Meet the Amateur’s Viewpoint

There is one sure way for an editor or publisher to find out the amateur: the viewpoint switch.

alternating viewpointFirst things first. Before we have written the first line of a novel we have to know both from whose point of view we’ll be telling the story, as well as decide whether we’ll use first-, second- or third-person narrative to do this.

Getting the viewpoint consistently right requires a great amount of skill and care. One mistake and the intended effect will be destroyed, rather like the appearance of a stain on an immaculate dress.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of common mistakes when it comes to viewpoint.

The first one is such a basic mistake that it very rarely finds itself on the page of a submitted manuscript, although if ever it does, it is a good enough cause for instant dismissal. I refer of course to:

       1. Switching from first person narrative to second, or third person. For example:

I remember clearly the first day I met Clare. She was the angriest person he‘d ever come across. We decided to go through the date anyway. I did not think that I’d ever see her again. But then Mike had been known to be wrong before.”

Although this is an extreme case, I hope it illustrates how confusing the switch in narration can be. Mike begins by telling the story from the first-person, but then quickly changes to first plural and then goes on in third, first again and third again. Confused yet? I know I am.

       2. The second type of mistake is just as easy to identify, and it refers to instances when the narrative method is consistent, but the viewpoint character changes:

“I loved the way he flipped that coin between his fingers. Heads! he’d declare with such confidence as if the outcome was fated. He was the same when it came to every aspect of his life. It was mesmerising. I knew that she liked me, admired even. What I didn’t expect was to be ambushed on a third date with silly questions about where all of this was going. Nowhere, darling. That’s what I wanted to tell her, but I bit my tongue and said instead that we’ll flip a coin for it.”

The first six sentences are written from the point of view of the female character. Let’s call her Clare. Although the narrative continues in first-person, it’s clear that the viewpoint character suddenly switched. It is her male companion, Mike, speaking next.

Although it is possible to have more than one viewpoint character in a novel, it is best if each of them have their own separate chapters or else the reader will soon be confused as to who is telling the story and when. Within each individual scene or chapter however, it is key to stick to one viewpoint.

There are many experienced writers who use the viewpoint switch to their advantage, but they will never make the switch mid-sentence or mid-chapter. That is the sign of an amateur and they will soon be found out and sent home to think again (from one point of view only henceforth, or so we hope).

       3. Have you ever come across a character who knows things they shouldn’t? Hopefully not, as such characters usually find an early death on the slush pile. Of course this is not a case of busy-bodies who shove their noses where the sun don’t shine as it were, but rather it is about characters who suddenly and incomprehensibly know what other characters are thinking and feeling.

“Mike decided that Clare will have to do. His parents insisted on a plus one, two days before his brother’s wedding, and out of all his on-off girlfriends she was the only one who was free that weekend. He watched her walk away from the table, wondering whether she danced as well as she walked. She stopped when she reached the door, turned around and waved. She thought he looked handsome in his burgundy shirt and skinny jeans.”

You may have noticed the offending line. Yep. It is the last one. It’s Mike’s viewpoint we witnessed throughout the paragraph, so how on earth is he supposed to know what Clare was thinking? This is a blatant example of viewpoint inconsistency. Unless this is a paranormal novel and we’ve already established that the viewpoint character can read minds, that line needs to be cut out and quick.

       4. The final mistake I will mention in this context is the most difficult to spot. It usually occurs at the start of a novel where we first meet the narrator: the viewpoint character that does not engage the reader.

I won’t attempt to write an example for this, because it is rather tough and I hope at least that I’ve never done it in the past and will never in the future. There are several ways however to identify such a narrator: they will be plain boring. Their voice will be bland and unoriginal. There is nothing distinctive or gripping about how they introduce the story and as a reader you won’t either like them or dislike them, you simply won’t care. The result of course is that you won’t care about the story they are telling either.

The solution is also quite simple. Get a trusted reader to peruse the first five pages of your manuscript (no more) and ask them to answer the following questions. Does the voice of the viewpoint character stand out on the page? Do they have an idea of what that character is like from those pages alone? Is their interest piqued?

If the answer is “no” to any of those questions, then it is a clear case of the viewpoint character requiring a little spicing up.

Now that we’ve got the viewpoint and narration down, we’re ready to step into character. See you on the other side. Bring me a loveable villain and a conflict-driven hero and we’re in business!

Show | Don’t Tell

You’ve just finished work on a dreary day. You may be a commuter in need of a read for the train journey home. Here is a lovely bookshop enticing you with a multitude of offerings, but which will you pick? You may be tempted to go straight for a tried and trusted genre, but even after narrowing it down to this, your job is not yet done. You will have to leaf through a few books until you find the right one for you. How will you decide?

I imagine that each of us has a different way of going about it. For me the first page is key. I will open up the book and often discard it after the first paragraph. If I’m not caught yet, chances are I won’t continue reading. If the first paragraph makes for good reading, I will continue on until I have finished the first page. In most cases, my mind is made up by the time I’ve turned to the second.

In view of this, I was not surprised to discover that 99% of manuscripts submitted to agents and publishers are dismissed on the basis of the first five pages.

