Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

The other week someone asked me how many points of view it’s possible to have in a novel. It’s a tricky question. The best answer – certainly for novice or learning novelists – is ‘one’. That’s the simplest.

Wright_Typewriter2It’s simplest because the author is dealing with but one major character arc, and a single point of view can be handled from various writing angles – first person singular (‘I’), as if the novel was a personal narrative. The reader only gets to see what the narrator sees. It’s closely related to ‘third person singular’ – which is the same as first person, but where the author steps back and refers to the lead character as ‘he’ or ‘she’.  But they don’t reveal anything that anybody else sees.

Both angles offer differing advantages, depending on what the author has in mind. With first person singular, for instance, it’s possible to play with styles. The classic, to my mind, is George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in first person singular in the style of a ‘found’ nineteenth century memoir, to the point where one reviewer thought it actually was. Brilliant. It’s harder to produce that sense with third person singular, where the writing style is more independent of the content. But that independence may be what’s desired.

Handling multiple points of view – in effect, treating every character as a lead – is possible but quite tricky to accomplish well. It virtually dictates that the novel has to be written from ‘third person plural’ perspective – ‘he’ or ‘she’ perspectives, covering multiple people. It’s possible to play with styles and voices to give a different feel to each narrator. But it carries structural complexities – the multiple ‘lead’ character arcs have to be very carefully planned so they mesh properly around the plot, as just one challenge.

Great novel writing definitely includes multiple POV. But I would not recommend this for novice authors. Nor would I recommend it for a contest like NaNoWriMo – it’s too time-consuming to get multiple POV right. I can be done, of course – but don’t forget, what I’m talking about here isn’t just how to write fast. It’s how to write fast with quality. Some forms of writing – well, they impose speed limits. And multiple POV is one of them.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

One of the key things all novellists have to master is the character arc. It’s fundamental to the nature of the novel  – the reason why readers become emotionally engaged. Usually, the arc of the main character dictates the fundamental plot structure of the novel.

Wright_Typewriter01So what is a ‘character arc’? At basic level, it’s the journey a character takes as a person. They learn something. They develop. They change. The plot and events of the novel will always be about how they make that change. What does the character need to learn? How can they discover the better person they probably already believe themselves to be?

Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s all about Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal character arc – his transformation from a mean-spirited Grinch into a kind and generous man. The whole of the plot is subordinated to that goal. So how does Dickens handle it? Very, very unsubtly, broadly as allegory. That, of course, is why this tale is such a great way of exploring the integration between plot and character arc. Several key points emerge:

  1. Scrooge doesn’t know how to find his own joy. So the key tension of the character arc is going to be one of self-discovery. Undoing self-delusion is one of several possible character arcs.
  2. The plot of the story takes us on a journey through that character arc – it is designed to show first how Scrooge has insulated himself from Christmas joy, then how he is made to discover himself. It’s not subtle – nor did Dickens intend it to be. When the transformation is complete, we are shown how Scrooge has become a different man. The narrative ends there because there is nothing more to say about Scrooge’s transformation. The story is over.
  3. Dickens didn’t ‘pad’ the story with any unnecessary events. Everything was subordinated to defining Scrooge and taking us on a journey through his character transformation.
  4. The drama came wholly from within Scrooge – driven by that internal transformation. It didn’t rely or need external crises, adventure or other setting. And that’s the best way to develop story drama.

If you deconstruct other stories you’ll often find much the same thing – Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance, which is the classic hero journey.

Plot and narrative, in short, all swing around the needs of the characters. Something writers have to bear uppermost in their minds when plotting out their novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Finding the balance between writing well and writing weird

Here’s a thought for you as you prepare for NaNoWriMo or that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Archaeologists recently discovered a wind instrument, a bone flute, on which it was possible to play the Star Spangled Banner. The holes in the instrument had been spaced in a way that matched a modern scale.

Wright_Typewriter01Sounds ho-hum, but this instrument was 30,000 years old. It had been fabricated at the height of the last Ice Age, which means that the musical intervals that sounded pleasing to its makers were the same as the intervals that sound pleasing to us.

The same, it seems, is also true of stories. Humans are story-tellers. Three-act stories seem to be part of every culture around the world, cultures that are rich and diverse within themselves, but which all build their story-telling around the same basic structure.

We write in three-act structure, in short, not because it’s dull and conventional, but because it works. Like our sense of tone, we seem to be hard-wired for stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there have been efforts to change that from time to time – avant garde thought experiments – but they have never quite grabbed and captured in the way that the classic form does.

That’s an important point when constructing a novel – and especially when building one that has to be knocked through in thirty days, like NaNoWriMo. Although that doesn’t mean being boring. The trick is being different enough to be interesting – without dislodging the essential structure that readers identify with, expect and which – as I say – appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.

More soon – check back for regular posts on writing structure, writing technique – and writing inspiration, coming up through October and into November.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Solving the biggest NaNoWriMo challenge

The biggest challenge in the 50,000 word/30 day NaNoWriMo challenge – or, indeed, for any writing defined by word count – isn’t actually meeting that target. Yes, you do need to meet it – but that isn’t the real issue.

Wright_Typewriter2The real challenge is making the structure of what you write work to the 50,000 words – meaning proper balance between beginning, middle and end. That’s harder than it sounds. Any writing must have proper structure and pace for it to carry the reader on the essential emotional journey that lies at the heart of the art.

