Fiction: More Than One Viewpoint

Once more, I’ve reached the waiting stage.  I’ve sent out the manuscript for my last novel and am hoping to hear back.  Quite a stressful time.   Writer’s block.

In the meantime, I thought I would post an old article I wrote on the subject of viewpoints.   Generally, I like to introduce a second viewpoint in my work or, at least, a different time frame to add greater texture to the writing.  Of course, this technique can backfire, producing complexity and unnecessary details.

 

Currently, I’m writing a psychological thriller about two guys who last met when they were ten.   A serious crime occurred in the woods near their home and the main character managed to escape, but he has no recollection of the events or the person he ran from.   Twenty-six years on, he is reconciled with his former best friend, also present at the crime scene.   Soon, however, a set of disturbances occur, triggering a set of flashbacks about what really happened twenty-six years ago.

The central character’s wife has recently run away with someone, leaving him with a vulnerable eight-year-old son who has become withdrawn after a stint of bullying at school. At the start of the novel, the central character moves to his sister’s country cottage.   The story is told from three viewpoints – the central character’s (first person), his sister’s (third person) and his best mate’s (third person).    Each chapter is limited to one viewpoint.   The viewpoints rotate.

The advantages of rotating viewpoints are:

  • Greater psychological intensity and immediacy;
  • The viewpoint characters might have different interpretations of the same events;
  • By introducing back story, the varying viewpoints and time shifts expands the story, giving it a fuller feel.

However, watch for the pitfalls:

  • Story runs the risk of becoming laboured and repetitive;
  • The constant moving between character viewpoints and past and present could prove confusing.

In all, I’m enjoying this form of narration and feel it best tells the story I’m writing.

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The Second Novel: Increasing The Psychological Immediacy

In the past, I had some huge problems bringing scenes to life, particularly those introducing back story. Back story’s always tricky. The reader may need the background information, but often the reader will wish to remain in the present. 

Placing a section of writing in italics doesn’t necessarily help, as the change of font might come between the reader and the text. Also, some readers will hurry over passages in italics, missing bits the writer has worked hard on.

I think the solution could lie in having short sections dealing with the back story questions at the start of chapters and keeping to a simple tone for immediacy. 

The following is a brief snatch of one of the back story sections in my second novel, a psychological thriller introducing central character Alan Holmes, a former amateur rugby player who witnessed a murder when he was ten but has few recollections of the event.  In the past, I relied on the use of flashbacks, but these don’t always work.

They say I led the way up Whaley Hill, telling ghost stories as I steered my bike up the twisting path. That Gordon got angry at the top of the hill and stormed off in tears because Callum and Shane had upset him. I went after Gordon and brought him back to the reservoir. He wouldn’t stop crying, but I remember none of it.

For me, there was only confusion. Occasional glimpses of trees in the stillness while the sun beat down upon my head and the sweat poured down my face, onto my t-shirt. I think I took my t-shirt off, but I can’t be sure about that, as witnesses saw me with it on later.  

The Chill Factor In Novel Writing: Getting To The Heart Of The Matter

I’m midway through my second novel, a psychological thriller. My main character Alan, a former tough guy who used to play rugby and football, has recently moved back to the north of England following the break up of his marriage and has got in touch with a former childhood friend. 

Alan witnessed a murder when he was ten, but has no recollection of the event.  A series of disturbances at his new home, a flat in a converted old factory in the countryside, prompt Alan to investigate the murder, but each move he makes results in further confusion. 

For instance, Alan meets a an elderly woman who played a significant role in his childhood, but he doesn’t remember the woman at all.  However, he recognises her post retirement house, even though he has never visited the house. Further, the interior seems strikingly familiar to Alan, reminding him of a house he only just remembers: the murderer’s. 

In tackling the matter, I hope to look deep within Alan’s mind – in particular, why certain seemingly insignificant things unsettle him so much, such as a vase in the wrong house.  I feel that the brief memory flashbacks in the story must capture Alan’s uncertainty and hint at the reasons for Alan’s fear, drawing on specific details that strike true fear in Alan’s heart.   This will mean cutting old redundant material and going deeper into Alan’s character.

