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Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

There is ongoing debate among novelists as to the ‘right’ way to write. There are two main groups, both roughly equal in size, with different names depending on who you ask:

Plotter

The plotter will undertake a great deal of preparation before beginning to write their novel. They will have researched their locations, will have formed their characters and know the internal and external GMC of their characters. They will have prepared a detailed outline of the events in their novel, often on a scene-by-scene basis. The plotter will know where the plot is going to go and how the characters are going to develop and change before they write the first line of the novel.

The advantage of this is it enables writers to follow their plan, ignoring all distractions and rabbit holes, and know they will finish with a well-crafted novel as major (and minor) plot or character issues will have been resolved during the outlining stage.

The disadvantage is that outlining is often seen to deter creativity and the element of surprise. After all, if the author knows where the book is going from the first page, it’s possible the reader will too.

Pantser

Other authors prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They don’t have a full written outline, and they may only have the vaguest idea of their story’s direction or the characters it will feature. As they write, they discover more information about their plot and characters.

The advantage of this is it gives an immense about of space for creativity, as the pantser won’t feel locked in to taking the plot in any specific direction.

The disadvantage is the pantser might write themselves into a hole they can’t get out of (as was done in movies such as The Matrix, or the TV series Lost). It can mean a lot of deleting and rewriting, in an effort to ensure the plot is credible and the characters believable.

Plotter or Pantster?

I suspect that many first novels are written by the seat of the pants, as first novels are often written as the author learns the craft of writing—the ins and outs of building a plot that will engage readers, an imaginary world inhabited by characters the readers can care about and root for. As they learn more about writing (and the inevitable revising and rewriting), they realise the benefits of planning, despite the initial work involved.

Equally, I suspect multi-published writers are more likely to be plotters. This might not be their preference, but once an author has a track record, they are not submitting a full manuscript to potential publishers. They are writing the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis, and the publisher will offer a contract on that basis. That’s a plan.

The Impact of Genre

Does genre have an impact on whether a writer is a plotter or a pantser?

For example, the two key features of a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America) are that the novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (the Happy Ever After, or HEA), and the relationship between the hero and heroine must be the central plot point. That, to me, says ‘outline’, as the author must show from the first page:

  • The identity of the hero and heroine
  • The hero and heroine will get their HEA
  • The development of an ongoing relationship, with a series of ups and downs

Yes, some of the details might only come out as the novel is being written, but the structure is inherent in the genre.

The same could be said for a murder mystery. The author must know:

  • Who the victim will be
  • How they will die
  • The identity of the detective(s)
  • The identity of the murderer
  • Which clues are real clues and which are red herrings
  • How the detective will identify and unveil the murderer

Other genres might be different. For example, in a thriller the reader may discover the identity of the antagonist early in the novel, and the suspense comes from not knowing if the protagonist will discover the necessary information in time to prevent another crime.

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … If I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. (Stephen King)

What do you think?

Are you an outline writer or a discovery writer? A plotter or a pantser? Have you changed since you started writing? Does genre play a part?

Plot: The LOCK Elements

Last week we looked at the GMC method of plotting and characterisation. This week we are looking at another acronym, LOCK, used by James Scott Bell to describe what he sees as the four key elements of a strong plot:

Lead – Objective – Confrontation – Knockout

Lead

A novel needs a lead character that readers can bond with:

  • We must be able to identify with the lead character, to relate to them on a human level.
  • We must have some sympathy for the Lead’s challenges, by putting the Lead through jeopardy or hardship, making them the underdog or making them vulnerable.
  • The Lead must be likeable. I’ve read too many books with an unlikeable hero or heroine. This is especially annoying in a romance, where an unlikable hero raises questions about the intelligence and discernment of the heroine (or vice versa).
  • There must be some inner conflict, an emotional struggle that catches our attention. Most of us avoid conflict in our personal lives, so there is a tendency to want to avoid writing about it. But:
We must not confuse conflict that can be ruinous in life with conflict that is the essence of fiction. Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their lives. (Sol Stein)

The reader needs to immediately know who the Lead character is, to enable us to build a relationship and develop empathy to their situation:

Ideally, the protagonist should play an important role in the first scene to avoid the reader mistaking another character for the protagonist. One of the marks of amateur novel-writing is a lack of early clarity as to whose story we, as readers, should be following. (Sol Stein)

This is one reason why prologues set in the past don’t always work: the reader is investing themselves in a character, only to find that character has no place in the main plot.

