These notes are for the use of creative writing students. There is generally a copyright problem which prevents much of a given author's work being quoted for detailed discussion and that is the sole reason why I am using my own work for illustration purposes in order to discuss particular aspects of style.
Show not Tell—and the place of Narrative
There is a general edict that novelists should "show" and not "tell". Basically this is because "telling" brings the author's individual voice too strongly to the fore and thereby destroys what publishers like to call the "suspension of disbelief"; in other words, any strong engagement an author has with the storyline becomes a "voice-over" and is a distraction for a reader otherwise immersed in the story. Start listening to the author's personal thoughts and opinions and that delicate balance is ruined. This "up-front" authorial style was common in the early days of literature but is more frowned upon now, and it is generally regarded as a "no-no" for debut authors. Then again, as many creative writing students point out, it is still quite common with many best-selling authors. So why shouldn't they do it? The easiest answer is to say that it is best for debut novelists to avoid "telling" because it can easily get out of hand and destroy a reader's engagement with the story as something they can imagine to be real. More experienced authors can use telling with a lighter hand and so get away with it. Why would they want to tell? Because it is easier, shorter, and avoids tricky manoeuvres. That's not to say it's a good technique—although it can work splendidly for young children!
In FLYING A KITE I try to show, rather than tell, whenever I can, but I do slip in a little "tell" if there is no easy way to avoid it; if I do this, I try to keep the telling down to a minimum and then quickly step back from the reader's head, hoping it was not even noticed. Here is an example of this.
In the new scene on page 38 I am describing Lansdown Crescent in Bath. I could have written:
This is a prime example of "telling". Do you see how it is the author who is informing the reader about Lansdown Crescent?
Instead, I wrote it this way:
The difference here is that we are learning the same thing through the point-of-view character's opinion. Even the prestige of the address is related to the storyline: how it is that Julia lives there.
The following extract from the start of Chapter 20 on page 279 is another example. This is a description of the scene from Bruce's window in Galliano's grand house on Lake Garda. Note how we see it through his eyes, and how we learn facts about it, in narrative form, from the maid. This is a great place to use narrative rather than speech, to keep things concise. We don't need to hear the maid talking because she has no significance in the story. This method also keeps the pace going, rather than slow it down with long-winded speech.
Hopefully the above shows how it is possible to provide descriptions through the eyes of a viewpoint character. That's much better than wading in with a purple-prose author description, painting the scene with overblown words.
Sense of Place
It is great to have a sense of place in your fiction. That means writing about somewhere you know. As you will discover if you look at the overview pages of my novels on this website, I even include information about those locations: with pictures. I have been there. I know them. And being able to describe what I have seen is far better than reading about a place in a guide book. In the extract above, for example, I know about "the vertical rock face where the road followed the lake around to Bardolino, and to the right, a headland cut off their view of the northern part of the lake which narrowed sharply as it stretched north to Malcesine and Riva". There will be readers who know it as well, and if you get these details wrong it will niggle them. You don't need to be widely travelled to do things like this: just set your scenes where you have been!
It is much more enjoyable to have a varying pace within a novel. This means a mixture of short and long sentences, short and long paragraphs, and slow and fast action. If the action is fast, the sentence length should be shorter so the reader "feels" more breathless. If the mood is slow and languid, longer sentences and paragraphs help to portray this mood. Lots of scene breaks are also popular with readers because: a) it gives them lots of natural break points at which to finish reading but, b) it tempts them to read on to the next break point... and the next! It's great if they go on turning pages.
A technique I like to use is to have two related storylines going in parallel. That way you can switch from one to the other at a dramatic point. That builds up tension, and the reader is anxious to get back to the original storyline to find out what happens. Both, however, should be interesting, so it works both ways. In FLYING A KITE, Bruce's story runs in parallel with the Sofia-Luigi story. This technique should help to keep the pages turning.
At the beginning of a novel, it's always good to introduce the protagonist as the first character, which I do in FLYING A KITE. You meet Bruce in his unhappy temporary job as a barman. Questions are immediately raised in order to interest and, hopefully, hook, the reader. What new job is Bruce after? What is the mysterious challenge Galliano has in mind? Is this going to be a career break for Bruce? Will this be the crux of the story?
I did consider starting the book at the point in the second scene where Galliano asks his nephew: 'Why do you need to call me every day now you know I'm dying?' It is a great punch-line, but I decided to stick to the idea of introducing the central character first: Bruce. But I soon get to this punch-line about death: on page 3.
When Bruce's manager rudely cuts in on him, we realise why he wants to get a better job quickly, and how important this opportunity is to him.
In the second scene, on page 2, we see Galliano talking to his nephew. We wonder about their strained relationship and learn Galliano is dying and that he is the kind of man who won't let that get in the way of immediate business. That says a lot about his character. How will this effect Bruce? What is the significance of this to the storyline? More and more questions arise, and we are only three pages in.
Openings should raise questions, include suspenseful hooks, move things at a pace rather than put the reader off through the typical wordy descriptions setting a scene so beloved by amateurs. (I've been there!) That's back to pace again. Another error is to shovel in a load of back story or to baffle the reader by introducing a large number of characters. Scrap all that. Hit the ground running to grab the reader by the hand right away. It's the difference between meeting someone new who immediately launches into a boring account of something that doesn't really interest you, or who begins with an interesting snippet that intrigues you into listening carefully.
Dialogue is good for introducing realism, developing character, and furthering the plot in a cunning way that avoids "telling" narrative. As so many have explained before, do not be afraid to just say "said" after speech, for this word really does almost disappear in the reader's subconscious, whereas adjectives such as muttered, shouted, hissed, etc, can, and should, generally be avoided; too much of this brands an author as an amateur.
