When you’re a fiction-writing novice like me, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Not only had I never written fiction before I started on my first novel in 2008 aged sixty, I’d never learned anything about writing, no courses, no books, not even in a book club, although I read widely and daily. In those circumstances I embarked on the novel with confidence born of ignorance. I thought I could put words together quite effectively, but I hadn’t thought about structure or any other key questions. First person or third? Past tense or present? Plot-driven or character-driven?
In Part One of what was to become a trilogy I started with two questions for the reader: who pushed Alice in the river, and would the abandoned child ultimately find his mother? It was only after a year or two of hopeless meandering and some very critical professional feedback that I realised that neither of these questions really mattered. The most interesting questions were: why does cautious Jessie take a lover, and then another, and what happens when the abandoned child turns up twenty years later.
The key point raised by my ‘reviewer’ (Sarah Bower for The Literary Consultancy) was that I didn’t seem to understand ‘point of view’. Whose eyes are you looking through, Sarah asked; whose ears hear what’s being said? In the draft that I submitted for critique the point of view sometimes varied randomly from one sentence to the next, as if the narrator of the action was formless, slipping at will into the shoes of whoever might be around in the scene. I wasn’t bothered whether the eyes and ears were those of a major character or a minor one. I called it kaleidoscopic, she called it a mess.
My reactions to the critique were classic: for a number of weeks I put both it and the manuscript aside and refused to think about them. Then I decided that ‘point of view’ was a pretty silly concept and therefore it couldn’t matter much. In the end I bowed to the unavoidable conclusion that my reviewer knew much more about writing fiction than I do, and that I should think more about what she had suggested. Choose two or three characters to carry the ‘point of view’ she had said, no more. Make it clear to the reader whose point of view is paramount, chapter by chapter. If you want to change it within a single chapter do so carefully and purposefully.
It was soon very clear why I was tempted to either ignore the critique and abandon the whole project or carry on regardless. Limiting the points of view in this way changed everything. Almost every chapter would have to be re-written. And then another realisation hit me: if I wanted to tell a complicated story with very limited points of view, some of the details would have to be conveyed indirectly as none of my key protagonists could realistically be involved in witnessing the action directly. Sounds complicated, and it was. The first draft of the first novel took two years, and the radical redraft a further two before I had anything that was worth polishing. The effort involved, sustained by only a faint glimmer of confidence in the potential outcome, nearly finished me off. It was only stubborn determination not to waste the effort completely that finally pushed me to finish ‘A Good Liar’, cope with the repeated generic brush-offs from agents and decide in the end to publish the book myself.
The second and third parts of my trilogy have continued the decisions about third person, past tense and two or three points of view adopted for part 1. But now I’m thinking about what to write once the trilogy is complete, which should be summer 2014. Knowing what I know now, what different choices could I make about the next novel I hope to write?
My own reading has become more analytical, more aware of tenses, voice, dialogue and structure. Maybe reading fiction is like watching cricket: you never really understand what’s going on unless you’ve played it yourself. And I’m still thinking about ‘point of view’. If you choose the singular point of view, as in Jane Austen, all the action and details necessary for the reader have to be conveyed through the eyes and ears of one person. That person has to be in every scene, witnessing the action directly or hearing about it from someone else. Unless this key protagonist is merely the constant recipient of other people’s news, he or she has to drive the action forward by their own actions, or inactions.
I recall reading Robert Goddard and wondering why his protagonists seem so prone to getting drunk, or over-sleeping, or other mistakes that lead in turn to twists and crises in the plot. With only one point of view there’s no other way to drive the plot forward. Those same necessary personal frailties apply in spades to various contemporary fictional detectives – Morse and Wallender to name but two – who are irredeemably prone to aberrant behaviours, depression and dysfunctional personal relationships. How else can drama be created?
As writers we are faced with a choice of singular, limited or multiple points of view. What are the implications for both writers and readers? Do different genres necessarily deal with this issue in different ways?