Arrghhh. Math. Sorry, but it’s the best way I can explain this concept. What this formula means is that just because you can buy a best-selling book written by so-and-so, the famous writer that does not mean you can write a similar book and get it published.
What I’m talking about is those people who sit there and complain that their book is just as good as such and such and, damn it, they should not only be published but have a bestseller. Also, those people who look at book number 5 from a best-selling author and complain about how bad it is. Yes, there are many book number 5’s from best-selling authors that if they were book number 1 from a new author, would not get published. But the primary thing that sells a book is the author’s name. I’ve always said Stephen King could write a book about doing his laundry and it would be on the bestseller list. Stephen King earned being Stephen King and to misquote a vice-presidential debate, I’ve read Stephen King and you ain’t no Stephen King. Neither am I.
Another thing people do is they see a technique used in a novel and use the same technique, and then get upset when told it doesn’t work. They angrily point to the published book that has the same technique and say, “SEE.” Unfortunately, what they don’t see is that that technique is part of the overall structure of the novel. It all ties together. I’ll discuss book dissection to study various aspects and techniques and I still stand by that; however, I also remind you of the story of Frankenstein. Just because you can put all the pieces together, that doesn’t mean you can necessarily bring it to life. There are some techniques that only work when combined in context of other parts of the novel; thus using it in isolation can be a glaring problem. You can’t take the beginning of one bestseller, tie it in with flashback style from another, and have a similar flashy ending as another and expect the novel to automatically work.
Every part of a novel is a thread connected to all the other parts. Pull on one piece and you pull on them all. Tear apart a novel or a movie and see the pieces, but then be like a watchmaker and see if you can put them all together again as the writer did and if you understand why they go back that way.
For example, Quentin Tarrantino ignored the classic three act screenplay structure with Pulp Fiction. Yet the movie was a great success. So therefore, a number of new screenwriters decided they didn’t need the three act structure. However, what they failed to see is that it was not so much the unique story structure that made Pulp Fiction such a success, but rather the intriguing dialogue. Tarrantino’s structure without the Tarrantino dialogue would have spelled failure.
It is also more important to figure out what is working and why, rather that what you feel didn’t work in a book you read. An attitude that will serve you little good is the there’s so much crap on the shelves in the bookstore. I admit that there are times when I am looking for something to read, and I stand in the local supermarket looking at the paperbacks, that I really can’t find anything I want to read or that sparks an interest. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s all crap.
I had to do this many times. I’d read something I might not like, but it seems to be selling quite well. Instead of dismissing the rest of the world as stupid, I try to find what it is about the book that people like. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same thing, but it does broaden my horizon.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little fire burning deep inside believing you are better than those people getting published, but I think that’s the sort of thing that should be used to fuel your writing, not expressed loudly so everyone can hear it.
John Gardner once said that every book has its own rules. Remember that when you examine a book to see what you can learn from it. Look at the parts from the perspective of that book’s specific rules.
And coming 24 August and available for pre-order: Time Patrol: Black Tuesday
A key concept here is the concept of a ‘cut’. When a film director yells cut, he means one of several things: first, in all cases, he’s stopping the camera that is currently filming. Then he is going to:
Leave the camera with the current point of view character, but is moving that character off-screen to another time and/or place and then restarting the camera.
Take the camera from the current point of view character and give it to another character who will then ‘film’ the scene. This scene could be in the same place or a different place. It could be the same time or a different time. If it’s the same time, then the reader is getting the same scene from different POV characters and you must have a very good reason for doing that because it’s head-hopping.
Regardless, what you must do is make sure the reader knows you, as the author, have done a cut. The reader must know within the first paragraph after a cut which character now has the camera. I recommend against doing a cut in the middle of a scene unless you have a specific purpose for doing so.
Another factor in third limited is that each point of view character is literally going to have a different point of view. Each is going to see the same situation differently. As the author this requires you to shift your perspective as you write to the various POV characters and even write each one slightly different in terms of style.
There are what I call first-third stories, where the book is written in third limited, but there is only one point of view character. An author might choose to do this as an alternative to the problems of first person POV.
