Archive for category Writing
In my previous article I talked about why you might want to use outlining as a technique. In this article I’m going to look at what outlining is.
At it’s simplest, outlining is the enhancement of content through spacial arrangement. That can involve the placing of elements in a list, a grid, a hierarchy, on a map, or in any other way which helps you to understand the relationships between elements. Take a simple example:
This is a list of colours. We could say that the order of the list references something about the wavelength of the light, or we could say it reflects the order of the rainbow. It remains, though, an ordered list. Now to add some detail:
- Rust, or is that brown?
- A fruit
- Expression of; where does this come from
- Has ethical implications
- Down, depressed, low
- Isn’t this just purple?
- No this is purple – why two purples?
Now we have an outline which expresses some detail about these colours, and adds information in a structured way to imply that the detail is a property of the heading. We may want to re-order this list according to some other criterion, or add things in that we feel are important:
- A fruit
- Expression of; where does this come from?
- Has ethical implications
- Down, depressed, low
We’ve done a number of important things from an outlining perspective. We’ve inserted Brown into the list before Orange and put Rust under that because we think that’s where it belongs. Note that we can insert anywhere, not just at the end. We’ve merged Indigo and Violet into Purple because we think they’re the same thing, and we’ve moved them nearer to Red where we think they fit. We’ve moved Ribbon up the list under Yellow, but still under Yellow, and we’ve added Fingers to Green.
Note we didn’t type Green fingers; it’s position under Green implies Green, the same as the Ribbon is still Yellow. If I moved the Ribbon under Red it would be a Red Ribbon unless I state Yellow Ribbon under Red, which I could do if it meant something.
This isn’t about getting a right or wrong answer; it doesn’t matter that Indigo and Violet are different colours because the difference in this context at this time is not significant to us. It may become significant later. It doesn’t matter that Brown is a composite colour: here and now it’s in the list.
This is the freedom of outlining. It allows you to get things down quickly and intuitively without necessarily challenging those thoughts at the time. You can consider this outline later, having done some more research, and you may at that point want to introduce Black. Is Black a colour? This isn’t a list of colours, it’s an outline of colour related thoughts, and therefore Black is a colour if we say it is. So is Pumpkin.
We can take a two step approach to this:
Step 1: Divergent Thinking
- Adding elements as they occur
- Ordered but not fixed in order
- Adding levels of detail where they occur
- Adding place-holders where it needs work
- Mixing and merging concepts (eg: temperature, colour, and badgers)
- Without challenge:
- Speld howevr is quickest
- In the order they occur or fit
- Using the words that most easily decribe
- Capturing the spirit and the message
- Skipping mechanics or detail
Step 2: Convergent Thinking
- Ordering elements into sequence (not necessarily time-based)
- In the order they will be used or consumed
- With only enough detail to enable you to recall
- Crystalising or deleting place-holders
- Merging and separating concepts and concerns, eg:
- Questioning the place, order and precedence of everything
- Establishing flow, teasing out themes, highlighting holes and outstanding issues
Two steps implies that you do one then the other, but this may not be the case. You may iterate between divergent and convergent, adding in layers and then detailing them, only to add more later. You may start converging and then realise you have a whole new thread and start diverging from there. It’s organic and it’s meant to develop over time.
Step 3: The Power of Delete
I said it was a two stage process and it is, but it doesn’t always work. Don’t be afraid to delete everything and start again, I don’t mean save and close, I mean DELETE. Get rid of the whole thing. At worst you will lose a couple of hours work.
Start again, but not in the same place. Come at the whole thing from a new character, a new timeframe, a new perspective. If you’re brave enough to delete you will find that the pressure to keep what was good means that those ideas bubble up to the surface again in new guises. If you don’t delete you will find yourself constrained to the paths you’ve already taken. The delete key is your liberator.
Change the layout and look at it differently. If you had an ordered list before, put things in a circle and draw lines between them. Write things on sticky-notes and post them on a wall. Add symbols, or emoji, or highlighter, or stickers.
