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Whose Eyes?

Many different approaches can be used to tell a story. The writer can start at the beginning and work their way through. They can start at the end and look back. They can break it up into episodes and mix them up in all sorts of ways. Whichever is chosen, it's also necessary to decide how to tell it, and that’s not straightforward.

It used to be fashionable to use letters and other papers to lay out the evidence from which the reader can draw conclusions about the plot and characters. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a famous example of this. Another is Dracula. More recently, The Color Purple, Cloud Atlas, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have made use of the same devices. When I put together my own first novel, Paradise Girl, I soon realised that the most effective way I could convey the thoughts of a seventeen-year-old young woman was through her diary, and this comprises almost all of the book. All these are contrivances which try to answer the two big questions every writer must deal with: through whose eyes are these characters and events being seen? and what effect will my decisions about this have on the way the reader perceives my story?

Usually nowadays the choice is between narrating in the first or the third person. The advantage of the first person (I did this, I saw that, this is what happened to me) is immediacy. It’s direct and therefore has impact. The disadvantage is that the view is subjective, and the reader can never be sure how far the person recounting the story can be trusted to be telling the truth. I say ‘disadvantage’, but in skilled hands doubts over the reliability of the narrator can be exploited to great effect. Truth is subjective, and while statements may be what the individual telling the story believes to be true, they may not be. The ‘whether or not’ of this gives the writer lots of scope to manipulate what the reader makes of the narrative. One of the best-known examples of this approach is David Copperfield, which opens with the disarming statement, ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’ In other words, ‘Reader, it’s up to you to judge.’

Third-person narration (he did this, she did that), sometimes referred to as ‘the writer as God’, gives less room for speculation on the reliability of the narrative. However, don’t forget that we authors are a devious crew, and it’s not unknown for a third-person narration to deliberately mislead.

And of course, sometimes the reader can lose track of who’s telling the story. A fine example of this is Wuthering Heights. The narrator of the opening section is Mr Lockwood, but he soon gives way to Nelly Dean, who tells him, and us, the story of Cathy and Heathcliffe. The result is a displacement of the narrative to the extent that we forget how it came about.

I tend to go for third-person narration, but one thing I dislike as a reader and try to avoid as a writer is ‘head hopping’. That's when the viewpoint jumps abruptly from the perceptions one of the characters to those of another. This was common in many Victorian novels, which happily skipped about from one pair of eyes and ears to another and back again. I find it jars and distracts from the flow, and although I don't like putting aside any book I've started, it's led to some DNFs.

Getting the point of view right, so that it points the reader towards thinking in the way the writer wants, involves some tricky judgements.

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