Making a start
It’s all so simple, right? You have a story sketched out, you already know the characters, you’ve got a great idea for an ending. So, let’s just start...
But, woah there, hang on. So you start writing and let’s say you’re writing in third-person POV – he said, she said, they thought. Things are ticking along nicely. From here, you can jump from this character to that one and back again because third-person let’s you do that, right?
Well, yes, technically it can... But is that really the most effective way to tell your particular story? And what if readers get confused jumping from one person’s viewpoint to another? What if you get confused and start inadvertently switching between points of view? What if there is no one character your reader can empathise with and the story is shaping up to have less impact than you thought it would? Arghhh...
Stop for a minute and think.
If you wrote two books, each with the same storyline but from a different point of view, you would end up with two very different books. Likely, one will be more effective than the other. As I’m sure you don’t want to try this in order to find which version you’d prefer, it’s imperative you take time at the start of your project to determine which will work best for you and your book. Once you've committed, it'll be hard to turn back. Think carefully through each of the options, keeping your characters and storyline in mind. Imagine how your story might be interpreted differently with each style.
Where does the reader stand: Inside the narrator’s head
Useful for: Character-focused narratives
First-person is one character’s viewpoint. It’s personal, up-close, and usually – but not always – the main protagonist. Your reader will get pretty familiar with the narrator-character and this should help build empathy across the invisible divide. The reader has intimate access to the character's thought processes and opinions.
But, the reader only has this character's viewpoint to go by. This person could turn out to be biased, a liar or untrustworthy maybe, all of which can add an interesting perspective to your story if this is your intention. Unreliable narrators are great but hard work - they must be presented in such a way that the reader understands the space between what is being said and what is reality or truth. On the other hand, this narrator-character may be just as normal as you or I (you are normal, right?), but events conspire to send this person on a journey that could best be described through an intimate - first-person - portrayal.
There can be more than one first-person viewpoint in a novel. Perhaps your story has multiple voices, allowing your reader to make a whole host of intimate connections, and see events unfold from a myriad of standpoints. Be careful, though, too many voices and careless ‘head-hopping’ will have your reader in a spin and will likely put them off altogether. If you’re going to have more than one first-person viewpoint, handle them with care and clarity. Alternating chapters is a commonly used technique for switching between points of view.
Third-person subjective (limited/multiple POV)
Where does the reader stand: Outside a character’s head but with access to their thoughts, feelings and experiences
Useful for: Character-driven narratives
This is either one character’s viewpoint (limited) or multiple key characters' viewpoints, told from a hidden narrator’s perspective. There is still an intimate connection between character and reader, but with a little extra distance to allow the reader a broader perspective. From this position, the reader can witness both the inner and outer personas of the character - what they think versus what they actually say; how they feel versus how they present themselves. Using limited POV you will be restricted in your movement around scenes and settings, but will be able to create a focused and intimate account for your reader. Using Multiple POV, you will have the advantage of telling the story from different angles, e.g. the killer versus the detective, although you will need to make clear at all times whose viewpoint is taking centre stage and when (again, alternating chapters is a common and effective technique).
Where does the reader stand: Outside the characters’ heads, as observer of all characters and action at any time
Useful for: Plot-driven narratives
This is the least intimate viewpoint, and thus you may have to work harder to gain your reader’s empathy for the characters. Whilst you have greater movement to pass between scenes and events here, without intimate thought access you will need to connect your reader to your characters through dialogue, action and description. In other words, your readers will need to draw their own conclusions based on what they observe to be happening before them, or on the way the narrator guides them.
Where does the reader stand: Outside the characters' heads and alongside the narrator
Useful for: Using the narrator as an additional character, or a simple relaying of events
An omniscient narrator is identified as all-seeing and all-knowing. This narrator has access to all events and all characters' thoughts in your story and thus can move about at will. They may have a personality of their own, injecting the narrative with their own opinions, or they may take a step back, merely informing you how events unfolded. Personally, I think omniscience really works best when your narrator becomes the extra character, directing your thoughts (reliably or not) and putting an additional spin on the story. Here is an example from Alcott's Little Women (Good Wives):
"And here let me premise, that if any of the elders think there is too much 'lovering' in the story, as I fear they may (I'm not afraid the young folks will make that objection), I can only say with Mrs March, 'What can you expect when I have four gay girls in the house, and a dashing young neighbor over the way?'" (Oxford University Press, 2008 ed.)
Where does the reader stand: Face to face with the narrator
Useful for: Creating a sense of speaking directly to reader
This point of view is rarely used throughout an entire fiction novel, mostly because it’s a difficult perspective to maintain and keep fresh over a long body of work. Here the reader is almost implicated in the story, becoming a character in the story, even if the ‘you’ being referred to is another character in the book or another side of the narrator himself. It’s a more commonly used point of view in non-fiction or instructive text, such as this one where I’m directing my advice to you, the implied reader.
Stream of consciousness
Where does the reader stand: Inside a character’s consciousness
Useful for: Capturing the subconscious mind; experimental
Okay, so here’s a tricky one, descending from the modernist period (Richardson, Joyce, Woolf). It can be highly effective (see Ulysses), highly confusing (see Ulysses), highly amusing (see Ulysses), or a mixture of all three (see ... well, you get the picture). As it involves a delve into the thoughts of the inner mind and all its equally connected and disconnected wanderings, it's a wonderful technique for capturing subjective thought and motivation, but off-putting and too meandering for some readers. Your intended genre and audience is key here (otherwise it'll stand out like a sore thumb), as is the duration of stream-of-consciousness narrative – short bursts are generally preferable to hold the reader’s attention and understanding.
Where to now?