The importance you attach to things is dictated by their relevance and importance to you, at this time, in this context. It can be more or less useful, it can be clear or opaque, it can help or hinder, but it can’t be right or wrong.
Next time I’ll talk about how tools help and hinder.
As part of a new series I’m going to be looking at outlining as a technique for writers and I’m going to start by acknowledging the obvious – everyone is different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so my objective here is not to tell you how to write or what to use, but to encourage you to develop a portfolio of tools and techniques that will help you to organise and direct your thoughts and be more productive.
This series is aimed at writers of long fiction (i.e. pieces over 20,000 words) but some or all of it may also be useful if you are writing non-fiction, or shorter pieces, or a dissertation or long-form essay. It’s up to the reader to pick out what is useful to them and incorporate it into their methods.
So why outline? Why not just write?
There are a number of advantages to outlining a piece of work both before and after writing it. The first is perspective. It’s much easier to get an overview of a piece of work if you can look at it all at once. This is useful at the planning stage to allow you to experiment without commiting yourself to hours of work just to see whether an idea will bear fruit.
It’s also useful in editing when you can see scene-by-scene what is happening. It helps you identify sections where the plot may be flat, or unfocussed, or just plain confusing. By resolving these at a higher level it then enables you to dip into the text and resolve the issues one at a time and work through the text to resolve the issues while keeping the narrative flow intact. It can also provide you with an overview of character-arc, or themes, or key events. With the right software it can even help with timing.
One of the most common weaknesses, particularly for new writers, is a lack of structure. Without a framework the story tends to lack pace and direction and the writer can end up stuck – not because they can’t write, but because they have reached a place in the narrative where there is either no believable progression or resolution for the characters, or because they feel blocked. Outlining allows you to unwind to the point where the story can branch anew and find a more fruitful and promising direction. You can experiment in outline with different scenarios until you find something that works for the story, and for you as a writer.
A major challenge of any work over 50,000 words is to organise what is being done. Outlining allows you to easily order and re-order scenes, move elements around, experiment with sequence, timing and the interplay between actors before investing time in writing the scenes. It also allows you to dip into key scenes and write them first, putting into place the crucial turning points in the plot and crystallising these so that the rest of the story can form around them, then using these as waypoints in the narrative for story development. It liberates the writer from the timeline.
By freeing the writer from the timeline and giving them the framework of the narrative, the outliner is able to drill into a scene and focus. It allows the writer to think about that scene in context and understand what is being delivered in terms of plot development, character evolution, escalation, tension, narrative twist, humour, horror, suspense or any other element. When the scene is written it can be edited both as a scene, and as an element of the whole
Even using outlining it is possible to spend weeks or months on a story and then find that for one reason or another it doesn’t work. Having an outline to go back to allows you to restructure rapidly. Instead of lamenting the lost time, you can use the experience to rapidly introduce new character perspectives, develop new plot threads, and find out what’s not working. Doing that with 100,000 words would take months in itself, but using an outline it’s possible to see what can be saved and what must be scrapped. It allows you to maintain momentum when you feel like you’re paddling upstream.
The most common argument against outlining is the proposition that somehow by outlining a story in advance it nullifies the sense of discovery that can be experienced through story development; that by pre-empting the story, you remove the opportunity for the characters to surprise you. This may be true for some writers. However, the first rule of outlining is that you don’t have to stick to your outline. It’s a framework and frameworks can change. If you discover a creative thread that looks promising you can follow it. You are not tied to your outline. Even if you throw it away and start again you’ve lost very little.
Some writers prefer to hammer out a first draft and then develop it in editing. One way of looking at that is to say that the first draft is the outline; it’s just longhand rather than note-form. Knowing the plot is only the first part of telling a story. Setting a scene, building expectation, developing characters, crafting dialogue; all of these and more besides are part of storytelling and must be addressed in your writing process. If you choose to do them in second or third draft then that’s your choice.