The exact proportions will vary depending on the purpose and intent of the writing, however as a rule of thumb for a novel plot you might think about 20 percent introductory, 50-60 percent expository and 20-30 percent ending. There are a few principles:

  1. Don’t use the beginning as an information dump. That’s not what it’s for. Beginnings are there to unfold the characters to the reader – to reveal what the character needs (as opposed to what they want). Call it Act 1.
  2. Keep the expository tight. Does a scene advance the character’s journey down their character arc? No? Cut it. Think of the whole as Act 2.
  3. The pace has to rise and fall in a series of rising waves until…
  4. The ending – which is the final point where the events leading the main character down their arc come together in a final challenge. This is the third and final act in the story.

From the viewpoint of writing, the purpose of the “50,000 word” length – and of keeping tally of the words – isn’t to hit a daily target of 1667. It’s to allow you to put approximate scale to the three acts and their components. If you’re running outside that scale, there’s likely to be something structurally awry.

Why is this important? Because if you get the structure right, everything else follows. After NaNoWriMo, you’ll have a good basis to build your novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pantsing and planning your writing

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Project planning? Sure. There’s a school of thought that urges writers to indulge in free-flow – ‘seat of the pants’ writing. You start off with a blank page and start typing, following your imagination. Hey, apparently Stephen King does it, among others.

Actually, none of these writers quite do that. There’s a distinction between writing to produce a great novel that’s going to appeal to its audience – capturing and holding a reader – and just writing for the joy of it. The former is what professional writers do, and it’s often hard work. The latter’s a form of entertainment for the author, a pastime.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So what’s really happening when a top author ‘pantses’ their way through a book – and how do they make it work?

Several factors are at work here. The first is that these people are experienced – they’ve paid their dues, they’ve become ‘unconsciously competent’ at their craft. Writing is part of their soul. Words are their servants – these authors don’t struggle with the mechanics of styling or composition. They know how characters work, what constitutes a character arc, and how that integrates with a tight plot.

More to the point, most of these writers have also done the necessary groundwork and planning for their book. Isaac Asimov once summed it up. He never plotted a novel out as such – but he always knew where it would end. That gave him the direction to aim for. And it was essential.

All these authors, in short, blended planning with free-form; they had the structure of what was to be done – and then used their imaginations and competent writing skills in free-flow creativity around that skeleton. Best of both worlds.

This points the way forward for all of us. It takes about 10,000 hours – or a million words – for an author to make the transition from the first halting steps when they don’t know what they don’t know (‘unconscious incompetence’) through to realising what they don’t know (‘conscious incompetence’), familiarity with what’s needed (‘conscious competence’) and then – finally  – the glorious moment when writing becomes part of their soul (‘unconscious competence’).

There are no short-cuts. And that learning never stops – all writers are, really, apprentices at their craft. But the onus is also on to have a good foundation – and it seems to me that the best-of-both-worlds approach to planning and free-flow is an excellent approach for all writers.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: three steps to starting that novel from scratch

So you’ve got a novel lined up to write – maybe for NaNoWriMo. Where to now? My take is to start from the fundamental principles. What is the novel doing? And no, don’t tell me the plot. What is its purpose?

Another photo I took of Giverny, same specifications as the other.

Photo I took in Giverny – Monet’s garden. This garden was made for one purpose – to draw an emotional reaction through art. Identical purpose, in fact, to a novel.

I say all this rhetorically. A novel, like all writing, has to take the reader on an emotional journey – and it has to be able to first capture the readers with that journey, and then hold them. To do that it needs a specific structure – one that not only contains a well-paced plot, but which integrates that plot with the development arcs of the characters.

On the face of it that can be daunting to disentangle, but it’s absolutely essential. Books that fail to integrate plot, character and pace will also fail to capture readers. It’s one of the reasons why novice writers shouldn’t ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story, unplanned. Doing so reduces the act of writing to personal entertainment – a pastime that has meaning for the author – but the results aren’t likely to grab many others. Yes, there are ways of ‘pantsing’ and it’s a valid technique, but it has to be handled properly – more on that soon.

So how do you disentangle the complexities of character arc, plot and pace to produce an integrated whole? My take is this:

  1. Start with the lead character. This is the heart of the emotional journey. Use a piece of paper to plan out their character arc – the ‘start point’ for the character, how they change, grow or develop as characters; and where they end up. This is the basic pacing skeleton for the story. Why paper? Because it forces you to think differently than if you’re typing. It’s a key tool at this planning stage.
  2. Do the same for any supporting characters – noting that their character arcs need to be different. Indeed, the difference between needs, wants and the ‘turning points’ when a character grows is one of the essential elements needed to drive tension in the story.
  3. On another piece of paper, develop the plot skeleton – key events, the actual settings and so forth, structuring it around the fact that the key turning points in your lead character’s development arc are what gives true emotional drama to the events. Write down the key elements and line them up with the pacing skeleton based on the lead character’s arc.
  4. Stick the whole thing in a drawer for a week. Then pull it out, get a fresh piece of paper, and copy-write the structural lists on to it. Why? Because the act of doing so makes you think about it – and if a new idea occurs, include it. Wash, rinse and repeat as necessary until you’re satisfied that it all works together – that your character arc and the dramatic plot points are meshed.  Work on it. And, all going well, that should give a basic structure for the story.

Of course, there’s a lot more to writing fiction than this – a lot more, indeed, to planning content. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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