Friday, 7 October 2016

Whose line is it anyway? By Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of each month, Novelista Annie Burrows will be drawing a question out of the jar where we've been putting all the questions about the writing process posed by readers –

This month, the question posed by…(wait for it…yes, it’s Cheryl again!) is actually two questions:
1 How many points of view in a novel?
2 How to weave two or three points of view into novel – by Chapter?  Or paragraph?
The first question is easy for me to answer now, because I write for Harlequin Mills & Boon, who have very definite guidelines on this.

Because the stories feature a strong, central romance, the story needs to be told from the point of view of the hero and heroine.  To put anyone else’s point of view would take the focus away from the main characters, and have the effect of diluting the emotional experience.

 However, when I first started writing, I fairly often told sections of the (unpublished) stories from the points of view of all sorts of characters.  This would be ok for a lot of types of story.  For example, in thrillers there are quite often huge chunks of the story told from the point of view of a villain, sometimes an un-named and unknown villain who is gradually discovered by the hero and/or heroine.  And this works well.

But for romance, which is all about feelings, it is important to stick very closely to the main two protagonists, so that the reader gets quickly caught up and then swept along in their emotional journey.

The second question, about handling point of view, is a bit more tricky to answer, since it deals with the nuts and bolts of writing.

I don’t find that it is as simple as thinking, “oh, I will write this paragraph from Mildred’s point of view, and then have one from Derek.”  The action of a story usually plays out in my head like a film, first and foremost, so that I break down the action into scenes.  And, as in a film, sometimes the camera angle changes, so that the viewer (or reader) can see the action unfolding from a different perspective.
And generally, I will write a scene from the point of view of whichever character it affects the most.

So, a typical scene for me, since I write Regency romances, might deal with a marriage proposal, and its rejection by the heroine of my story.  If I want the reader to know why the dashing Lord Rothermere is so nervous about going to propose to plain and plump, and immensely wealthy Miss Grinling, I would open the scene from his point of view.  He is worried about his six younger sisters, the tenants on his estate, and his mother who is prostrate with her nerves after learning that his father gambled away all the money.  He knows Miss Grinling – the daughter of a wealthy merchant - has been half in love with him for as long as they’ve known each other.  And he assumes she will be thrilled to finally get a proposal of marriage from him.  By getting inside his head at this point I would get the reader rooting for him.  We admire him for sacrificing himself for the sake of his family, and hope he succeeds.  And we can then feel his shock and dismay when Miss Grinling turns him down in a cold, almost hostile manner.

At this point, as a writer, I have two choices.  Either to continue in Lord Rothermere’s point of view, or to switch to Miss Grinling’s.  If I were to stay inside Lord Rothermere’s head, though, I would run into the danger of making Miss Grinling seem unsympathetic.  All we would see would be the devastating fate that Lord Rothermere foresees for his family because of her refusal to bail them out.

So, even though the proposal, and refusal, may have only taken a few sentences, it is important to see why plain, plump Miss Grinling has turned down a flattering proposal from a man who is far above her, socially.

And learn that she has, indeed, been in love with Lord Rothermere ever since she first went to live in the village of which his father was the local lord.  And how painful it has been for her to watch him flirting with all the prettier, better-born girls in the area, whilst never being more than polite to her.  Since the death of his father, she has also learned of his ever more desperate attempts to rescue his family from the results of his father’s gambling.  Far from finding his proposal flattering, she is deeply hurt that he has only come to her as a last resort, particularly since his attitude is that of a man making the ultimate sacrifice in lowering himself to her level.

I have to be ultra careful when changing from one character’s point of view to another in such rapid succession, to make sure that the reader will know exactly who is doing the thinking, and talking.  With talking, it is easier, because I can always put “he said” after any comment, so that it is clear who has just spoken.  But making it absolutely clear who is doing the thinking can be trickier.

One way to make it clear that there has been a point of view change is to put a gap in the text.  However, when it is a scene such as this, putting breaks in the text every time the viewpoint shifts would look very odd.  So it has to be done through the actual writing.  One neat way to do this is to change the viewpoint immediately after someone speaks.  So, for example, there can be a section from the hero’s viewpoint, at the end of which he can say something like, "And that is your final answer, Miss Grinling?”
And then it almost invites the reader to look at Miss Grinling, to see what she is going to reply.
And I can make the transition by putting something like:
Mildred had an answer ready on her tongue.  “It is,” she declared grimly.  Because there was no way she was going to agree to marry a man who would never, and had never respected her.

From that point, I could delve into Mildred’s shared past with Lord Rothermere from her standpoint, so that the reader will see exactly why she has turned him down.  She can foresee only hurt if she marries a man she loves, who will probably carry on flirting with prettier, better-born women because all he wants from marriage is her enormous wealth.  Had he only given the slightest hint that he felt even the tiniest bit of affection, or even respect for her, her answer might have been different.
In this way, during the course of one scene, the conflict has been set up between two characters, both of whom the reader understands and wishes well.

Next question!

Annie's latest release is a novella in an anthology of Regency set Christmas stories:

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