If you’re writing already then you’ve probably discovered that writing isn’t one skill, but many. The exercise of those skills is what makes it challenging, demanding and rewarding. Outlining is a skill like any other, it must be acquired and practiced before it can be mastered, but mastering it opens doors that might otherwise be closed.
As the series progresses I’ll be showing how that skill can be developed using a variant of software (and more prosaic) tools, so that you can add outlining to your skill-set.
I haven’t posted for a while because in my other profession I have been hectically busy. How’s it going in there? Very well, thank you, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Anyway, I was particularly taken with Chuck Wendig’s take on Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns, and I wanted to do something similar for Archery.
Bows and arrows have been around since hunters decided to stop throwing sticks at the wildlife by hand, and maybe for that reason writers tend to think they are simple to make and use in a fantasy setting. After all, any self-respecting pseudo-medieval character would have known how to shoot a bow and arrow, right?
Wrong. A novice bowman has about as much of a chance of successfully making a bow and arrow that can be used as an effective weapon over more than ten yards as they have of making a red carpet out of fruit. And if you’re within ten yards of your enemy, a bow is the wrong weapon to reach for.
Let’s dispel some myths about novices:
- Most novices can’t hit a 4-foot diameter target with an arrow from ten yards until they’ve been taught to shoot. I know, I help run beginners courses. Hitting a target at 30 yards is impossible. They are using the wrong muscles, they’re not aligned properly and they are more likely to injure themselves that anyone else (string-slap is when the string hits your bow arm on release like a high speed garotte. It leaves spectacular bruises)
- Most novices can’t draw a bow of more that 20lbs in draw weight (the force needed to draw back the string). If they can draw it, they can’t hold it. In order to shoot an arrow more than 30 yards you have to be able to draw and shoot a bow of more than 20lbs, otherwise you’re aiming in mid-air above the target and you have no idea where the arrow is going.
- Making a bow takes skill, time and knowledge. The right wood, taken from the right places, seasoned in the right way, crafted in expert hands, will make a good weapon. Most modern bows are laminated wood because it performs better. Most self-bows (bows made without lamination) are slow, and they warp because the mix of heartwood and sapwood expand and contract at different rates. Waterproof glue for lamination wasn’t invented until the late nineteenth century.
- You can make a bow out of almost any springy material and it will work to some extent. An arrow, however, must be straight and must be made of a material that can take the extreme force imparted by the bow without splitting down the middle at the nock (where the string goes) or shattering on release, or coming apart in mid-air.
- The fletches on the arrow must stay on and must be aligned with a constant offset angle so that the arrow will spin in the air. If they are feathers they should be from the same wing of the same bird so that they curve the same way.
- Arrows all need to flex by the same amount – too flexible and they’ll break, too stiff and they won’t fly straight. Each set of arrows has to be matched to the bow, the archer, and the style of shooting. And each other. Different weights of arrows fly different distances with the same force, so they all have to weigh the same too.
- The centre of gravity must be in the right place, just forward of the centre. Too far forward and they’ll stall, too far back and they won’t fly straight. And if you have any intention towards adjusting your aim between shots, they all need to be identical.
- A bow-string must be capable of holding the full weight of the bow and then stopping the bow from flying apart when it is released. Even some modern materials cannot withstand a bow being released without an arrow to absorb some of the energy. A vine, creeper, or plant will pull apart. Hair is too prone to breaking. String-making is an art, even in the present day.
- You don’t shoot a bow of more than 20lbs off your fingers. Its like holding a cheese-wire and lifting ten bags of sugar. It will slice into the joints of your fingers. You need a tab, or finger guard, thumb-ring or shooting glove – something between the bow-string and you.
So none of this is accidental. Bows, arrows, strings and the accessories necessary to shoot them require skilled craftsmanship. That’s why there were guilds of Bowyers and of Fletchers. You had to serve an apprenticeship and learn your trade. Sure, a makeshift bow could be cut from a hedgerow, but it will be lightweight and prone to splitting. That assumes that you have a string to string it with, of the right length and capable of withstanding the forces involved. Sinew works well after hours of boiling and shaving and careful preparation, and you have the tools to hand.
