THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

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Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

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By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

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This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!

Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

Ten top storytelling tips from Homer

Last night Achilles and Hector were duelling it out again on British television. Achilles’ roar was as alive as ever. What is it about Homer’s storytelling that makes it work so well after nearly three thousand years? Can we bottle it and have some?

This week let’s look at The Odyssey, a work that has been recast and rewritten maybe more than any other in human history. What can we learn?

  1. It’s a perfect quest

The quest is the simplest plot structure of all. Your main character wants and needs something urgently and goes to the ends of the earth to get it.

After ten years, the Trojan war is over and Odysseus can finally set off for home. He didn’t want to be at war in the first place: when Menelaus came gathering all the other Greek kings for support, Odysseus’s young wife Penelope had just given birth to a son, Telemachus, so ‘wily’ Odysseus pretended to be mad to escape the call-up and sowed salt into his fields. It didn’t work. Menelaus knew him too well; he had to honour the one-for-all treaty and go.

To say Odysseus gets a bit lost on the way home from war is an understatement: his journey takes him another ten years through lethal seas, mythical terrain and an inner exploration that has kept readers, filmmakers and academics rivetted ever since. In his The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says, ‘there is no more complete and profound version (of a quest) than The Odyssey’.

  1. It’s two perfect quests

As JS Bach knew, we love a bit of counterpoint where two tunes fold together into a more beautiful combination than either one of them alone, and the same is true of storytelling. If you can do two things at once in your story, try it. The first four books of The Odyssey are about the quest of Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) to find his missing dad. His quest mirrors his father’s and both combine in the powerful ending.

  1. Start in the middle

Homer’s two great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are both thought to have developed from a tradition of epic tales recited orally. If you have an audience full of good food and chat, wine and flirting, you need to start well, as any after-dinner speaker can tell you. So, the Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to start ‘in media res’, Latin for ‘in the middle’. Horace said that was the proper starting point for an epic, or indeed any story.

You don’t need to start in the high crisis of a battle but it’s important not to hang around. Above all, do not begin with undigested slabs of character biography, no matter how much Dickens got away with it. Your readers will wander off, as I expect diners did thousands of years ago.

Homer (whoever she, he or they were, nobody knows) could have started The Odyssey story with the beginning of the Trojan war, or with scenes of victorious Greeks waving the big man off afterwards. Or while Odysseus is facing one of his tests. Below is JW Waterhouse’s painting (1891) of Odysseus resisting the Sirens …

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Instead, we begin at the point of maximum distress for the three main characters:

  • Odysseus has just managed to escape seven years of miserable captivity with Calypso and is telling his story (after a meal) to his saviours before they help him on his way back home. Let’s absorb this for a moment – almost all of what we know as The Odyssey is told in flashback.
  • If Penelope were a widow, she’d be quite a catch so her home fills up with men jostling to persuade her into marriage. She holds them off, refuses to choose, still hoping darling Odysseus will make it back to her, but there’s a grisly stand-off going on around her while the ‘Suitors’ eat her out of house and home, help themselves to the servant girls and generally make the whole place hell.
  • Their son Telemachus can’t endure this wretchedness at home either. When Menelaus lets him know that Odysseus is being held captive, Telemachus heads off to save him.
  1. If you can do two things at once, why not three?

The Odyssey and Iliad are both double-layered. The ancient gods play active roles, champion their own favourite humans and set up traps and mischief for ones they don’t like. Homer invented this, by the way. This is not how Greeks of the time thought about their gods – it’s a storytelling trope.

When the Trojan prince called Paris falls in love with Menelaus’s wife Helen and steals her away to Troy, that is Aphrodite at work, igniting the story of The Iliad. It’s the goddess Athene who supports Odysseus against Poseidon, a sea god who has it in for him.

Zeus (top god in this pantheism) calls a ceasefire on godly interference in the Trojan war after Hector’s duel with Ajax, then lifts it to release the final stage.

This godly layer of the stories is usually left out of adaptations these days but it’s a pity to lose such mighty divine characters throwing their weight around.

  1. Magic realism is as old as time

You can have reality mixed with witches, cannibals, giants, gods, rocks that shift around, sea monsters, all at the same time. We have always loved it.

  1. Homer’s theme winds through every segment

What is The Odyssey’s theme? The need for home and peace? The struggle of an old soldier to find his way back into civilian society?