Demanding, to be sure, but I’m managing about four to six hours a day of writing.

The Scene Setting In My Novel

Originally, I’m from the north of England. The photos below show the type of the scenery I grew up with.   I’m hoping to bring alive some of the bleakness in my second novel, a psychological thriller.  The gist of the story is this: the central character Alan Holmes has recently moved to the north of England from London following the break up of his marriage.  Within a few days of arriving, he meets a childhood friend.  Flashbacks of an incident in the local woods follow, along with growing menace.

The North of EnglandThe North of EnglandThe North of EnglandThe North of England

Novel Writing:Flashbacks And The Psychological Thriller

I’m at the point in my writing again..memory flashbacks of traumatic childhood events, and part of me wishes I could find a different way of dealing with the material.  I often wonder whether my coverage of these issues is convincing enough. 

And yet, for many people, flashbacks do occur, though perhaps not in the way presented in fast paced crime/thriller novels.  Sometimes, the sections in these works seem too ordered, explaining the plot rather than inviting the reader to experience the world of the character in question.

I would imagine that a traumatised person would experience some level of confusion in recalling traumatic incidents, that they might confuse certain details and have huge gaps in memory.  That specific sensory details would stick out, such as particular smells and sensations, but not an actual timing of events.

I think the key to writing about flashbacks lies in the confusion, the mixing up of timing – along with the intensity of a few select details that might develop over the course of the story and appear to echo in the character’s mind.

I’m experimenting with the flashbacks. It’s still very much early days, but I’m enjoying the editing process.

Novel Writing: What’s The Story Really About?

At the moment, I’m churning out more than 1000 words a day of my second novel, a psychological thriller.  I wouldn’t call the work easy, but I certainly wouldn’t describe it as frustrating – rather, challenging and rewarding.  In the past, however, the writing hasn’t always come quickly. Recently, in fact, I’ve thought a lot about previous drafts of my two novels, particularly the problematic areas in the stories. 

The biggest obstacle to story telling, I suspect, lies in not knowing what the story is really about.  Story telling is fundamentally about people.  Character.  What motivates a character. Their most powerful desires, their greatest fears.

But characters don’t exist in isolation. They interact with other characters. One character might behave unfavourably to another. The character in question might plan their actions with a goal in mind.  Revenge.  Greed. 

Alternatively, a character might seek to protect or rescue another character. Those characters – “the goodies” – will also need a plan of action.

Will the character achieve their goal?   The three possible answers are Yes, No and Don’t Know (open endings).

The central story question forms the basis of the plot.  Character-led plot drives the story on. Obstacles threaten to prevent the central character’s aims.  In thriller and crime novels, the danger often mounts.  If not, the descent into emotional mayhem may intensify.

What’s the best way of telling the story on paper?   This is where structure comes in.  Viewpoint consideration.   Chapter lengths.  Whether to divide the novel into sections. Whether to incorporate back story or memory flashbacks.  What to concentrate on.  In thriller and crime novels, the writer has a number of options.  The forensic set up. The current investigation. The effects of the crime on the people involved.  The character interactions. In my novels, I concentrate mostly on how an event has impacted the lives of others and how those characters relate to one another.  

Finally, theme. What the story is really about.  The point the author is hoping to make through their writing. 

Just a few of my thoughts.

The Middle Section Of My Novel

I’ve reached the 41,000 word point in the revision of my second novel, a psychological thriller set in the north of England.  It’s taken a long time, about ten weeks, possibly more.

I often felt the previous drafts lacked a strong sense of story, resulting in sections that seemed to meander.  The present draft focuses on a more detailed forensic plot with fewer characters than before.  I’ve also relied less on clichés this time, such as endless dreams and memory flashbacks.

Early days, but I think the story is beginning to make better sense now.

Novel Writing: A Question of Focus

About a year and a half ago, a friend read my second novel – a psychological thriller – and gave me a good deal of constructive criticism, all gratefully received. 

‘I almost feel there’s several novels here,’ she told me over coffee. ‘I think you need to find a way of bringing the various streams together.’