And then you have to make arrows.
Maybe it’s just easier to go back to throwing rocks at things?
Recently I wrote a piece for Bastard Books about standing at the crossroads of writing and the decisions I am making about what comes next. There is a brief extract below, but click the link for the full article:
With the completion of the fourth and final book in The Courts of the Feyre I find myself at a cross-roads. Up until now I’ve styled myself as an Urban Fantasy Author, because that’s what I’ve written and it makes it easier for readers who are likely to enjoy my work to find me. For most people, though, urban fantasy isn’t a genre, and the words urban and fantasy simply don’t mean anything together. I might as well say goldfish collider for all the sense it makes to them. (Now I have an image of two goldfish swimming around a giant toroidal tank in opposite directions until they collide and scales and fins fly off in spiral patterns. That’s what an imagination will do to you. Be warned.) Click here to go to the full article…
The Eighth Court, the fourth and final book in the series, The Courts of the Feyre, is finished. It’s with my publisher, who may request some revisions or amendments, and after that it has to go through copy edit, and proof-reading, and all the other publication magic but, to me, it feels finished. I’m not going to spoil it for readers by sharing the plot, but I would like to reflect on the series, and what writing the last book was like.
It was hard. The last year hasn’t been the easiest of times for reasons to do with the health and well-being of the people closest to me. Fortunately everyone seems to be pulling through and things are generally on the up, which is a relief to us all. Setting myself apart from all that to write has been difficult, but even without the events of the year this book would have been hard.
I’ve been working full-time while I’ve been writing, which is great because it pays the bills. I have a job in IT that is engaging, complex and sometimes difficult, and one of the challenges has been the gear-change between working, where I’m thinking about networks, servers and infrastructure, and writing, where I’m thinking about characters, plots, scenes and settings. Writing requires a different mind-set, and I confess that some evenings I wasn’t able to make the switch, which meant that either I got no writing done, or the next day I would sit down and delete everything from the previous day and start again. Although the book is just under 120,000 words, I estimate that I’ve written closer to 180,000 words. Some chapters have been written two or three times before I felt they were right.
I set out with some clear goals. I already knew how the series would end, or I thought I did, and I had to work towards that end in a way that made sense for the characters and the situation that had already been created. There were some questions that were created by the previous books in the series, and those questions needed answers. The series themes, of things hidden in plain sight, of events from long ago having impact in the present day, and of a hidden world beneath the one we know, needed to be continued and developed. The one big question – what has this all been about – needed an answer.
With this being the final book in the series, I didn’t want to bring in a lot of new characters or elements which hadn’t been seen before. There are already well over 50 characters in the books, some of whom are dead, or won’t be seen again, but I felt there was plenty to work with. There are a few minor characters that appear in this book but mostly they’re people we’ve already encountered earlier. The magic in the book is consistent with the magic that already exists. There are some surprises, but those are consistent with what we already know. The world of the Feyre has a lot of detail behind it which dictates how and why things are the way they are, and in this final book more of this will be revealed, but the world will remain largely mysterious. Be assured, there are rules and constraints and reasons, but they’re not in the book. Perhaps one day there will be a Courts of the Feyre bestiary, but not yet.
Most of all, I wanted this to be a satisfying end to the series, and that meant delivering on the promises set by the previous three books. Niall, Blackbird and Alex each have their own plot arc, and each of these arcs needed to reach a conclusion in this book. Each of them had been changed by the events in the series, and in the final book those changes needed to bear fruit – we should feel that they have reached a conclusion and a resolution. It turns out that writing the final book in a series is harder than writing any of the others. I think I said once that if I’d known how hard writing would be I would never have started – that applies even more to a series. I liken it to rolling a snowball – the more you roll it, the bigger it gets and the harder it is to roll, but roll it must.