Classicists contend that the theme is really ‘xenia’. It means hospitality – sharing food, welcoming strangers, listening around the table – with elements of peace and shalom.

Breaking the rules of xenia brought unhappiness and violence in the Ancient Greek world; xenia could bring foes together in peace as we saw last week with Priam and Achilles.

Every element of the Odyssey story has xenia at its core. Calypso is all about glorious sensual hospitality, except that she won’t let Odysseus leave.

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Arnold Bocklin’s painting (1883)

Polyphemus eats his human guests – what more gross abuse of hospitality can there be? Penelope’s ‘Suitors’ are overstaying their welcome, if they ever had one, and are abusing her generosity. On the other hand, when Odysseus finally reaches safety, he is nourished and looked after, tells his story in an entertaining way and, when the time is right, his hosts help him safely on his way – perfect xenia. For a more about this, I recommend Emily Wilson’s wonderful new translation, the first ever by a woman.

  1. Your characters can be as complicated as you like

Odysseus is a powerful athlete and an old man, a beggar and a king, victim and aggressor, adulterer and adoring husband, a liar we trust, heroic ‘city-sacker’ and somebody who did not want to go to war. In The Iliad, even fearless Hector tried to run away at first rather than duel with Achilles. Homer knows all our hearts and sees into all our conflicting corners.

There’s no need for your characters to be consistent. If you do your character work well, you’ll know how to play their different shadows.

  1. Tricks to identify characters

In the long academic debate about who Homer was or whether the poems were initially oral or written, a key clue to their oral heritage lies in what are known as Homer’s epithets. You’ll have heard maybe of the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘wily’ Odysseus, ‘prudent Penelope’. Aphrodite is always described as ‘laughter-loving’ even when she’s wounded on the battlefield.

The ancient storytelling bards used epithets to give them time to think while the story bowled along. (This was discovered by Milman Parry, an American classicist who rocked the world of Homeric studies when he published his studies of Serbo-Croat oral balladeers in 1960.)

We can use tricks too to help readers conjure up our characters quickly. I’m thinking of Blind Pugh’s tap-tap-tap, Bill Sykes’s dog, Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’. A kind of code is dropped into the reader’s memory so that slabs of description don’t have to hold up your story.

  1. The best stories have family at their centre

Though we think we’re 21st century sophisticated people, the human heart hasn’t changed all that much in three thousand years. The best stories have family at their centre.

  1. The best stories can come from strangers

As Emily Watson says in the final paragraph of her introduction, kindness to strangers can lead us to the best stories too.

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Happy writing!

 

Old friends

‘You can’t make old friends’, said the late Christopher Hitchens. Romantic love can come and go but a really solid friendship year after year, there’s no treasure like it.

Whenever we’re writing fiction, there’s pressure to edit out everything that doesn’t propel the story along, so a main character can have just a friend or two, or none. In reality, most of us gather friends through every phase of our lives.

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SHORTCUT

You can save first draft time, once you know your characters well, if you give some thought to what binds friends together. Stand back from your main story and plot their friendship over the years like a love story: how do they meet, what obstacles does their relationship face, how do they stay together, or not? In the usual scribble-chat way, ask each of them separately to answer these questions for you, taking as long as they like:

  • How did they meet?
  • How are they together when they’ve only known each other a short time?
  • What do they have in common at the start?
  • How does their warmth develop?
  • What is in it for each of them?
  • Where are the tests in their bond? What difficulties have they recovered from, or not?
  • How do they work things through together?
  • How are they when they’ve known each other ten or more years?
  • What secrets do they have from each other?
  • What do other people think of them and their friendship?

Not all of this needs to go into your draft but you may well discover useful things that give you the nuance and plausibility you’re after. Old friends’ answers don’t necessarily match of course.

Some of the most memorable stories have friendship at their centre, dating right back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, written around 2000 BCE. It’s often opposites who attract, not just because it makes the story bubble but because it happens in life. That’s why we believe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are great mates, Horatio and Hamlet, Frodo and Sam, Ratty and Mole. Jane Austen uses the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas brilliantly to point up the economic crises they both face in Pride and Prejudice, and solve differently. Jane Eyre and Helen Burns bring Bronte’s particular palette to Jane’s story from its outset.

My favourite of all is the exquisitely written friendship between Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander series, that survies war, poverty and wealth, even their being in love with the same woman.

What are the things to avoid whenever we’re writing close friends?