We also need to see what internal and external conflict the Lead is facing as quickly as possible:

One major problem with beginner’s manuscripts is that the protagonists aren’t pressured enough. And if a main character is not squeezed hard enough, we’re not really going to know him because we’re not going to have an opportunity to see what’s inside him. (Angela Hunt)

Objective

The Lead must have an objective, a want so strong he must have it or suffer deep loss. This gives the story forward motion. An objective could be trying to get something (e.g. in a romance, the hero and heroine are trying to get love), or to get away from something (e.g. in a thriller, the protagonist might be trying to escape the antagonist).

The objective can’t be resolved too quickly:

Everyone in your story should want something badly. Every major character should have their own script and personal goals that will, at some point, bring them into conflict with the world and/or with your protagonist. (Angela Hunt)

Confrontation

Opposition to the Lead’s objective: novels are about confrontation, about conflict. There needs to be adhesive, something holding the opposing parties together, something which prevents the Lead or opposition from walking away from the fight.

Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on? (James Scott Bell)

A clear antagonist is important for confrontation. Just as there needs to be a Lead character, there needs to be someone in conflict with that Lead:

Your protagonist needs challenges to stretch and change him throughout his story journey, and that’s the role of the antagonist.(Angela Hunt)

Note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain: it is the character whose goals are in opposition to the goals of the lead, causing conflict. In a romance, this might be the hero—she lives and works in the country; his career is in the city. This is actually more interesting than a villain, as there are compelling reasons for both views: neither character is wrong.

Knockout

The final battle, or the final choice, faced by your protagonist. Your objective as an author is to leave the readers satisfied, but in an unpredictable way.

As you can see, like the GMC elements, the LOCK elements are a combination of plot and character. A well-thought out GMC and/or LOCK will ensure you have sufficient conflict to drive your plot and allow your characters to grow and change.

Plot: The GMC Elements

GMC: Goals, Motivation, Conflict was first published in 1996, is now available as a Kindle edition, and is recommended reading. Authors who use the methodology tell me it’s changed their writing (yes, they mean for the better), and I believe them. I see too many manuscripts (or self-published books) with insufficient conflict.

The basic premise of GMC is that each character must have a goal—something they must achieve at any cost. They are motivated to achieve this goal, but some form of conflict gets in the way. The best characters have internal and external GMC.

Dixon envisages the GMC method being useful for several aspects of writing:

– plotting

– characterisation

– revision

Dixon says:

There is no right or wrong way to approach your manuscript, story idea, or revision. Seek first to understand the concept of GMC, and only then ask yourself how you can use GMC in your own work.

Commercial fiction readers expect your characters to have goals, to be motivated, and to face conflict. They expect you to answer four simple questions:

Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why not = conflict

The GMC for a character can be encapsulated in a single sentence:

[Goal] because [Motivation] but [Conflict]

This can be illustrated by Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas (goal) because her Auntie Em is sick (motivation) but she must fight a witch on her way to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (conflict) who has the power to send her home.

Dixon recommends authors create a GMC chart for each character, then examine where the internal or external goals or motivations of each character product conflict with another character:

Character

Internal

External

Goal
Motivation
Conflict

Each character should have an internal and an external goal, motivation and conflict, and it is these conflicting character GMCs which give a novel its overall plot arc.

Goal

Important points to remember:

  1. Goals must be important and urgent. Failure will create consequences for the character.
  2. Multi-layered characters have both external and internal goals.
  3. The large central goal of a character is often accompanied by a series of smaller goals, which drive the action of the book.
  4. Characters goals can change over the course of a book.
  5. All the characters in your book should have GMC.
  6. Character decisions drive the plot.
  7. Goals are not always achieved by the characters. If you choose this structure, you must satisfy the reader in other ways.
  8. Multiple goals are like meteors. They should crash into each other and have impact on your character—forcing him to make decisions.

Motivation

Proper motivation is the missing component for many authors. In fiction we have to have our characters do things they wouldn’t normally do.