And when I got to the end that I’d planned from the start, it didn’t work the way I thought it should. I was forced to step back, reconsider, and write a different ending. I like the new ending, but it was a total surprise. I had no idea it was going to end quite like that, but the new ending works so much better.
Before I sent the book to my editor, Lee, I went back to my goals and asked myself where exactly I had delivered on the objectives I’d set for myself. I found the pieces in the text and read them back to make sure I’d done what I set out to do. To me, it’s all there, and that’s why I can say that it feels finished. Of course, I’m not the final arbiter of that, and you the readers must judge that for yourself.
To me, though, The Courts of the Feyre feels complete, and I’ve told the story I set out to tell.
Plot development is at the centre of this week’s article in the series Twelve Rules of Writing – in particular the subject of outlining. As a quick reminder, this is the extract from the original article: ~
11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?
That depends. If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it. If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.
Outlining is just one of the techniques that can help you if you are struggling with plot, and since we mentioned it, let’s start there:
The purpose of outlining is to allow you to operate at different levels within the overall plot arc. At it’s most basic, we can start with an overall premise and three labels: Beginning, Middle and End. Note that you don’t have to adopt a 3-act structure and if you already have a structure that works for you then use that, but the important thing is that you impose some structure.
Once you have an overall structure you can begin to fill out the levels beneath the overall structure with elements, initially at high level and then in more detail. The point of outlining is that you can dip down into detail anywhere in the plot as it occurs to you without worrying about how you get there. There is a freedom in this that liberates you from the narrative sequence and allows creative expression.
You don’t need software to outline, though there are some useful tools you can use which include outlining functionality such as OmniOutliner, Scrivener, NoteLiner and others, but you can just as easily use sticky notes or index cards. The key elements are that you should be able to expand and collapse each element independently allowing you to focus on that element without worrying about everything that precedes or succeeds it, and that you should be able to move elements about in the structure if you want to. That might be laying cards out on a surface, or clicking and dragging a paragraph.
Potential pitfalls of this technique are in the level of detail to which you descend. If you drop down too far you can over-outline an element and steal all the fun and surprise from that scene so that when you come to write it you find there’s nothing to do and your pen is dry. On the other hand you can push the level of detail so that you are, in fact, writing the scene and then you’ve lost the big picture, which was the purpose of outlining in the first place.
The trick is to stay light and agile, swapping between scenes and adding in detail all across the story arc until you have enough that you think you can write it. Then stop outlining and start writing.
If outlining had an antithesis it would be freewriting. In freewriting we ignore structure and follow the narrative path to discover where it leads. There is a different kind of freedom in this, in that it liberates the writer from structure and allows their subconscious to manifest in the story, revealing new truths and discovering hidden jewels. Writers sometimes talk about characters walking in and taking over, which is an aspect of freewriting – if it feels right then go with it.
The downside is, of course, that you can end up writing material that has no discernable plot – a structureless story without development or progression. In some cases this can be avant-guarde, but mostly not, and it can leave the reader disorientated and unable to follow.
The most powerful tool for the freewriter (some would say for any writer) is the delete key. If something isn’t working then have the courage to delete it. If it was good after all then you will be able to re-create it, if not then it is better gone. This can mean that you are deleting more than you are left with, but if that’s what the story demands then so be it. Remember that freewriting can produce a lot of material quite quickly, so there is seldom a problem with insufficient words.
At its most powerful, freewriting is revelatory and inspiring, but not for the faint-hearted.
Snowflaking is a little like outlining in that it operates at different levels of detail, but it is rather more formal in approach. This technique starts at a high level, one sentence summary of the plot and then iteratively creates increasing layers of detail until the story is written. Note that this is different from outlining in that in outlining you are encouraged to switch levels and move around within the story arc as the mood takes you, but in snowflaking the direction of progress is towards increasing levels of detail.
