Dealing with ‘Point of View’

In 2008 I went on a course entitled ‘How to Write a Novel’. Over a week, with expert tuition, we learned about structure, character, dialogue, all good stuff. I was hooked, with all the confidence of the novice. I wanted my tale to be multi-facetted, like a precious stone, glittering with fascinating minor characters, each of whom would see the action from their own unique perspective, adding richness and texture, etc etc. You get the picture. Ludicrous ambition.

There was another admired model of story-telling in my head, from the unlikely source of the US police drama ‘Law and Order’. Not the recent offshoots, but the old original series, with low-slung angular cars and police using public phones, and then mobile phones the size of bricks. In those early days, every episode of Law and Order followed the same formula beginning with the discovery of the crime, and usually a body, by minor characters who held our attention for only a few moments before their function is fulfilled and they disappear. These bit-part players provide a momentary, quirky (what a great word!) ‘point of view’, quickly overshadowed by the familiar detectives who arrive on the scene and take over.

When I began the tortuous journey towards my first novel I didn’t even think about whose ‘point of view’ I was writing from. I would relate the action from one character’s perspective, and then switch to another perspective within the same paragraph without any awareness that I was doing so. The idea and effect of ‘point of view’ was unknown to me. I wonder now whether it was mentioned on that first course and I missed it, or was it never raised at all?

The first draft of my novel was sent off for critical review after two years of painful effort, and six weeks later, just before Christmas, the response came back. ‘What happened to ‘point of view’?’ said the reviewer. ‘The reader sees the action from several different viewpoints within the same chapter, and some of those viewpoints are minor characters we know very little about. This is asking too much, the reader will be confused. You need to reduce the number of characters through whose eyes the story is told: two or three main characters at most. Make a choice.’

The advice was sound, but devastating. I couldn’t tweak a few things to fix the problem: the whole novel had to be started again. For a while I couldn’t face it, letting the distractions of Christmas and New Year push the troublesome task to the margins of my life. But in the end I knew that I had already invested too much in this project to let it go. I went back to the beginning and rewrote almost everything, cutting out some characters completely, changing the perspective, and reducing the overall length. It was my first painful experience of a task I heard described much later as ‘murdering your darlings’. My darlings were well and truly decimated, but the lesson was learned.

That’s enough confessional for now. I’m coming back again to the issue of ‘point of view’, but just for now Chapter 19 of Book 3 is calling me and cannot be delayed any longer. It’s ready. And I know whose point of view it will be from.

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