When someone tells you that your story is not believable, it isn’t because you sent the characters to a space planet. It’s not because your character cured cancer. It’s because your GMC wasn’t logical. Your GMC wasn’t appropriate to your characters. What the reader is telling you is, “I didn’t believe these people would find themselves in this situation or make these decisions.”

Conflict

Quick definitions of conflict

  1. Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
  2. Conflict is bad things happening to good people.
  3. Conflict is bad things happening to bad people.
  4. Conflict is friction, tension, opposition.
  5. Conflict is two dogs and one bone.

If the conflict could be settled by a short conversation between two adults, it’s a misunderstanding:

Misunderstanding could provide a brief minor conflict, but readers get restless when you try to extend a simple misunderstanding into the book’s central conflict … If your characters in rocky relationships can sit down and resolve some misunderstanding, then you don’t have conflict.

Equally:

Bickering is not conflict. Not only does bickering fail as true conflict, it’s annoying to many readers.

And:

A string of coincidences culminating in character stupidity do not make a believable story.

This will, however, guarantee you reviews commenting on your TSTL heroine (or, less often, TSTL hero). TSTL? Too stupid to live. In the days before ebooks, these titles were thrown at the nearest wall. Now they are just deleted.

Dixon also explains why I’m an editor, not a novelist:

If conflict makes you uncomfortable or you have difficulty wrecking the lives of your characters, you need to consider another line of work.

Have you used the GMC method? Did it improve your writing? How?

An Introduction to Plot

Randy Ingermanson states the essentials of fiction are plot, character, theme and building a credible story world. Although this series of posts will focus on plot, it is inseparable from character, and the two must be considered together (as you will see over the coming weeks). Ronald Tobias says:

Plot and character. They work together and are inseparable. To understand why a character makes one particular choice as opposed to another, there must be a logical connection (action/reaction). At times the character’s behaviour should surprise us, but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened.

What is Plot?

Plot is the journey taken by the protagonist, a journey in which he or she must face a series of problems to arrive at a resolution, and experience personal growth in the journey.

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind. Plots of the body are action plots. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond). Plots of the mind are character-driven plots where the focus is on the inner workings of human nature, such as romance or women’s fiction.

Plot is not the same as telling a story:

Before there was plot there was story. Story was the narration of evens in the sequence that they happened. Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction. Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: “Why does this happen?” (Tobias).

Conflict

The basis of fiction is conflict.

All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills (Sol Stein).

Ideally, conflict should be a combination of internal and external conflict that drives both the external plot and the internal character arc:

We expect events to affect the main character in such a way that they force a change in his personality. Your main character should be a different person at the end of the book than at the beginning (Tobias).

Conflict produces character growth in real life—and in fiction. Testing our characters is the only way they can change and grow, and believable character change makes compelling fiction. This is a biblical principle:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)

A good plot has a combination of fast-paced scenes and slower-paced scenes. But there also need to be ups and downs in the plot. It can’t all be conflict, with the situation getting worse and worse for the protagonist, or the reader can start to find the book tiring (the opposite situation is a complete lack of conflict, which the reader is likely to find boring).

In order to be good to their readers, authors have to be willing to be pretty nasty to their characters. One of the first things any novelist learns is to raise the stakes. Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character, then make it worse (KM Weiland)

Equally, the reader needs to see some minor victories so they can believe the protagonist will triumph over the odds.

Structure

Novels need a structure to support the story . As a reader, I find it more enjoyable to read a novel with some editing errors but a solid plot and structure than an error-free manuscript with a plot that doesn’t engage me. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t necessarily notice the structure of the book, whether it exactly follows a standard three-act structure. What I notice is places where the plot begins to drag:

If a film or book seems to drag, it’s usually because it is off structurally (James Scott Bell).
Ronald Tobias describes the classic structure:
The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem that must be solved. The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character. Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. This want (or need) is called intent.

Once you’ve established the intent of your character(s), the story goes into the second phase, which Aristotle called the rising action. The character pursues her goal. The action clearly grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. But the protagonist runs into problems that keep her from successfully completing [her] intention … reversals. Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal.