The power of this fractal approach comes from the link between the overall premise and the final story, and it is almost guaranteed to provide you with a story that is true to the original idea. The weakness is that it doesn’t allow you to deviate from that idea, and can produce results that are formulaic and uninspiring. It also relies on a brilliant premise, and if you have that then this technique can generate a story quite quickly and relatively easily, but if you don’t then it can feel like you are just digging yourself into a deeper hole.
If you really need a formal structure and a regulated approach then this technique can work for you, but don’t let it stifle your creativity.
Backtracking is an alternative approach to plot development that starts with the end and works backwards to the beginning. This sounds initially strange but can be very useful in certain circumstances. If we take the example of a murder-mystery, we can start from how the murder was done and then work backwards to the clues generated, the red-herrings created, the characters who would be suspect and the beginning of the story, which could be where and when the body was discovered.
The power of this technique rests in the questions. Why was the victim killed? Who would want them dead? Had they done something to deserve it? Who would have a motive? Where would the murder take place? Questions are powerful because they feed back into character. What sort of person would kill another human being and then conceal what they had done? This gives you an insight into that character and allows you to write about that person in a way that feels true and vital.
Backtracking can be used to plot an overall story, but also at a more detailed level. If you have an event in the story arc that you need to get to but you find yourself blocked, then you can work backwards from that event by asking why it happened. What happened to lead to that event? Who was involved, and what was their motivation? These questions may lead you back to a different point in the story than where you were trying to write from, and allow you to discover why you were blocked.
The weakness in backtracking is that it can lead to plots that seem tenuous and contrived, since there is a web of dependency leading to the final event, created specifically to support that event. When using this technique you should question each link in the chain and ask whether that is really there for the story or simply to make the plot work. Otherwise you may find your story dominated by plot devices and helpful coincidence.
Each of these techniques has strengths and weaknesses and each is more or less appropriate in certain circumstances, so which would I recommend? The answer is all of them. Writers need to develop a range of techniques and tools for dealing with different problems and learn when to use a particular technique. This comes with experience and practice, so trying each if these techniques is a good place to start. You will find that each has benefits and each comes with it’s own restrictions and limitations.
This is not a definitive list of writing techniques and there are others that you can learn and experiment with. Try mind-mapping or borrow Robert McKee’s excellent screenwriting technique documented in Story. Use flowcharts, cover the walls with sticky notes, fill notepads with random notes and build character databases. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can discover them for yourself by experimentation.
There is no single recipe for good story writing any more than there is one writer of good stories. Each writer must discover what works for them. But if you find yourself stuck and you’re wondering what to do about it, try a different approach – you might find that you solve more than just the problem you’re faced with.
In this article in my series, Twelve Rules of Writing, I will be looking at point of view from a story-telling perspective. To remind you how this was addressed in my tongue-in-cheek article here’s the original.
10. Which point of view should I adopt?
This depends on genre. If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect. First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.
Should stories be told as if the writer is experiencing them, or as an observer? The point of view colours the way in which the tale is experienced as a reader. Let’s take a more unusual example first: ~
You take the stairs, one at a time, ascending each tread as slowly and carefully as you may. Your fingertips brush the smooth waxy grain in the banister so that you sense many hands that have come this way before. Your eyes lift as you ascend, even though you cannot yet see what is at the top. You hear each creak as your weight shifts onto each stair….
Using second person present puts the reader directly in the position of protagonist, which can be useful where the experience is a strong part of the narrative. It is more commonly used in horror or erotica, both of which may benefit from a sense of immersion and direct involvement. A byproduct of this perspective is that it denies the reader free will and the writer is constantly in the position of instructing the reader in what they will do and how they will do it. This can be tiring as it forces the reader to constantly question whether they would follow the instructions as written. Used sparingly it can be a powerful tool, but in overuse it often becomes oppressive and fails to engage.
Shifting to third person perspective gives us a little distance and allows the writer to narrate. The following is in third person past tense:
Tony watched the street from the darkened window. His eyes sought the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He felt he was being watched, and wanted to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, told him that someone watched him in return.