How many points of view can you handle? Exactly how schizophrenic are you? It’s a question of your ability as a writer. If you aren’t an expert at POV I’d recommend limiting the number of POV characters as much as possible. One thing I stayed away from in my thrillers was getting into the POV of the antagonist. Because the antagonist knows his dastardly plan and I don’t want to reveal it to the reader. Remember, you can’t cheat your reader by going into the POV of a character and withhold information they know from the reader.
There are several problems with too many POV characters beyond just your ability. If you have too many POVs, you will reveal a lot of information to the reader, but not to the other characters. Thus your reader will end up knowing more than your characters, which could end up being an awkward situation as you try to get some characters up to speed on information they need to know but which the reader already knows. You could end up writing some really boring scenes for the reader.
Another problem with too many POV characters is you diffuse attention from your protagonist. The reader spends so much time in points of view outside of the main character that they lose focus.
Third Person Limited
Everything is channeled through various characters’ points of view
Cuts have to be very clear to readers
Each POV character must be distinct
First, third stories
Cutting in the middle of a scene: is there a purpose
How many points of view can you—and the reader—handle
Too many POV characters: The reader ends up knowing more than any of the characters
Diffuse attention from your protagonist
The line between Third Limited and Omniscient is a thin one
“My candle burns on both ends;
It will not last the night.
But oh my foes, and oh my friends;
It gives a lovely light!”
This point of view has its advantage in that the narrator is telling his/her own story. The major disadvantage is that the reader can only see and know what the narrator experiences and knows. You, as the author, are absent in this mode, thus you surrender part of your control in writing. Remember, the first person narrator is not you the author, but rather the character in the story. The narrator can be a witness or a participant in the story.
Note that there are certain types of genre that fit first person very well, most particularly mysteries/detective stories. That’s logical if you understand the advantages of first person: by using that mode, the writer can bring the reader along for the ride, disclosing clues as the narrator discovers them.
The major disadvantage of first person is that your narrator has to be present in every scene. Because of this, many writers make their narrator the protagonist. A problem can crop up in that the narrator will then be a critical part of the plot and have many things happen to them and around them. Will the narrator be able to react realistically while still telling the story in a coherent form?
Another problem can be the logistics of getting your narrator to all the key events in order to narrate them. I have seen writers end up with very convoluted, and unrealistic plots in order to do that. If the narrator isn’t present at these important scenes, then they find out about them by other means, which can lessen suspense and definitely lessens the immediacy of the action in the story as you have major action occurring offstage.
Some authors use a narrator who isn’t one of the main characters—what is known as a detached narrator. The narrator is more of an observer. This has some advantages. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories—who is narrating? Watson. Why? Because this allows the author to withhold what Holmes is thinking from the audience.
Something else to think about—should the reader believe your narrator? If everything your narrator says is fact, then there might not be much suspense. But think about the movie The Usual Suspects. The story is narrated by a character, who it turns out, is the man everyone is searching for. In a book, you can raise suspense if your first person narrator is caught in a small lie early on in the story—the reader will then have to be more judgmental about everything else the narrator says.
Another big issue of first person narration is the issue of tense and time. There are two ways to view time in a first person story:
I remember when. In this case, the narrator is telling the story in past tense, looking backward. This immediately reduces the suspense of whether the narrator survives the story. There is also the issue that the narrator is thus withholding information from the reader—the narrator obviously knows the ending, yet chooses not to reveal it to the reader.
In real time. The narrator is telling the story as it unfolds around him or her. A problem with this is what happens when the narrator is involved in an emotionally overwhelming event? Will he still be able to narrate the story?
The big problem with time sense is that even the best writers tend to mix 1 and 2 above. At times they will be in real time, then every so often slip into past time. Additionally, to give you an even bigger headache, both are usually written in past tense. So how do you write a real time story in past tense?
A further problem with first person is many writers tend to slide from first into second person point of view. Any time you put you in your narrative, addressing the reader, you have moved from first to second person.
There are ways to get around the disadvantages of first person. Examine some first person novels and you will discover them. Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice is an interesting use of first person and the title tells you why. She has the first person of the reporter start the story but shifts into a first person narrative by the vampire Louis through the medium of the interview. She can go back in time with Louis and then return to the present with the reporter, both in first person. She has two levels of interest and suspense: the present fate of the narrator, and the fate of the vampire in his own tale.
There are other novelists who have come up with novel ideas (pun intended) to tell first person stories while getting around some of the disadvantages. Present tense is an option.