The final stage is the end, the logical outcome of the events in the first two phases. Everything—who, what and where—is explained, and everything makes sense. (Tobias)

This is commonly referred to as the three-act structure, and will be the subject of a later post. Next week we will examine conflict in more detail using the GMC method.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 6

How Many Point of View Characters?

The final question in is how many point of view characters your novel should have.

Fewer is better.

If you are writing in first person, the ideal number of POV characters is one. If you are writing in third person, use deep perspective, and avoid author intrusions and head-hopping.

The number of POV characters will depend on genre and word count (which are also related). The purpose of point of view is to create intimacy with the characters, to make the reader care about what happens to the character. For this reason, authors tend to limit the number of viewpoint characters to between three and five in a standard-length novel (around 90,000 words). As guidelines, based on what I see as a reader:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired, approximately 60,000 words) has two points of view: hero and heroine, with approximately a 40/60 split between the two;
  • Contemporary or historical romance and women’s literature (90,000 words) has two or three points of view: hero, heroine and significant other character. This may be a best friend, or it may be the heroine of the planned sequel;
  • Romantic suspense (90,000 words) has between two and four points of view: hero, heroine, significant other character and villain;
  • Thriller (90,000 words) may have up to five characters hero, heroine (if there are romantic elements) and two or three seemingly-unrelated viewpoints, one or two of which will be the villains;
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy (up to 120,000 words) will have up to five characters: hero, heroine, sidekick, mentor, villain

Each character is someone you want your reader to get to know, to understand. If you have too many viewpoint characters, you reduce the ability of your readers to truly know and understand your characters and their motivations: “The more characters you add to the mixture, the more difficult it will become to keep up with all of them and to keep them in the action” (Ronald Tobias).

But, I hear you say, George RR Martin has nine POV characters in A Game of Thrones, the first book in his A Song of Fire and Ice saga (with thirty-one POV characters and over 1,000 named characters in the five books published so far). However, Game of Thrones is 1,088 pages long, making it almost four times longer than most published novels.

You are not George RR Martin (well, maybe you are. If so, welcome, Mr Martin).

A Game of Thrones had the length to carry nine POV characters. A standard 90,000 word book does not. And George RR Martin had been published for twenty years before he even began Game of Thrones. A multi-published award-winning author can break the rules. An undiscovered unpublished author shouldn’t. And not everyone likes even a bestseller such as A Game of Thrones: I know more than one person who hasn’t been able to get through Martin’s books because there are so many points of view. It got confusing.

So, fewer is better. Read, work out the expectations of your genre, and go from there.

How many point of view characters to you use? Is this the best number for your genre and plot?

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 5

Multiple Viewpoint Characters

My previous posts have looked at the main types of point of view and how to choose the most appropriate point of view for your novel (usually third person deep perspective from several characters, but occasionally first person from a single character throughout the novel).

This post shares my three golden rules of point of view.

Multiple Characters: Three Golden Rules

If your novel has more than one point of view character (and most do), there are three rules you must follow:

  • Only one point of view character per scene;
  • The viewpoint character should be the character who is most impacted by the events in the scene;
  • A new scene is indicated to the reader by an additional line break (or a centred *** if you prefer).

Constantly changing the point of view character in a scene is referred to as head-hopping, and is something that should be avoided at all costs in modern fiction:

When you jump from head to head, you’re trying to achieve narrative intimacy with all your characters at once, and readers will almost always find that more confusing than engaging… and readers can lose their engagement in the story.

Note that a scene is one continuous piece of action in one time and probably one place (just like a scene on television). Once the action moves to a different time or place, it’s a new scene. It’s not a new scene if you are simply adding an additional line break to indicate a new point of view character. You can, under certain circumstances, change point of view once in a scene. Only once. Otherwise it’s head-hopping, and is something your editor, agent or publisher will want you to revise and eliminate.

Remember, the viewpoint character should be the person most impacted by the events in that scene. In almost every case, this should be one of the main characters, not a minor character who only appears on one or two scenes in the entire book (there might be an exception if you are setting this character up to be the protagonist in the next book in a series).

Do you use one point of view character or more? Are they the most appropriate characters?