Shifting that into present tense changes the mood, upping the tension:
Tony watches the street from the darkened window. His eyes seek the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He feels he is being watched and wants to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, tells him that someone watches him in return.
Comparing these two paragraphs we can see that the second is more immediate. It has a sense of tension and action that the first is denied because the events in the first example have already happened. In the second example events are happening now and things could change at any moment. For shorter pieces third person present can work very well for exactly these reasons, however over a longer piece it’s hard to maintain the tension through extended periods, especially when the tension ramps down again.
Stories have a natural rhythm of their own, and while publishers are fond of quoting books as having a pace that never lets up, in practice this reads as unnatural and forced. Everyone has to breathe at some time, even characters in a book, and if they are never allowed to consider their actions and reflect on what’s happened then it will seem as if they are flotsam, washed along by waves of events with no control or influence, making them uninteresting as characters. The best characters make the most difficult choices, but how can they choose if they never reflect on their actions?
Second person past tense is rarely used because it is a combination in conflict with itself. By placing the story in second person you are setting the reader as protagonist, but by placing it in the past you are saying events have already happened. As a reader you are even further out of control than you are with second person present.
The other main choice is first person past tense.
I was staring into space when it happened, so I didn’t really see. I could feel the wind as the tube train buffeted towards the platform and hear the grinding and squealing as the driver applied the brakes. I was part of the crowd waiting for the train. There was no sign that the guy beside me was in any distress. He just stood there with everyone else, until the train was yards away. Then he stepped forwards, leaned over the edge and toppled onto the tracks.
This is an extract from the opening of Sixty-One Nails, which is written mostly in first person perspective. The reason I chose this was that I wanted to reader to experience the discovery of the world as Niall, the protagonist, discovers it. This is both a strength and a weakness because the reader can’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t know and can’t see anything he doesn’t see. The viewpoint is vulnerable to their prejudices and subject to their assumptions. It also means we can tap into the character’s thoughts, revealing insights into their decision process and emotional reactions.
There is a danger in this that the narrative becomes introspective and locks into self-examination. The character’s voice can take on a whiny quality as they begin to wonder why all the bad things in the story happen to them. This can distance the reader from the character, undermining the empathetic relationship between reader and protagonist. The opposite can also happen, with the character seeming like an empty cypher for the story, manipulated by events and immune to the consequences. The character can seem untouchable, which distances the reader once again.
With Niall, I wanted to have someone who was completely closed off, emotionally damaged from a crashed relationship, immersed in a work-sleep cycle, a workaholic estranged parent who had locked themselves into a numbing cycle to avoid the pain of dealing with the rejection and guilt of his marriage break-up. When he has a heart attack in chapter one, he isn’t really dying – he’s already dead. He’s numb to the world and sees only what’s in front of him.
First person present worked well for this, but when I came to write The Road to Bedlam it seemed insufficient to simply present Niall’s view, especially as his view had shifted. There were things going on around Niall that he couldn’t see and we had come to know Blackbird, at least through Niall’s eyes. Including some passages from Blackbird’s viewpoint, but switching these from first person to third person, allowed me to follow Blackbird’s thread of the story without compromising the relationship. If I had used first person perspective with Blackbird the reader would have gained intimate knowledge of Blackbird’s feelings about Niall, something I wanted to explore later and which forms one of the core threads of the arc-plot.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback from a large number of readers you will find that some people expect your characters to wear their heart on their sleeve and voice their emotions openly and expressively. Others will want your characters to stop talking about how they feel and get on with the plot. The simple fact is that you can’t please everyone. As a writer, what you can do is be true to your characters. Your choice of viewpoint is linked to your expression of those characters in the context of that story and forms the basis of the reader’s relationship with the character, so it can make or break the empathetic link that is so important.
Point of view is a powerful tool for a writer and like most powerful tools should be used with care. The choice of viewpoint depends on the story and characters and provides the writer with the opportunity to zoom in to a character’s inner dialogue or zoom out to get a wider perspective.
It’s not just for insurance policies and the psychologically disturbed, after all.