Back to Basics: The First Choices When Writing a Novel

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When we decide we want to write a novel, however sudden or lengthy the development of that decision, there are some very basic choices writers must make about how the novel will be written. Some of these choices will be an evolution of the story and characters but sometimes writers forget that they have a choice in these matters at all.

Writing often begins from random thoughts, which turn into scribblings, which turn into notes and all of sudden there’s a first sentence and then more sentences. The choices – which are choices, regardless of whether or not the writer is conscious of them – might have already been made without any great thought as to whether those choices do a disservice to the writing.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about tense, I’m talking about point of view and I’m talking about perspective.

Tense
There are plenty of different types of tenses in the English language (past, present simple, present continuous, present perfect, conditional, conditional perfect, conditional perfect progressive, future, etc) but for the purposes of this discussion there are only two I’m going to address: past and present.

Consider the following two sentences about the same thing in these two different tenses:

Brian picked up the clock and saw that the deadline had passed. (“picked” and “saw” – past tense, “had passed” – using a past auxiliary verb (had) to create a past perfect tense that indicates an action also in the past but having occurred prior to the other past actions)

Brian picks up the clock and sees that the deadline has passed. (“picks” and “sees” – present tense, “has passed” – using a present auxiliary verb (has) to create a present perfect tense that indicates an action in the recent past)

I hope I haven’t confused anyone with the above explanations because you really don’t need to know or understand auxiliaries or perfect tenses to understand past and present.

Often the tense you choose to write in is a matter of comfort or preference. I’ve written in both. My first published novel, Enemies Closer, is written in the past tense. But my next two novels, Black Spot and Trine, are both written in the present tense.

For Enemies Closer, it was less of a choice. Many, if not most, commercial fiction novels are written in the past tense and I think I was simply emulating that. I didn’t give it a great deal of thought. But when I started writing, that’s the tense in which the words came out on the page.

For Black Spot and Trine, it was a very deliberate choice. The main character in Black Spot has amnesia so it made no sense to me to write about a character who couldn’t remember her past in the past tense. Someone without memories would surely spend a lot of time just being in the present. And Trine is set in a very specific two-week period with a main character who lives for the present, very focused on her routines without any consideration of the future and running from a difficult past. I thought that the present tense gave a sense of immediacy, the here and now, to the story.

Whichever one a writer chooses to write a story, the most important thing is to continue in that tense. There is nothing more annoying and sometimes confusing to a reader than a text that moves from past to present to past tense when there is no reason to.

However, a good reason to switch is flashbacks. If you are planning a story that contains a lot of flashbacks, then writing the current day story in present tense and the historical components in past tense is a simple way of demonstrating to the reader which scenes belong to now and which scenes belong to then.

Point of View
There are three kinds of point of view:
*First person – written from the internal point of view of one person (I picked up the clock and saw that the deadline had passed.)
*Second person – written from the internal point of view of one person who isn’t the main focus (You picked up the clock and saw that the deadline had passed.)
*Third person – written from the external point of view (He picked up the clock and saw that the deadline had passed.)

There are benefits to each point of view but there are also limitations. Obviously if you choose to write in the first person, your story can never reveal anything more than that one person knows. You can’t write a scene in which a bomb is ticking away underneath a car that person is sitting in without that person knowing the bomb is there, which would make them a pretty stupid person unless you write it as “I didn’t know it at the time but…”, which would also make it necessary to write in the past tense.

Second person point of view is relatively rare but a good example of it is We Need to Talk about Kevin, where Eva writes letters to her husband in the wake of their teenage son’s mass killing spree at his local high school. Second person point of view is often half first person point of view as well. Yes, Eva writes to her husband and reminds him of things he did (“You did this, you did that”) but she also writes about herself (“I did this, I did that”). It’s hard to write exclusively in the second person point of view because at some point either the writer wants to reveal the narrator or the reader wants the narrator revealed.

Third person allows a broader story to be told but can still reveal all of those internal thoughts of the main character or characters. I wrote Enemies Closer in the third person but I wrote each chapter from the different third person perspective of a variety of characters. While I was writing from the perspective of one person, I only allowed them to describe what they could see of the other characters, not what the other characters were thinking. If I wanted to reveal that, I had to wait until a chapter from the other character’s perspective came around.

Perspective
And then there’s perspective. You can choose for your narrator to have only a limited perspective, you can choose multiple narrators who each have limited perspectives (but together provide a more complete story), or you can choose for your narrator to know everything. When it’s a narrator who knows everything, it’s often an unseen, uninvolved, godlike third party with an omniscient quality. This perspective means you can reveal parts of the story that the characters themselves don’t know like that previously mentioned bomb ticking under the car. It raises the tension for the readers, who fear for the safety of the oblivious character.

Choosing a limited perspective, however, allows for the readers to experience the same emotions – surprise, shock, disgust, fear – as they discover things at the same time as the characters do.
Again, once you’ve made this choice, you have to stick to it. You can’t have a story with limited perspective and still tell readers things your characters don’t know. It’s illogical. And unless you want to be accused of massive plot holes (“The main character couldn’t have possibly known that and yet suddenly, for some reason, he does.”), logic is important.

*****

To readers who aren’t writers as well, these might seem like very small choices to make but when the wrong decision is made, the important of these choices become obvious. Spending a little more time considering the alternatives might prevent a terrible mistake and a lengthy, painful rewrite.

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