Five pages? Really? Is this all the space and time we are given to prove our worth? Apparently so.

'The manuscript is 'green' because it's typed entirely on the backs of rejection slips.'That is not to say that  an agent will take an author on the basis of five good pages alone, but this is the window of opportunity to impress and to persuade them to continue reading. The writing tips I’ve shared so far were geared specifically towards this:

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— Immaculate presentation that follows the rules set by the agent or publisher in question.

— Well constructed sentences and appropriate use of punctuation to create the right sound.

— Avoiding the trappings of unsuitable style.

— A manuscript that has been purged of excess adjectives and adverbs.

— Nurturing specificity and rich vocabulary when using comparison.

— Mastering the art of writing great dialogue.

Now that our overworked agent/publisher is caught, we need to keep them on side. Would be a pity to give them an excuse to eliminate us from their must reads after a good start. They’ve made it through those five pages. They are intrigued, but their brow is knitted still. Lips pursed and pen tapping hurriedly page after page, they are searching for a weakness, something that will justify them in setting this manuscript aside and moving on to the next – there are hundreds more waiting after all. What are they looking for?

Ah yes… that good old tell-tale sign of lazy writing: too much telling, not enough showing.

SHOW | DON’T TELL

This is one message that I shout to myself every time I come across an instance of unnecessary telling in my own narrative. Telling works just fine for outlines and drafts, but when it comes to publishable stories, it simply won’t do. Let’s break it down into the Wheres and Hows:

Easy places to look for telling that ought to be showing:

A. When introducing characters or settings,

B. When giving characters’ backstory,

C. Where there are a multitude of events following one another in quick succession,

D. In the gaps between major scenes, where what happens is described rather than happening,

E. Anywhere in the narrative where there is information instead of action.

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Next, some ways in which to figure out how the telling is done:

1. Character description: This is where the fault line begins. Writers are expected to describe their characters, give an indication as to what they look like and who they are. While in the past authors could get away with paragraphs upon paragraphs of this, that is no longer the case.

When it comes to physical description light brushstrokes are preferred to in depth characterisation. For the protagonist we may get away with more, but it is still better if the description is sprinkled here and there, rather than concentrated in one place. For all other characters: pick one main feature that would set them apart from the crowd and leave it at that. Three at most if you must. If a character’s traits are all average then describing them will hardly paint a memorable picture: “Here’s average Bill meeting average Mary on an average day for an average exchange. Blah.”

To tell a reader what characters are like, on the other hand, is a big NoNo. If they are kind, catch them in the act and show them doing something that would imply to the reader that this is how they are. If they are brutal or a liar, then we must see them acting with brutality or lying through their teeth, and so on.

The same goes for places. Showing what a place or a setting is like is much more difficult that telling, but do it well and a reader will feel like they have seen it instead of reading about it in a substandard tourist brochure.

Show and let the reader come to their own conclusions about characters and places.

2. By interpreting we make the story our own. When a writer tells the reader that their character is an alcoholic then the reader has no other option than to accept this. There is no room for interpretation. On the other hand, if the reader sees the character drinking again and again they might try to find other explanations for their actions:

  • the character may be undergoing some physical strain and trying to numb it with alcohol, perhaps they were a soldier and those old wounds are still bothering them on a cold day;
  • the character may be under emotional strain: why did that phone call with their ex make them take to the bottle?
  • s/he may use alcohol to relax: are they about to take a major decision and need something to take off the edge?
  • …or to chase away bad memories. Did something happen in their past that they can’t get over? Are they drinking to forget?
  • Perhaps they are an alcoholic, but what got them there in the first place?

Even if the reader reaches the conclusion we want them to reach, by having to think about it they make the story and the characters their own. They will endow the characters with their own life experience and rich internal life. It would be a mistake to rob them of this opportunity. If the story is theirs, they will keep reading.

Show the reader a character who starves their child and they will not need to be told that the guy is a heartless good-for-nothing villan.

3. Tell and all you have is description. Show and you’ve got yourself a scene. Scenes are what make up a novel. In telling what should happen rather than showing it in action, we describe events instead of allowing them to unfold, so that the narrative reads like the outline of a story rather than being one.

It is impossible to experience something that does not actually happen. We can only get into the character’s shoes when we live the story alongside them. By showing, by going into some detail for both inner and outer life, we pull the reader into the world we’ve created.

Of course, it is impossible to dramatise every single event, so it is key to pick carefully those parts of the story that render themselves to becoming tense, conflict-filled, therefore dramatic scenes.

4. There comes a time when telling is in order. Of course, it is impossible to show everything. Some things need to be told, but when we do it with a purpose in mind it is possible to strike the right balance between the two. Here are a few examples of good places where telling is a necessity:

  • To establish narrators and viewpoint characters,
  • To allow a character to give their opinion about someone else in the story (this can be a good way of “showing” that character’s point of view, giving their perspective.)
  • To establish conflict between what a character tells us, either about themselves or someone else, and what their actions show us to be the truth (great for establishing an untrustworthy viewpoint character)

More on characterisation to follow… but if you are curious about a villain’s fate or are in the mood for a laugh perhaps Despicable Me will oblige 😉