Posts Tagged We Need To Talk About Kevin

Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?

guardian classHello! I know I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I’ve been trying to finish a rather exciting project that’s turned into a corkscrew of learning curves. It’s not quite there yet, but the end is nigh.

Which also seems an appropriate way to introduce this post. Yesterday I was back at The Guardian, teaching an advanced editing masterclass, and as usual, my students gave as good as they got. Here’s one of our discussions.

I was talking about major plot twists and how they usually made the situation worse or added a new complication. One student said could you have a nice event as plot twist?

How interesting. Well, it depends. If it s a pleasant event because it solves the character’s main problem, that would probably end the story. But if it s a stroke of luck or a turn for the better, well that might be quite surprising. The only thing you need of a twist is that it shakes everything about and makes the characters reassess priorities, or it changes the stakes. So the story could continue if this nice event sparked some new complications for the current situation. So your characters could have a lottery win or, depending on the historical period, an inheritance. And this could add fresh pressures.

Or they could fall in love – a useful happy event that can cause a whole heap of trouble.

All we ask is this: your plot twist should create more mess and struggle.

This brings to mind a problem I’ve often seen discussed …an author who is too nice to their characters. Some writers don’t seem to explore the consequences of a story situation thoroughly enough, or meet the expectations the reader has in their mind. Indeed, perhaps they’re writing simply as an act of escapism, to spend fantasy time with their characters. We have to think what makes the reader curious. It’s usually mess, struggle and complications. When that mayhem stops, so does the story.

may 2014 sackville 080 smlWhere does it all end?

And this brought us to another question. At what point does the story end? It’s generally when there’s nothing else to be done with the main conflict.

One student was writing about a group of prisoners, and confessed he was unsure if the ending would work. His narrator escaped, but there were no big revelations or questions answered. No resolutions either. The escape formed a natural end, but would it be satisfying?

I asked him what the narrative drive of the story was. He said it was the narrator’s experience with the other prisoners. Did he change during that experience? Definitely, he said. So once he got out, what happened? Not much, said my student, but he’s carrying the experience with him. I thought it sounded like it would work just fine.

The character has changed, he’s acquired a bunch of experiences he’ll carry with him and he’ll never forget those other people. Sometimes the ending isn’t a definite door closing, or a puzzle solved, or a foe defeated. It’s more of a blurred mark. So you have to identify a point to withdraw, where there’s a new state of stability and equilibrium.

Perhaps the characters have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but it might be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbours – and indeed the country – blame her for the deeds of her son. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.

Your characters might not slay their monsters; they might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.

There will usually be a settling, a sense that the final ordeal has caused a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:

We shall never be again as we were.

We also discussed a different problem with endings: if you’ve got multiple threads to tie, where do you position them? One student was writing a whodunit,  so he had a murderer to confront, and a few other resolutions such as characters getting a promotion.

He needed to figure out a hierarchy of endings. Which conclusion has most impact? The promotion doesn’t, indeed it seems to be a nice segue into the characters’ next chapter. So it would be good as an epilogue. Confronting the murderer would clearly be the most dramatic and difficult part of the story, so that goes at the climax. It’s important that the reader experiences this final battle at close quarters because it’s been the characters’ greatest challenge. There were other subplots that needed resolutions too. They could be part of the final settling – the pieces coming down in fresh positions as the characters begin their new lives.

But! But but! Sometimes it may be more powerful to pull away abruptly. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding ends on the beach, with the rescuers looking at the feral little boys. By stopping at that point, he places the emphasis on this contrast between the ordered, adult world and the wildness that we’ve witnessed in the story. It forces us to think ‘what have I just seen’? This is an ending for the reader. An epiphany. We know the boys probably went on after this moment – they’ll have sailed back to civilisation, gone to their families, resumed school etc. None of that is of interest to the author. That wasn’t what he was exploring. He wanted to look at the animal behind humanity. And so he ended at a point where we’d see this most powerfully. In this case, the ending isn’t about events or even resolutions. It’s about making us understand and think.

Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere’s a lot more about plot twists and endings in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

In the meantime, let’s discuss! Have you ever used a happy event as a plot twist? Have you struggled to marshall the endings of several story threads? Have you taken a chance and ended a story in a way that’s ambiguous or doesn’t necessarily tie everything up?

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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford

This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer  🙂  

I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.

I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.

I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.

I self-publish a writing book

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.

No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.

So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.

I am forced into the Kindle age

Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.

No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.

I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.

Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.

Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.

Launch. How do you launch?

Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.

But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.

Thank goodness I eventually listened to my readers. (It’s now also on Kobo and Smashwords.)

I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.

Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident

So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform –

  • I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
  • I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
  • my posts were useful and accessible
  • I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.

All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.

I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.

As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.

The unthinkable – I self-publish my novel

By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.

Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.

I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.

The promotion problem

Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.

I told my readers what I was doing, created another blog for the novel and a breakaway twitter ID dedicated to the kind of fiction and ideas that interest me.

That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?

All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.

I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.

(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)

Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:

  • I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
  • I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
  • I didn’t have any budget anyway.

What I did – the episodes

I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.

I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.

This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.

My lovely readers

Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.

I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition  and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.

Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life

Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.

I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.

I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.

My changed outlook

So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.

In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.

Message 1 for publishers – the new breed of author

The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.

But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.

To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.

But that’s non-fiction.

With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.

Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.

To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.

Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage

One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.

Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.

This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.

It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?

Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.

Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.

There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.

Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in.  The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?

This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.

Thanks for the umbrellas pic Philip Morton, the author in the arch pic marinalwang, the megaphone pic Neate photos, the launch pic beerandnoodles, the Oxford pic GlobeTrotteur

The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?

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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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Characters: choose their enemies and friends wisely

The magic happens when your characters are together

Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully

There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.

This is the list I rustled up:

1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)

2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)

3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)

4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)

5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)

6 James Bond

7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)

8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)

9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun

11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)

12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers

13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)

14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes

15 Purdey (The New Avengers)

I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.

Characters in a story are like an ensemble

Only one character?

In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.

A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.

To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?

Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.

What about Lizzie Bennett?

Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.

No character operates alone

No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.

Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?

So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.

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Call me Ishmael… When to reveal your MC’s name if writing in first person

Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’

Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.

Dickens and du Maurier

Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.

At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.

Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.

Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.

A terrible memory for names

How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.

Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)

Safety net

Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)

Key points

  • Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
  • If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
  • Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
  • As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.

Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe

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