  • No exposition please or dumps of backstory where they tell one another things they already know. Sometimes we do this with each other as a rove down memory lane but swathes of dialogue where they tell each other how they met and who their girlfriends are? Just delete it, your readers will catch up.
  • Friends have familiar or code words that mean more to the two of them than to anyone else. Watson understands who Holmes means when he refers to ‘the Woman’, for example.
  • They are likely to have usual places where they eat, drink, laugh, maybe described with a code or nickname.

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Friendship doesn’t always go well of course. Banquo could tell you that, after his old friend Macbeth has him and his son Fleance killed. Shakespeare allows Banquo some wonderful supernatural – or is it psychological? – revenge.

Sometimes friendlessness is the point: Ralph is a decent soul in Golding’s Lord of the Flies so his isolation in the face of appalling bullying is all the more heart-wrenching.

We writers are always snappers up of life’s unconsidered trifles so next time you’re with your dearest friends, take a close look at how you are together. What are the traces of your friendship that anybody can see from across a room? Where are your depths, how the two of you hide them from the world? I’m not suggesting for a second that you betray your friends, just study how you are together. Your fictional friends will benefit.

Fictionalising real people

Flaubert said of Madame Bovary that she was himself. We can’t help putting something of ourselves into just about every character we create. What if the basis of your fictional character is someone you know but you don’t want them to know it?

A warning. Imagine that your book has been published and your friends are around you at your launch.

2009-06-30 19.00.13The minute they open that book of yours, many of them will scour it looking for themselves. And they’ll find themselves in the most unlikely places.

This seems to be first cousin of their belief that everything in your book literally happened to you, no matter how far your book’s world is from your life. All we writers can do is shrug and say we made it up:

‘So you killed your husband and buried him in a volcano in Borneo?’

‘It’s fiction but if you want to think that, feel free.’

‘But that sober, handsome warrior chief who’s seven feet tall and wins prizes for his shortbread, he’s the image of your husband, isn’t he?’

‘If you want to think that, feel free.’

As long as they buy your book, they can think what they like.

You do want to avoid libel though, as it’s expensive and exhausting and publishers do not enjoy it. So how do you fictionalise a real, living character?

It’s simple really: just change a few vital things.

On one side of your page or screen, jot down a few details about the real person you want not to write about: full name and nickname, physical description, age, ethnicity/provenance, education, finances/job, family status, address, living alone or not, essential elements of personality, sexual orientation, secrets and world view. A few sentences of pub conversation are enough for that last one.

Down the other side of your page, name your fictional character and take a few minutes to imagine him or her. Then, opposite the list you’ve made for the real person, describe your fictional character aspect for aspect.

Make sure that some important aspects are radically different from the real person. Two or three will be enough.

Now you are ready to do your character interviews afresh to build and discover this new person. Drill down deep, unlock those secrets and that voice, and soon you should find yourself in the company of someone unrecognisably different.

That’s all there is to it! It’s especially important to give your fictional person a different name from the real one – please don’t be tempted to give them the same initials or even the same rhythm in the name – and this exercise works especially well if you alter age, gender, education, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.

It’s worth giving a thought to why you are incorporating a real person into your novel when there are so many wonderful characters to be made up. Have a private scribble about why you feel you must write about this person. Why do they fascinate you so much? Do they encapsulate something about your story’s theme that makes their presence invaluable? Or – it’s important to be honest with yourself now – are you writing this real person into your work because you want to have the last word in some way, even revenge?

If the last is the case, your book may well suffer. My character interview shows you how to combine closeness to your characters with (towards the end) the vital detachment that keeps your story in balance and stops it straying into cliche.

Next week we’ll look at how we write about long-term friends.

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Have a happy writing week!

Your character interviews all in one place

An external description of your character is not a bad place to start. It’s not essential for your reader to have detail about how your character looks, walks etc. but you should have a pretty clear idea. It’s not just about hair colour, it’s about how they move and speak too.

Most of all, it’s how they feel. Then you know what drives them. Once you know what drives them, they’ll write the story for you.

EXERCISE

You are watching your character from afar as they go to work. Describe them leaving whatever transport they use, walking in the street, moving towards their place of work, taking off their outer garments and taking up their place. If they work at home, describe the move from domesticity into whatever it is they do. Where are the telling details: how they sit, how they feel in their clothes, how aware they are of others around them, how they react to others’ approach?

Try this exercise again, the same place and actions, but this time it’s the character doing the talking. Describe the internal monologue (first person) as this daily process unfolds.

