Monday, 13 April 2015

Week Twenty-One: Narrative Choices

Week 21 - my blog comes of age!

First off, a huge thank you to everyone who has bought the ebook of this blog so far. Every single purchase is vastly appreciated. And thank you to those who have spared the time to review the book too. It has seven 5 star reviews so far!

You really do make a difference to a book's success by buying and reviewing. So thank you.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I expanded the first 20 weeks of this How To Write A Novel blog into a great value ebook, and you can download it for only £1.99 here:


So, onward and upward!

This month I've been looking back through some advice I gave to writers a few years back when editing women's fiction for Salt Publishing. While rummaging through those old documents, I found some interesting thoughts on narrative voice and point of view characters, and decided to share them on the blog.

The voice you adopt for each novel is a vital thing. It informs your entire book from line one, and can make or break a story. Yet it's surprising how few writers invest serious time in considering the voice or voices they have chosen to tell their story. This is something I've had to think about quite frequently myself over the past year, because even though I have nearly thirty published novels, and dozens of short fiction titles out there, you never stop learning new tricks in this business, however old a dog you become.

So I thought I'd discuss narrative voice this week.

Choices over the kind of narrative voice we use in each story seem to happen instinctively for most people. This may be because voice comes first for them, like a whisper in the dark, or because experienced writers have an instinctive grasp of the whole from the part.

To expand on that last idea, the first scene, the first line, even the very first word you choose to write: these should automatically inform the book to come. They tell us upfront who's speaking - and perhaps as crucially, why. They may suggest character, plot, motive, context, even ultimate destination. It is not too far of a push to say that the first page of a novel can behave like a blueprint of the whole novel. Macrocosm and microcosm in perfect harmony. The big in the small, and vice versa.

At least, that's the ideal. How does your first page measure up?

  • Check your first line. Does it intrigue? Does it suggest? Does it cause a double-take?
  • Have you in some way invoked the magical territory, as the storyteller does with the traditional line, 'Once upon a time ...' ?
  •  Is the character whose voice we hear powerfully drawn enough from word one to make us stop and settle down to hear his or her story?
  • Voice is the writer's as much as the character's. What about your first page tells us what a special writer you are and why it would be worth reading your book?
  • Can we 'see' what is going on? This is a visual age so don't neglect to build a picture in the reader's mind. Whatever you see when you close your eyes and think of that first page, THAT is what you need to draw with language.
  • Clear, broad, generous, confident gestures. Don't skimp. Give them the works.

Giving the reader the works ...

The novel I'm working on right now is becoming an impromptu experiment with point of view. This is mostly designed to obfuscate - great word and much-underused - a plot twist that I need to keep buried as long as possible, but also to solve a narrative-specific problem I had. The jury is still out on whether it will work, but right now the book is being written in both first person and third person.

Fussy? Possibly. Confusing? Maybe that too, but I do want the reader to be pushed a little off-balance by the telling. Hopefully though not so much of either of those that the book will fail because of it.

Intention is everything with narrative choices. Doing something like that - splitting the narrative in some unorthodox or risky way, or stretching it out to include more than two or three point-of-view voices, for instance - just because it sounds like an interesting idea ... That's never wise. It's a literary move, perhaps. To experiment is a natural urge for an avant-garde writer, and thank goodness someone is doing it for those of us who can't. Genre writers tend to follow a smoother, better-worn path where narrative is concerned. The tried and tested. But the slippery narrator is everywhere today. The strange but intimate little voice in the ear, spooking and confusing and charming and intriguing the reader. That's what many editors are looking for right now. Only it takes nerves to go after that with real gusto. To take the inevitable risks and hope someone left the safety net in place. Because sometimes, when you do it, even the editor who asked for such things specifically may back off, saying, 'Actually, no. It doesn't quite work. Good luck elsewhere.'

These are some of the obstacles we face as writers. The stick, and nothing but. The poisoned carrot. The hand that turns out to be empty when we tap it. The bottle of air.

So why keep writing?

I know why I keep writing and trying to sell novels, by hook or by crook. To eat, for sure. To pay my bills and keep a roof over my children's heads. But also because I cannot countenance making my living, or whatever scratchings I can make if a living is denied to me, in any other way. Despite all the hard knocks and betrayals, this is still the business for me. Putting down a word like the first stone in a drystone wall. Then another. Then another. Then another. And watching a new world begin to take shape from that silent accretion. Because the rush of a well-wrought sentence is better than cocaine.

QUESTION: If your narrator is not secretly you, who the hell is it?


  1. Hi Victoria
    I have a question about POV in Romance.
    How do you maintain the suspense and mystery in a Romance when using double POV, and therefore telling the reader what both sides are thinking?

  2. Hi Martha! Good question. The important thing to remember about POV is that YOU as the writer are in charge of what is revealed. So while you may be inside a character's head, that does not mean you need to tell the reader everything that character is thinking. Or you can hint that you're not getting the full picture. You can also fall back on a few common romance tropes if in doubt - they H/h hate each other on sight and don't understand that it's sexual attraction until late in the story; or there's sexual attraction but for some reason they consider the other person not right for them, i.e. the other person is believed (wrongly, of course) to have done something dreadful. There are many variations on these, which allow the reader to think, 'will she, won't she?' long into the story. Alternatively, as I say, you can control what is revealed by having their POV not 100% transparent. A good way to practise this is to write in a very blank way, that is without indicating emotional response:

    Sally looked across the room. Jack was standing by the window, talking to a very attractive brunette. He seemed to be engrossed in her conversation, his gaze never leaving her face. Sally turned away and sipped at her drink. Gosh, she thought, it's hot in here. Why don't they have air-con?

    We get hints from that about how she's feeling. But nothing explicit. Yet it's her POV. So either she knows she's upset but is suppressing it, or she doesn't know and interprets her unease as physical discomfort. Either way, it's more subtle and potentially more interesting to read than the traditional method of internal monologue: 'She hated it when Jack showed any interest in other women; he was her husband, God damn it!'

    Hope that helps. But maybe someone else will have another approach?

    Thanks for the question!

  3. Hi Victoria
    That's really helpful, thanks. I will file your answer away for later use!


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