If you’re still unsure, try writing a scene or one whole chapter from each of the above perspectives. This way you’ll get a real feel for how the different viewpoints could impact your book and how your story is told. Make sure you find the right fit for you and your story – you'll be sticking with it for a long time. And when you've made that decision, be consistent with your choice from beginning to end. Take notes if necessary to remind yourself what your chosen point of view will and won't allow you to do.
Remember, how you present your story will affect how the reader perceives it, so it's not a step to take lightly.
References and Recommended Books
Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings (2006), Edited by Linda Anderson, Routledge in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes.
The Creative Writing Workshop (2001), Edited by Julia Bell & Paul Magrs, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London.
The Five Senses of Setting
How to Self-Edit: Common Issues & Solutions
Creating Chaos: Techniques for Developing an Unstable Narrator
So you've finished your book. But... have you really finished?
Q. If your next step is pressing the PUBLISH button, is there more you could do to make your book even better than it already is?
Q. If your next step is hiring a professional editor, is there more you could do to save yourself money?
1. Read aloud
Not just the dialogue but all the narrative. If something doesn’t sound right as you read, it won’t sound right in your reader’s head either.
When you are reading aloud, be conscious of your use of punctuation marks – be guided by these rather than by your expectation of how the story should read. This will give you a good sense of whether you have the pauses in the right places and the emphasis where you intend it to be.
Reading aloud will also highlight the ‘rhythm’ of your narrative – whether your sentences are too similar in length and tone; how often you may have repeated the same words or phrases; if the pace of your writing is fast or slow in the right places. Remember: long, drawn-out sentences slow the pace down. Short ones quicken it.
Common issue: Repetition
All writers, unwittingly, have a go-to set of words or phrases they like to use. Often they are little aware of how often they revert to their favoured choices, but to a reader repeated words will begin to glare like a beacon and distract from the storyline.
Read often and read widely to broaden vocabulary. Keep a thesaurus handy. Stephen King advised against using reference books on a first draft. I completely agree. Your first draft should be driven by your imagination and creativity only – using the tools you carry in your mind. But when you get to the editing stages, it’s time to take all those reference guides back out of the cupboard and use them as much as you need to.
2. Read more than once for more than one thing
This may mean reading every passage or chapter several times, each time focusing on a different aspect of the narrative. E.g. read once for plot – is the story advancing at the right pace? And read again for technicalities – is the punctuation in the right place? Are there spelling errors or issues of grammar you may need to look up?
Common issue: Unfinished work
Writers want to write. They do not want to edit. Not when there are professionals who can do that bit for them. But... ‘The only kind of writing is rewriting’, Hemingway said, and he couldn’t be more right (excuse the pun). Whilst most writers will give their early draft at least a cursory editing glance, all too often they rush their work to the next stage – professional editor or even agent submission – well before the work is ready, thus harming their chances of success and often their pockets too.
If you’ve taken the time to write the novel, take the time to edit it as much as you are capable of. You will be giving yourself and your work the respect and opportunity it deserves if you work on it as much as you possibly can. Be patient and don’t let it go too soon. Getting a novel out quickly will be scant compensation if you've skipped vital stages in its production.
3. Make lists and keep them handy
You may of course do this already, but if not there’s no time like the present to begin. You’ll need handy go-to reference guides on:
Some writers swear by their notes and wouldn’t dream of beginning to write a novel without them. For other writers, too much note-taking dissipates the desire to actually write the thing. I can fully empathise with both approaches. So whilst some writers will have lists longer than the one I’ve suggested here, others might resist entirely. However, for the sake of their work, those resisting would be wise to keep a Character list at the very least, and also a Settings and Timeline list if at all bearable. Having a quick-glance reference checker could keep you on track and save a lot of time and money at the professional edit stage.
Common issue: Inconsistency
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to keep track of all the elements needed to make up an entire imaginary world and all the people in it. Notes and lists will help enormously, but given the scale of what you are trying to do, somewhere along the line, errors will still inevitably creep in.
Hire an editor. Okay, okay. I hear you groaning. No, this is not a shameless plug - you are safe to keep on reading. For all the editing you do yourself, for all the rules you follow, and advice guides – like this one – you read and adhere to, your manuscript will still benefit from another pair of eyes. Ideally, this is a professional (looking for inconsistencies is their speciality), but if not then a beta reader/family member/friend may be able (and willing) to at least draw your attention to any clear areas of confusion within your story.
4. Put your manuscript away and forget about it
I can’t emphasise enough what a difference this can make to your work. At this point, you may have drafted and redrafted and then edited and re-edited, and are now so sick of your story and your words, you can’t wait to be shot of it. But... now that you’ve put in all this work, are you really willing to rush through the next part, potentially throwing all that energy and creativity away?
You’ve heard this before, but it works. Trust me – it will be worth it. Even if – and it’s a really unlikely IF – after that break you still don’t spot any glaring issues or things that have been missed, you will at least have given your work the respect it deserves. Leave it the minimum of one month without so much as peeking at it. Ideally, leave it much longer. You will come back to it fresh – almost with a reader’s perspective – and any issues will leap out at you, leaving you wondering how you hadn’t noticed them before.
* Every writer and/or editor is not worth his salt without a good selection of reference materials. Here are just a few of the ones I use, but there are many on the market (including those accessible online), which might be better suited to you:
Collins Easy Learning Grammar & Punctuation (2009), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow
Collins Concise Thesaurus (2003 ed.), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow
The Chambers Dictionary (2003), Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh
New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (2014 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors (2014 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford
Webster's American English Dictionary (2011), Federal Street Press, Springfield
Help... What Sort of Edit do I Need?
Lost the Plot? How to come up with story ideas
The Five Senses of Setting
Point of View: A Short Guide