch of characters chit-chatting and revealing snippets about themselves and their world through oblique dialogue – and instead creating a confusing mess.
Yes, I confess I came out of Reservoir Dogs wanting to whack more panache into my writing. But its opening doesn’t work in a novel.
2 Short scenes that chop around a lot
Another filmic technique that I see mistakenly applied to novels is short scenes that jump around. In fact, I’m guilty of this myself. Almost the first novel I was commissioned to write featured a terrorist taking a bunch of hostages to a plane, watched on CCTV by their friends. I saw it all in my head and wrote very short scenes that intercut – the hostages, then the friends watching with bated breath, then back to the hostage. It was pacy and tense. But when I revised it I realized it was a nightmare to read – because I’d written a screenplay, not a novel.
In a novel the reader has to load each scene in their head – where it is, who’s there, what they’re doing. All the things that come over at a glance on a movie screen. In a movie you can hop back and forth all you want. In a novel, if you do it too much it becomes irritating. Think of it as like trying to access a web page on old-fashioned dial-up. If you chop around scenes, the reload time is longer.
3 Point of view
In a film, the audience is a passive observer seeing from the outside. The camera acts as a narrator, drawing our attention to things. It can show us things outside the characters’ usual point of view – perhaps warning that the heroine has left her phone on the kitchen table. In a novel, if you haven’t set up a narrator who can do dramatic irony (‘Little did he know…’), then you can’t show it or the reader will feel something is off.
If what you’re doing with your novel is writing a description of the movie on the page –
a – the scenes might not work as you expect, and
b – you’re missing most of what prose can deliver.
Yes, in the novel you have only words, one after the other. This makes movies – with music and visuals – like broadband and the novel like dial-up – you can’t have too many streams of input at one time.
But these limitations don’t make the novel inferior. They don’t mean you can’t have complexity. Quite the opposite.
Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.
I prefer that, which is why prose is my favourite storytelling medium.
I assume you prefer prose, or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s discuss some story techniques that work better in prose! And techniques that are better for movies…