Thursday, June 19, 2008


A writer gets to a stage--relatively early, in most cases--of being able to set down intelligible prose. They may have the odd weakness in dialogue, say, but the ability to create a narrative which moves from one point to another can be acquired by little more than diligence.

One aspect of writing which is hard to teach, perhaps because it's hard to see, is the question of choices. Every 'story' can be told in an infinity of ways. How different would The Great Gatsby be if it were narrated by Gatsby himself and not Carraway? What about Bleak House, if it were just the story of Esther Summerson? The most important choice that a writer has to make is not "what story shall I tell?" but "whose story is it and how shall I tell it?"

The simplest of all narrative strategies is the single first-person narrative: one person's story, told as if by that person. It can be highly effective although there are limitations: particularly that the reader can only know what the protagonist knows. Third-person narratives allow more flexibility, since the writer can vary point of view, throw in long shots and provide as much as exposition as seems appropriate.

I have a major choice of this sort to make for The Last Free City. I've never consciously made a decision about viewpoint characters in anything I've written so far. The Zael Inheritance, Dragonchaser and The Dog of the North have all grown out of a particular character I wanted to explore. The Last Free City started the same way, but now that I'm getting close to the end of his story I am not sure it's big enough to carry the novel.

I'm considering two solutions to the problem. The first is to rework the story to give the protagonist a richer experience. This would involve heightening some aspects of the story, and maybe bringing in some new ones.

The other solution, as readers of the blog will know, is to bring in another viewpoint character. This isn't unheard of for me (The Dog of the North has two points of view) but it does change the tone of the story somewhat. I know who I would use as the secondary viewpoint--the character who links The Last Free City with The Dog of the North. Initially this character had only a few appearances (although he's important to the plot). If I make him a viewpoint character, by definition he becomes more central to the novel. The link between the two stories becomes much more explicit--which is not something I was aiming for. It will still not be a sequel, but it does make the bigger story which sits behind both books (and at least one other I have in mind) much closer to the foreground.

It would change The Last Free City from the story of an idle selfish womaniser who learns better (a story which just happens to be set in the same world as The Dog of the North), to a piece in a political jigsaw which will not be complete for at least one more novel. I would, almost by default, be writing a series--something I've had no particular desire to do.

The short-term solution is relatively simple, I think. I'm finding this secondary narrative interesting to think through, and I commit myself to nothing beyond time if I start to write it. So my inclination is to follow it where it leads, and then judge whether it strengthens the book.

Choices of this sort are the most significant a writer has to make. They are different in kind--and difficulty--to choosing whether to excise a scene or tighten dialogue. They are also the choices which define the writer--so a few more days' reflection won't do any harm.


David Isaak said...

That's one of those "I'd better take a long walk and think about it" problems.

It doesn't necessarily sound as if you'd be penning a series. It might be one of those other things, where the milieu and some of the characters are shared.

You know, those things. What are those called, anyhow?

Tim Stretton said...

I know the things you mean, David--but I don't know what they're called either...

Alis said...

I wonder if your character - whose story you say isn't strong enough to carry the novel - isn't actually what (who) the novel is about? Whether it's become something else in the telling. Whether some part of you is as fascinated by the political jigsaw as by the individuals like this selfish womaniser. And surely, the most intriguing novels are those about people with a very strong presence, who are also living through times which are interesting enough to carry their own part of the novel?

Tim Stretton said...

"And surely, the most intriguing novels are those about people with a very strong presence, who are also living through times which are interesting enough to carry their own part of the novel?"

Perfectly put, Alis. I am certainly now going to explore a second viewpoint character--which means the focus moves from one individual onto a time of political instability through which our protagonists live. In this case, I get the added dramatic irony that my first protagonist is not remotely interested in the political situation into which he finds himself sucked.

This meshing of the personal and political, of course, is something you pulled off most successfully in Testament...