Back to our scribble-chat interviews with our character. To start with, imagine you’re conducting an interview with your fictional character as if you’ve just met. By the end, you’re the very best of friends. Please feel free to fill it out as much as you like with musical tastes, what’s in her/his bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits, anything you like:

  • How do you look? To yourself? To other people?
  • What is your name? Who gave it to you? Have you a nickname? Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?
  • Your age? How do you feel about it?
  • Where do you live? Why do you live there? How long have you lived there? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live?
  • Who do you live with? Describe the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that?
  • Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language?
  • Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Are you youngest or eldest, or where in between? Who is emotionally most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with and why? (Yes, this is me up the Cave Hill with my dad!)
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  • What’s your education? How did you feel about it then? How do you feel about it now? What would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why(not)?
  • Do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job? Etc. (Take time to get your character to talk freely about this. We learn a lot about people from their jobs: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of your personality and sometimes that can produce a crisis or neurosis. Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it freely and it’s often where people find life partners. All great material.)
  • What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night when you can’t sleep?
  • What is the music you love, your favourite art and other artefacts? Your most prized possession – why?
  • What makes you laugh most?
  • Any favourite rants?

It’s time to go deeper:

If it hasn’t happened already, let the character speak from now on (on your page or screen) for as long as she/he wants. Good questions come in pairs. Any one of these answers could take a whole day or even a weekend:

  • What are the early successes you’re most proud of?
  • Your early failures ditto?
  • What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to?)
  • What for you is perfect happiness? Perfect misery?
  • What is your greatest victory? Greatest defeat?
  • Greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Greatest trap? Greatest escape?
  • Greatest delight? Greatest fear?
  • Greatest happiness and joy? Greatest sadness? Most painful memory?
  • Greatest achievement? Greatest loss?

You can develop this in whatever way you like, and feel free to keep going after you’ve started writing your draft.

What are your character’s places:

Home, travel, work, hobbies, favourite place in all the world etc.

Secrets:

Again give your character as long as he or she wants to answer:

  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • Are you now or have you ever been in love?
  • What was your first sexual experience?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret?
  • Have you ever been betrayed?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? How do you justify this to yourself?
  • What do you most regret NOT having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

SHORTCUT

Let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I want …
  • I need …
  • I regret …
  • I love …
  • I hate …

Though you might not know it yet, these answers form the engine of your story. Short, snappy answers are truest.

A little objectivity …

Sleep on what you’ve done so far. Have a walk, coffee, spend time with friends.

When you’ve left your interviews behind enough to be objective about this person you’ve created, ask yourself these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

The Big Ones:

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your character as author, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain? Expand. This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What does this character actively want in this story?
  • What does she/he actually need?

The answers to these last questions help your plot to come together. Don’t bother to be conscious about this – just keep walking and pondering and what you need will come to you.

Incidentally, I found this on twitter – scientists have proved what we writers have known all along: writing is good for us. Have a happy writing week!

You, me, I, she – what’s this Third Person thing all about? – Point of View, 2

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter is a central skill in writing fiction. Close engagement with a character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your reader with you.

Writing in the first, second or third person is a stylistic choice for you as author. Sometimes it’s altered in later drafts at a publisher’s or agent’s suggestion, or because of your own gut feeling that something else might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.

Which ‘person’ is which?

EXERCISE

In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:

  • Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’
  • You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.
  • Write a police report of the same incident.
  • Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.
  • A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’

The first is writing as I is the first person. So is the paramedic.

The police report is in the third person, using s/he.

Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.

The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.

1st = I, we, me, us.

2nd = you.

3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.

Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.

THIRD PERSON – advantages

  • We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.
  • It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.
  • An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.

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Third person – disadvantage

  • A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?

EXERCISE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Dear Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person; we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.

Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).

How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.

Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.

What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?

SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.

FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Dickens was very fond of it too.

First person – advantages:

  • Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.
  • Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.
  • Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, a timely piece (though it was written in 1936) which isn’t for the squeamish but which displays beautifully how internal debate can be written.
  • If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you can blend into first person accounts easily.
  • Your ‘I’ can be honest or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.
  • Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.

First person – disadvantages:

  • Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.
  • While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.

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EXERCISE

It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:

  • Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’
  • Is it from a single viewpoint or many?
  • Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?
  • Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?
  • Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.

As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.

Next week we’ll be back to character work. There’s lots more still to do there.

Happy writing!