I place great emphasis in my own writing career and when teaching upon reading and also upon watching movies/videos, but I watch videos and read books in a different mode as a “writer.” I study them for structure. To see what the author/ screenwriter/ director did with the subject matter. How it was presented. When you pick up a novel, the first thing you should note is what person it is written in. Then ask yourself why the author chooses that point of view. What did the novel gain from that point of view?
When I give examples in a little bit, you will see more clearly the advantages and disadvantages of first person.
One thing about first person to keep in mind. It is the voice most novice writers naturally gravitate to, but it is one of the most difficult voices to do well. Because of that, there is an initial negative impression among agents and editors when confronted with a first person story.
Narrator is not the author
The narrator always has the camera
Narrator has to be present in every scene or get information second-hand
Works for mysteries
Hard for thrillers
Detached narrator: Sherlock Holmes
Believable narrator: The Usual Suspects
First Person Time Sense
I remember when . . .
Already know what happened and are withholding
No suspense over fate of the narrator
In real time
Come along with me
Emotionally overwhelming events
Both are usually told in past tense. which further confuses things
You usually end up mixing the two modes
And coming next month, 24 August: Time Patrol Black Tuesday. 6 missions, all on 29 October, six different years; all in order to save our timeline. Roland fights with Vikings against kraken and berserkers in 999 AD; Scout is in the era of free love and more at UCLA in 1969 when the very first Internet message is sent; Mac is there in 1618 when Sir Walter Raleigh is to be beheaded; and three more years.
After many years of writing and teaching novel writing, I firmly believe that perspective or point of view is the number one style problem for most writers. It is also one of the easiest problems to correct with awareness of both the problem and possible solutions. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick with the term point of view, although it is interchangeable with perspective.
Here’s a question: What is reality? Ultimately it’s what someone perceives it to be. Thus there is no one, singular reality among people. Thus your choice of the point with which to tell your story taints the story for the reader. The same story told from two different points of view is a very different story.
In real life if three people see an event, you have three different points of view. When writing your story, the point of view the author chooses to channel the scene through is the point of view the reader gets.
So who is telling the story? You are. But whose voice does the reader ‘hear’ when they read? The point of view through which you relate the story. It could be yours in omniscient voice, or channeled through various characters in third limited, or simply be a narrator telling a story in first person.
When considering how to tell your story, the first thing you have to do is select a point of view. This may be the most critical decision you have to make. Often the type of story you are writing will clearly dictate the point of view, but a good understanding of the various modes of presentation is essential because this is one area where beginning novelists often have problems. They may select the right point of view, but it is often used poorly because of a lack of understanding of the tool itself.
Regardless of which point of view (or points of view) you choose, there is one thing you must have: you as the author must have a good feeling about the point of view with which you are telling the story. If you don’t have a warm and fuzzy about that, this confusion will most definitely be translated to the reader. Remember, ultimately, point of view is your voice as a writer.
Some people write like a music video: point of view flying all over the place, giving glimpses into each character but never really keeping the reader oriented. I say this because the best analogy I can give for point of view is to look at it as your camera. You as author are the director: you see and know everything in your story. But the reader only sees and knows what the camera records: the point of view you choose. You must always keep that in mind. You see the entire scene, but your lens only records the words you put on the page and you have to keep your lens tightly focused and firmly in hand.
The key term to know, like a director, is the word ‘cut’. A cut in film terminology is when the camera is either a) stopped, then restarted later, or b) stopped and another camera is then used. To a writer, a cut is a change in point of view. In a music video, they go about three seconds before having to ‘cut’. Robert Altman, in the beginning of The Player, uses an extremely long single camera sequence before the first cut—another reason to watch the film.
The most critical thing to remember about point of view is that you have to keep the reader oriented. The reader has got to know from what point of view they are viewing the scene. Lose that and you lose the reader. Thus, as with everything else, there is no wrong point of view to write in, or even mixture of point of views to write in, but it is wrong to confuse the reader as to the point of view through which they are ‘seeing’ the story.
Take the camera point of view a bit further. When directors do a scene, they immediately look into a viewfinder and watch the recording of the take. They do this because, although they saw what happened, they have to know what the camera recorded. As an author, you have to get out of your own point of view as the writer and be able to see what you write as the reader sees it.
What point of view do you write in and why did you choose that point of view?