If the conversation is between two people, it is best not to attribute the speaker when it is obvious through sequence, manner, content, tone or action who is speaking. If there are a lot of people present, all speaking, as in the discussion beginning on page 116, each speech does need attributing. And I did allow myself to say that Dr. Max Tucker "boomed" to show his character type: because he was a new character at this point. Notice how, on page 117, the narrative says Tucker "then launched into a lecture on personal identity..." rather than include the actual speech. Why? Because he was off-track so far as the story is concerned and the detail is not relevant. It's in there to show the man is a great talker who needs pinning down; that's part of character development. But after Bruce brings him back on track, saying 'Sorry to stop you mid-flow, Max, but may I ask if you can concentrate on the possible identity of God rather than ourselves. That's more our focus, really,' this is the lead-in to a fully reported discussion: dialogue.
In a shorter exchange between, say, two people, we can remove a lot of the attribution: so long as this doesn't go on so long the reader may loose track of who is speaking. In any case, their different style of speaking should help a lot. It is the ultimate sin if the reader has to go back and work out, by logic, who is speaking! A nudge is needed now and again to maintain subconscious attribution.
Using the name of the person being addressed here and there—but not more than would be natural—helps. Take the following extract from a telephone conversation between Bruce and Carla. At the starting point of this extract we already know she is a scientist. We also know Carla is speaking, but the inclusion of Bruce's name confirms it. I have added notes in red!
AS an aside, it is worth highlighting the fact that I am using banter between these characters in order to lighten-up what might otherwise become too technical or serious for a novel. The need for this in FLYING A KITE was paramount. Now back to dialogue!
Little phrases like "he paused" within speech between a man and a woman are almost invisible attributions to keep the reader in synchronisation. Keep attributions low profile all the time and you don't even need the "he/she said" labels.
Actions are a great way to both animate a conversation and to put in invisible attribution markers. Take this exchange from page 227.
In the first paragraph above, I get rid of the third character, Alice, to make the exchange simpler. No wondering if she is speaking after that!
Cathy is the first to talk because we have just been watching her actions. Quite apart from that, "Julia shook her head" in the following paragraph, clarifying she is speaking without any "said" being necessary. I highly recommend using small actions associated with a character's name as a means of attributing who is speaking. This is a subtle way to provide synchronisation in a long conversation. (Note, also, the irrelevant speech about Alice is put over as compressed narrative, but what follows, which advances the storyline, is spelled out in full dialogue.) Always avoid long dialogue about things which do not advance the story. That, of course, is to do with pace!
It goes without saying, of course, that every speech by a character starts a new line. If a character talks for a long while and a paragraph break is needed to give the reader a breather, the convention is to omit closing inverted commas at the end of the broken speech paragraph, but to include them as opening inverted commas at the beginning of the following paragraph of continued speech. In general it is not good for someone to talk for too long without a break. In FLYING A KITE, however, because the characters give presentations, long speech is inevitable, and this technique has to be applied.
Changing Point-Of-View—and how this might affect voice
It can be a worry for authors that readers might not be "with it"' after they change point-of-view (POV). One solution is to restrict POV to chapters, and some authors go to the length of providing a chapter title which makes this clear by including the POV character's name. [Often a sledge-hammer approach.] Readers are pretty bright, and it really only takes a few clues for them to follow a change in POV. [Although you should not change between first-person (I) and third-person (he) unless you really do know what you are doing. It can get backs up!] Limit the number of different POVs to the minimum needed.
Think very carefully how you are going to handle POV before you even start to write a story. Know who the POV character is right from the start of every chapter or scene. In FLYING A KITE, I want a close tie between the reader and Bruce, so he his the principal POV character wherever possible. If you use first-person, however, strictly speaking you are then constrained to only revealing what your single POV character knows—and he or she is always in the scene. I wanted to improve pace and interest by switching to a parallel storyline, and that is why I did not consider using first-person for Bruce. I do, however, strive to keep the number of POV characters to the minimum; too many is confusing for the reader.
Novels which jump from one head to another all the time, even within a scene or paragraph, can get pretty annoying. The reader does become more remote from the story when this happens, because the reader is not used to being a "god" who sees and knows all!
In FLYING A KITE the reader soon learns that if Bruce is in the scene, Bruce is the POV character. If he's not, then it is soon clarified who has the POV. A change of scene is sufficient to change viewpoint. You only need to open the scene with the new POV character and to give an attribution immediately. Check this out. At the end of the first scene below, Bruce is talking about a new reclining chair he's just bought for the flat. This is his POV.
The scene after the break is clearly in Luigi's POV. Who could be confused? We learn what he is thinking straight away (how handsome he is), and later we learn he is puzzled. The scene is centred on Luigi. [Why him and not the major character Sofia? Because Luigi actually plays a very important role in other scenes, so he is actually a more significant POV character within the scope of the book. Givcen the option, I chose him so readers get to know him better.]
I hope the above shows how much thought you need to put into your approach with fiction. This is why fiction is so much harder to write than non-fiction; the latter only requires one consistent approach: equivalent to the author's POV while "instructing" or "informing".
To summarise my feelings, I would suggest that the debut novelists should be aware of the rules, break them as little as possible in order to gain his or her break, but not be afraid to break a rule in special circumstances if this offers a positive contribution to the mood of the story. Be creative. Be brave. Do what your heart dictates. But remember this: publishers can be strict about the rules when looking for new authors—but often over-forgiving when it comes to established ones!
Reading Group's Guide - for Writers!
The questions suggested for discussion in the companion Reading Group's Guide might be of interest to writer's groups.