A huge challenge.  At the time, the streams included:

  • The central character’s back story
  • Friendship between central character and his best friend from childhood following a reunion after many years
  • A complex history between the best friend and the central character’s sister
  • A growing sense of menace originating in the three main characters’ shared pasts
  • Shady caricatures of criminals in a bland town

There was little distinct scene setting, and most of the novel revolved around back story and endless dialogue.  At times, I found the writing unbearably frustrating.  The story tended to meander, a problem since its first tentative draft.

Ideally, I wanted to concentrate on the central character, in particular his psychology and confused memories of childhood, but I couldn’t, as I didn’t actually know what had happened to him during his childhood, so I concentrated instead on the on-off romantic relationship between his sister and his best friend.   For some reason, the material didn’t always ring true in places.  I guess that if a writer isn’t passionate about the story, readers will quickly notice.  

Most writers, I would imagine, don’t like cutting material, especially well written material, but pruning seems to be an essential part of the process. I’m now concentrating primarily on the central character with a view to developing the forensic aspects of the story.  Instead of relying solely on memory flashbacks and countless back story sections (both potential clichés), I’m allowing a number of viewpoint characters to establish the forensic elements, along with a simple First Person narrative in present tense that includes occasional brief hazy recollections of a childhood event that is not entirely clear at first.   There is no reason why memory uncertainty shouldn’t play some role in the story.

The back story question itself is far more complex than originally sketched out, now allowing for a richer unfolding of events.  For the first time since resuming this project, I feel a greater degree of confidence and interest in the story.

Novel Writing: Getting The Research Facts Right

As someone who’s always enjoyed reading stuff on psychology, I naturally assumed I would be at an advantage when it came to writing a psychological thriller.  However, there’s a big difference between knowing about a subject and researching it in depth. 

Take memory, for instance.  In my second novel, the central character has no recollection of a significant event in his childhood.  During the course of the story, a series of triggers causes the character to experience flashbacks of the event. 

So what’s wrong with that?

The subject matter can easily become a cliché.  Aside from that, the memory loss, along with the later flashbacks, must have a plausible explanation.   In a previous draft, one of the viewpoint characters supplied the explanation for the loss of memory: the central character had received a blow to the head during the childhood incident. 

However, memory loss due to brain injury is often, if not always, permanent, ruling out the possibility of flashbacks at a later stage, except perhaps for in exceptional circumstances.  Similarly, certain drugs can prevent the brain from storing memories in the first place. 

To address this, I’ve had to change the focus of the story and concentrate on the forensic history and less on actual flashbacks, although the odd fleeting recollection probably helps drive the story forward.  It has also meant delving deep into the plot and allowing each characters’ motives and conflicts  to determine the outcome. This brings me back to a point I made in an earlier post: back story should be as relevent and as thought out as the present day action – and, of course, as accurate in terms of resarch.

More Computer Chaos/System Restore

At the beginning of the week, I sent my first novel back to an editor, and was hoping to spend the next month or so on the second novel, a psychological thriller dealing with repressed memories and memory flashbacks. 

However…  yesterday, I switched on my computer, intending to read through chapters one to twelve, but the monitor refused to work and kept sending up the message “Out of Input Range.”  I rang round several friends to see if any of them had a spare monitor, but none had.  One friend, however, kindly let me print off some work on their system.

After various more attempts to revive the monitor, I conceded defeat and decided to concentrate on reading the print out of the chapters.  But the monitor problem continued to play on my mind as I read – how could I possibly continue to write without a functioning computer?

At some point in the evening, I became aware that the problem was not down to hardware because the monitor worked during the initial boot up but failed at the critical moment when Windows XP loads.  Attempts to reload Windows from the CD failed as well, and I couldn’t begin the computer in Safe Mode.  Highly frustrating.

In one last attempt, I rebooted for about the twentieth time, pressing down F8. Finally, I was in Safe Mode. The rest of the process went smoothly: All Programs-Accessories-System Tools-System Restore. 

At about ten to midnight, I had the computer working again, thanks to System Restore.