Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers and readers who are interested in the craft of making text suck less. Most weeks we look at a novice author’s first page and suggest some ways of making it better. Sometimes I write a broader post on some aspect of craft that isn’t easily abstracted from a 250-word chunk of text, like macro-structure or plotting or theme, or something related to the psychology of getting words on a page whilst hating yourself. Occasionally I’ll answer reader questions.
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I think it’s worth reiterating that my novel, The Honours, is out now. Why not order it for yourself or a loved one? For a weird little debut, it is doing pretty well. That is all down to the support of people who have headed to the shop or their preferred online retailer and bought it. It’s my best work and I put my heart into making it as rich and surprising, page for page, as it could be. On Friday The Independent named it one of their Top 10 Best Summer Reads. Oh, and I just heard it’s gone in for a third print run. It’s so lovely to hear that this odd little mutant of a book has been finding its way into people’s bags and onto their bedside tables. It’s both gratifying and weird that all these people I’ve never met have been meeting Delphine.
Thanks to everyone who has tweeted about it or put a review online or put a picture of the book up on Instagram. Gestures like that make a big difference to a book’s chances! And hopefully they also make you look like a cultural bellwether who got in on the ground floor with a cult classic before it was cool. Truly, we all hope for that. Please don’t be afraid to make your public displays of affection regarding The Honours increasingly frequent, hyperbolic and high profile. I would be the last to condemn you and probably not the only one to admire your altruistic and sophisticated mien.
This week, I’m answering a question. Hope you find it useful.
before I start a new novel, how do I decide whether to go for an omniscient narrator or a first-person narrator?
(he didn’t really sign-off ‘Regards’ – that was me putting a snazzy epistolary spin on a straightforward question)
So, quick terminology recap just to make sure everyone’s on the bus before we peel out from the kerb, swerve to avoid a loose dachshund and plough through the plate glass windows of a swanky registry office, interrupting a wedding the bride was having second thoughts about and giving her an opportunity, in the weeks it takes to reschedule, to call the marriage off. The poor groom never forgives us, and swears vengeance. He’s convinced we ruined his life, and over the years that follow he dispatches us one by one in a variety of gruesome, painful ways. The last survivors band together when they realise what’s happening (I’m already dead) and pledge to protect one another and bring him to justice. Cue an island showdown where they survivors are mostly picked off, then, in a final irony, he gets nailed by a bus. I don’t know how the bus gets on the island, nor how its presence does not telegraph to viewers the ending. Anyway, it’s work in progress. BUS. Here’s the tagline: All Abhorred. Come on. Funders have got to be excited.
First-person narrators are when the story is told by someone who refers to themselves as ‘I’. Normally they’ll be the protagonist too, saying ‘I opened the door. “Pee off,” I snarled.’ etc. Sometimes they might be a sidekick or observer or someone otherwise ancillary to the action, as with Watson, the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, or Nick Carraway, who narrates The Great Gatsby but doesn’t move the plot forward particularly.
It’s theoretically (and actually) possible to have a first-person narrator who doesn’t exist in the fictional world they’re describing at all. You get this a lot with children’s books – the narrator stepping in to say ‘Now I’m not sure that he meant to be unkind, but’ or to add their own gloss on proceedings, or to make some smart remark – where sometimes the narrator becomes an explicit ‘I’ (which is sometimes, implicitly, the author themselves). There’s a smudgy borderline where a third-person narrator is so opinionated that there’s an implicit ‘I’, even if the pronoun is never used (I’d put Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell into this category, in which – I think I’m right in saying – we’re given various hints that the narrator is Lord Portishead, and many of the footnotes step in to expand on or even flatly contradict statements made by the characters).
Second-person narrators are when the text uses ‘you’, as in ‘You open the door. “Pee off,” you snarl.’ etc. This is used by Choose-Your-Own-Adventure / RPG writers, and wankers.
Third-person narrators are when the text uses ‘he/she/they’, as in ‘She opened the door. “Pee off,” she snarled.’ etc. This is the most common form for novels, and splits broadly into two flavours:
An omniscient narrator – this is a narrator who knows everything about the characters. They can see into all the characters’ heads, know their thoughts, know things that none of the characters know even, and report all this at will. They can even leap into the future and tell us things none of the characters know yet, or leap into the characters’ pasts to explain the history of some apparently trivial item or the origin story behind some emotional hang-up.
There are various levels of omniscience – a narrator might only be able to report characters’ thoughts and feelings ‘in the moment’ rather than their full histories, a narrator might only have access to the main characters’ combined knowledge, and not, say, information from other sources – and there are all sorts of ways a narrator might inflect time that might look like omniscience (for example stopping the story to tell a story from when the protagonist, Mohan, was 5) but really represent a non-linear representation of time. Again, it’s one of those definitions that gets blurry at the borders.
A third-person limited narrator – this is a narrator who sticks within the viewpoint of a single character, at least within a scene. So we experience each scene through a single character. You can have a novel written in third-person limited with multiple viewpoints of course – thrillers routinely include viewpoints from minor characters (maybe someone who gets killed off early on or in the prologue), and it’s fun to switch from the protagonist to give us a hint of what the antagonist is up to, what they’re thinking, and how they view the world. On the other hand, adding viewpoints can increase the length of the novel, and there’s something satisfying about sticking with one character all the way through a story.