This brings us to the next question: what is the ideal number of viewpoint characters in a novel? I will discuss this in my next post.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 4

Choosing a Point of View

My previous posts have looked at the main types of Point of View (POV):

  • First person;
  • Second person;
  • Third person (omniscient, cinematic, inner limited and deep perspective).

Choosing the Right Point of View

How do you choose which point of view to use? In modern fiction, the only real choice is between first person and third person, ideally third person deep perspective. Browne and King say:

So what degree of narrative distance is right for you? Broadly speaking, the more intimate the point of view, the better. One of the most vital and difficult tasks facing a writer is creating believable and engaging characters, and an intimate point of view is a terrific way of doing this.

Remember that some publishers and readers won’t consider a novel written in first person. However, this is still a better option than second person (which virtually guarantees no one will read it) or omniscient (which only a very few publishers will consider. These are usually vanity publishers or small trade publishers with little or no knowledge of writing and editing, and no discernible market).

Genre may play a part in your decision: romance, women’s literature and cozy mysteries often use first person point of view. It is occasionally used in fantasy, but rarely used in thrillers or suspense. Middle Grade novels are likely to be third person but may use omniscient or cinematic viewpoint, while Young Adult novels tend to be first person or third person deep perspective.

Using Multiple Points of View

The next question is whether to use a single point of view throughout the entire novel, and whether to have a single viewpoint character or several.

Most novels are written using multiple points of view, as this provides variety and interest. However, these multiple points of view are where the new author can really get in trouble (and what shows an editor, agent or publisher that you’re a new author). There are three main ways of using multiple points of view in fiction:

  • First person point of view with multiple characters;
  • Two main characters, one first person point of view and one third person point of view;
  • Third person point of view with multiple characters.

Some novelists like the intimacy of first person, but want the variety of several characters, so write multiple characters from the first person point of view. From Browne and King:

[some authors] write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.

Translated: multiple characters in first person is not a technique for beginners. Done well (e.g. Invisible by Ginny Yttrup or Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins), it is excellent. Done badly, it is virtually unreadable.

Gayle Roper uses the technique of combining first person and third person successfully in Shadows in the Sand (with first person for her heroine and third person for two secondary characters and for the villain), but again, it is not a technique for beginners. The constant change between first person and third person can remind the reader ‘this is only a book’, as I found when reading Leaving Lancaster, by Kate Lloyd.

This is why most authors stick with the tried-and-true option of writing multiple characters from third person point of view, varying the narrative distance depending on the individual character and the genre. There is enough to learn about writing without making life difficult by choosing a point of view that is more challenging to write well. Experiment with multiple points of view by all means, but learn the basics first.

What point of view do you use?

My next post will share my three golden rules of point of view.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 3

Third Person Point of View

The previous posts have defined first person, second person, cinematic and omniscient point of view. This post will continue looking at third person point of view, this time focusing on what is most commonly seen in modern fiction: inner limited and deep perspective.

Inner Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her. Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is a mindreader, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene. This is the viewpoint favoured in modern fiction:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example is rather distant, in that the reader is watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. The reader can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘thinking’ inject narrative distance and remind us that this is just a story. This technique has some uses in modern fiction (like cinematic point of view), but can feel distant if used for an entire novel as it fails to engage the emotions of the reader. The solution to this is a deep and more intimate third person point of view, almost like first person.

Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.

At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as at home in Hatfield. Deep breath. What to do? There were no new books, nothing to sew and no one to talk to until the guard arrived with dinner. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was still prison. A gilded prison, so here she sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell (184 words compared to a mere 65 for the cinematic example).

To better understand deep perspective point of view, I recommend Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, a well-known Christian fiction author. It is short (63 pages), but well worth reading. It is available at www.Amazon.com for around USD 5.99, and can be read either on a Kindle e-reader, or on your PC by downloading the free application.

The next question is which point of view to use. This will be the subject of my next post.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 2

Omniscient and Cinematic Point of View

The previous post defined first person and second person point of view. This post starts our discussion of third person point of view, which uses pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘her’. It is the most common point of view in both contemporary and historical fiction, but there are several degrees of third person, and it is important to understand the distinctions between them.

Unlimited or Omniscient POV

Some people see omniscient point of view as one end of a continuum of a range of third person viewpoints, while others see it as unique and separate from third person. I include omniscient in third person because it is written using the grammatical rules of third person, and uses he/she and his/her pronouns.

