Writing Your First Novel: How Viewpoint Affects Show & Tell
An understanding of how to use Viewpoint correctly is crucial to the success of writing your first novel. A history book may tell you about a particular event, or period in time, on either a personal level or a grand scale; a text book on psychology may inform you about behaviour; a self-help book may even apply that knowledge in such a way that it may become learned behaviour. But a novel, as I’ve said before, is about people. And what none of these books does is to involve the reader in a person’s internal thought processes, and external response to any given set of circumstances in the way that a novel does.
SHOW AND TELL
The vital difference here is in the words I’ve underlined: tell; inform; apply; people; involve. A novel does not set out to tell, inform or apply – though, in the course of its various storylines, factual information will be conveyed. A novel’s purpose is to engage the reader in the journeys undertaken by its characters in pursuit of their goals.
In order to achieve this, your novel will be broken down into sections, within each chapter, and each of these sections will focus on one main character at a time. So a chapter may have four or five sections: Section 1 may focus on Character A, Section 2 on Character B, Section 3 on C, finishing with A again.
Each character in turn will show their section of the storyline, in keeping with their character; prompted by their own internal thought processes; and triggered by their own perspectives, values, opinions and beliefs. The reader should feel as if he or she is living inside the head of each character. Everything on page should be filtered through the Viewpoint of the character whose section it is.
FILTERING INFORMATION THROUGH VIEWPOINT
Let’s have a look at all of this in practice. For copyright reasons, it is easier if I use my own work to give you an example. In the opening section of Chapter One of A Painful Post Mortem, I need to convey a fair amount of information to the reader:
The small cramped hallway in which I’m standing is
communal to the four flats in this section of the low-rise
building. Unwilling to be engaged in small talk by any of my
neighbours, I pick up the package and the remainder of the post and
make my way upstairs to my own front door. The apartment, purchased
by the pooling of resources when Richard and I married, is on two
levels: hall, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and master bedroom on
the first floor; and under the eaves a large lounge, small
study-cum-second bedroom and adjoining toilet and shower.
With no high rise building in the immediate vicinity, the entire living area is filled with a wonderful sense of airiness and light which, when we were property-hunting, immediately appealed to my need of space and tranquillity. Both are rare commodities in the city, and I’ve enhanced the illusion of outdoors-come-in, through a combination of window boxes, indoor plants, and a décor of winter white with highlights of sharp limey greens and citrus yellow. Since privacy is not an issue, calico curtains suffice at the windows, softening the contours with their billowing folds.
The furnishings are now faded and worn, but in all the nine years that we’ve lived here, the different nuances of sunlight by day and lamp light by night have never failed to surprise and delight me. Today, everything jars!
LOCATION & STATUS ARE CONVEYED
Some writers (and readers) may consider this overlong, but look again at how much ground we’ve covered. The reader now knows:
- exactly the sort of property in which Claire (the first person character in this excerpt) lives (a low-rise block of flats)
- the accommodation
- the décor
- the location (the city)
- the aspect (light and airy)
- her marital status (to Richard, for nine years)
- and relationship with him (equality – indicated by the pooling of resources).
CHARACTER IS COMMUNICATED
In a different sort of book, all that information might just as easily have been conveyed to the reader in a Tell style: i.e. reported as straight facts. But because it is filtered through the Viewpoint of this first person character, Claire, she is Showing the reader her personality in numerous ways. She’s probably an introvert because she favours space and tranquillity, airiness and light rather than the hustle and bustle of small talk with her neighbours. Her surroundings matter to her – she’s taken the trouble to theme her décor on the outdoors – but she isn’t fazed by its shabbiness. She’s content. More than that, we read that she delights in what she’s created.
TENSION IS DRAMATISED
And this is the crux of the whole piece – that delight is shattered. We know how she used to feel – in all the nine years . . . Then suddenly: Today, everything jars! After all the long, flowing sentences conveying facts and riddled with description, that last sentence pulls you up short. In three terse words, the reader knows exactly how Claire is feeling: the stress she’s under.
Imagine writing these three paragraphs through, say, the eyes of Richard. Because he’s male, he is far less likely even to notice his surroundings, much less comment on them. And if he were to do so, it’s doubtful – unless he were an interior designer – that he’d imbue the colours, the style, the ambience with any emotional significance. The best we might expect from him is a comment on the worn and faded furnishings which, from his Viewpoint, are all ‘a bit scruffy’ – because he’s worried that this might be seen as an indictment on his ability to provide.
A novel should:
- show the storylines, not tell them.
- use sections to focus on each character in turn.
- filter all information through the Viewpoint of the character whose section it is.
- involve the reader in the character’s internal thought processes.
- use Viewpoint to ensure that all external responses to any given set of circumstances are in character.
- engage the reader in the journey undertaken by each character in pursuit of his/her goals.
We’ll continue looking at Viewpoint and how to use it in a novel.
© Mel Menzies, November, 2008
The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.
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