What I’d say, straight off the bat, Andy, is that third-person limited is very involving, because it mimics how we as humans experience the world. We don’t leap from head to head to head (well, not most of us) switching perspectives within a single conversation. We’re stuck with our own viewpoint, our own concerns, our own emotions, our own sensations, our own pain. But we’re not usually narrating our life as we experience it (at least not consciously – I mean, I’ve been in some very boring meetings which have been improved immeasurably with a Deep Movie Voice inner monologue about assassinating masked alien invaders, etc), which is why third-person feels like less of an intrusion – usually – than first-person.
Of course you can have very stripped-down straightforward first-person narrators and very baroque, rococo third-person limited narrators – these aren’t absolutes, but either choice has certain strengths which favour certain types of build.
So, back to your question.
On the face of it, the choice you suggest seems rather bizarre. It’s like asking: ‘I want to spend two weeks travelling around Britain. Should I take a narrowboat or a dirigible?’ First-person vs omniscient narrator is a false dichotomy if ever I saw one.
However – taking a narrowboat or dirigible round Britain does actually sound much cooler than taking a car. I think I usually suggest third-person limited because it’s much harder to fuck up than first-person or omniscient. But it’s less audacious than first-person or omniscient, and there’s no reason why you ought to limit your ambitions as an author, as long as you’re prepared to do the work they entail. I’d never advocate artistic conservatism simply for the sake of protecting oneself from the possibility of failure (which is more or less inevitable for all of us, anyway).
So. Here are my thoughts.
You cannot know until you start writing the novel. This is akin to picking out curtains before you’ve built the house. Still, that is not very useful advice, so some steering notes:
If you’re going to write a decent first-person novel, it will probably take some time to get the voice up to cooking temperature. This means resigning yourself to essentially burning 40,000 words channelling the voice, refining your ear, working out what sounds right and what jars, until essentially it becomes a ventriloquist act. I’m thinking here more along the lines of an original, engaging narrator whose voice becomes part of the pleasure of the novel. Of course you can have tonally flat first-person narrators who are almost invisible, stylistically, but – for me – that feels like a missed opportunity. Or at least an indication that you’d be better served by recasting the novel in third-person limited.
May I suggest reading Charles Portis’ True Grit as a great example of a first-person narrator? Mattie Ross switches between straightforwardly relating the adventure and breaking off to give us Biblical exegeses – the latter sounds like a distraction but actually they make the character, by showing us what’s important to her. I’d also recommend reading – or rereading – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told by Chief Bromden (who the film reduces to little more than a thematic coda) and The Catcher In The Rye, which gets a bit sneered at these days because of its status as a set text, but waning cultural fortunes aside is still ace.
If you’re attempting a perilous ascent of Mt Omniscient, you need to think very clearly about why you’re choosing this type of narration. How does it serve the story? Are there lots of events taking place over a short space of time that you need to jump between? Perhaps you’re writing satire, in which case the godlike perspective, looking down upon the silly humans and their follies, might suit the form. Remember that omniscient narration can be boring for the reader, because we usually know more than the characters, so the danger is that we’re watching these dolts blunder through their lives, waiting for them to catch up with us. Dramatic irony works well with an omniscient narrator.
And it doesn’t have to take on this scornful, condescending tone, either. Tragedy can play out well under the auspices of an omniscient narrator – we can see characters making heartbreaking mistakes because of lack of knowledge, and empathise with them.
Obviously the omniscient narrator, while theoretically being able to access everything, does not. Otherwise it would just be an infinite book containing all knowledge and events. I mean, again, I don’t want to put restraints on your ambition, Andy – attempt such a book, if you like, just be aware that the delivery mechanism will have to be something other than text. What I’m saying is, an omniscient narrator is still selective in what they report, and you still need to alight upon a rationale to govern that selection. I strongly recommend Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which moves between the rooms of a French apartment block, describing the characters and objects therein via a series of Oulipean constraints. It sounds all pretentious and experimental but it’s actually very readable, easy to understand, and rewarding on every page.
Dune is a novel with omniscient narration that manages to create suspense while giving us access to all the characters’ minds and future events. This trick works decreasingly well as the novel progresses, Herbert trying to convince us that maybe the future we’ve seen is not so certain at all, but for the opening third it’s particularly successful and impressive.
But maybe consider third-person limited as an option? Omniscient vs first-person produces radically different novels, at least if you’re using their possibilities to the fullest. Could it be that your story can be delivered through the traditional ‘he said, she said’ format?
Your main strategy must be two-fold: firstly, compile a reading list of excellent novels showcasing different styles of narration (like the ones I’ve suggested) and read them with an eye to deconstructing what their chosen style allows them to achieve. Secondly, start writing the fucking novel. You cannot work all this shit out in your little brain laboratory. You have to start putting words on the page. It sucks, I know, because in doing so you expose yourself to the possibility – nay, the certainty – of disappointment, difficulty, and hard work, but writing is the only method I know which might lead to one producing a book.
Writing is like meditation – it only works if you actually do it.