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London as the guard entered with her breakfast. She should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. He knew many people who didn’t have these luxuries at home, never mind in prison. Elizabeth was waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Mary was afraid of Elizabeth, afraid of her popularity with the common people, and afraid she might fight for the throne as that wretched Jane Grey had. She was dead now, having paid the ultimate price for the ambition of her father.

Unlimited is the omniscient external narrator, who not only sees everything but knows what is going on in the minds of all the characters as well. This was the favoured point of view in the past, but can be seen as confusing for the reader (see how the example moves from Elizabeth’s mind to that of the guard, then to off-stage Mary?). Modern fiction prefers a more intimate point of view where the reader can see inside the mind of the main characters—but only one character at a time.

The advantage of omniscient point of view is that the reader gains a level of perspective over the whole story. The disadvantage is that the reader doesn’t feel any intimate connection with any of the characters. Many readers dislike the omniscient point of view, because it can lead to moralising author intrusions (‘she should be grateful’), and is thought of as old-fashioned and patronising.

The other disadvantage of omniscient is that it is hard to write well. The above example isn’t true omniscient: it’s third person with head hopping. True omniscient point of view has a separate narrator with a distinct voice, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Princess Bride (which has been criticised in reviews for the author intrusions).

Outer Limited or Cinematic POV

Outer Limited describes the action through the eyes of an external narrator who sees only the external, observable actions and dialogue but none of the thoughts or feelings of the characters. James Scott Bell describes as this as Cinematic POV, and I consider his description makes the concept easier to understand. If the reader is only seeing what a camera would see, the point of view is Outer Limited:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. The room wasn’t a typical prison cell: the walls were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was of high quality. Elizabeth sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen and her enemy.

This is distant, and like omniscient point of view, it tends to tell the reader rather than show, and doesn’t give the reader that much-needed intimate connection with the characters. However, it can be a useful point of view in certain circumstances. It is often used in thriller and suspense novels to show what is happening away from the sight of the main characters (e.g. the villains making their plans), and the narrative distance it provides can be useful when describing certain scenes (e.g. physical violence).

The next post will move into the most common point of view in modern fiction: third person inner limited.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 1

Introduction to Point of View

One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is getting the point of view (POV) correct, and it is one of the major issues for many first-time authors.  Sol Stein considers that point of view “is possibly the most mismanaged aspect of the writer’s craft”. The basic approaches are:

  • First person;
  • Second person;
  • Third person;
  • Omniscient (which some writers see as a type of third person).

This post will look at first person and second person point of view, with examples that break several of the rules of modern fiction but are written purely to illustrate the different points of view:

First Person

First person uses ‘I’ as the personal pronoun, taking the reader inside the mind of one particular character, able only to think, see and experience from the viewpoint of this one character:

I sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits my station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but it is still the Tower of London. It was still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, I still sat there, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen, Mary, my half-sister and now my enemy.

First-person point of view gives narrative intimacy, the feeling that they are getting to know this character’s deepest thoughts and emotions. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King say:

In order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head. Also, what you gain in intimacy in first person, you lose in perspective [and] your readers get to know only one character directly.

Note that some readers don’t like reading novels written from the first person point of view and some publishers won’t accept first person manuscripts, so choosing this option might limit your market.

Second Person

Second person uses ‘you’ and ‘your’, putting the reader inside the story:

You sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits your station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but this is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, you are still sitting here, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen, Mary, your half-sister and now your enemy.

This feels contrived. You are not Princess Elizabeth, so are you really going to sit through a 90,000 word novel and pretend that you are? Second person works for instructional non-fiction, and is the mainstay of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books, but it is not considered appropriate for novel-length fiction. In the words of Newman and Mittlemark (authors of the tongue-in-cheek How Not to Write a Novel):

Certain late twentieth-century novelists used the second person singular successfully—notably Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. But there it ended. In fact, it was named the “second person” when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last. Very occasionally, an editor sees past the contrivance and buys such a book—on the condition that the author revise it completely into a traditional third-person narrative.

The next post will move two misused points of view: third person unlimited and outer limited (also known as omniscient and cinematic).