Struggling to find my way back in to the story of Nighthawks after the summer break, I knew there was something wrong but I couldn’t quite work out what it was. I had a premise, a plausible situation and an okay plot, as well as tension between two characters. But something was missing. The story was patchy – strong in some parts but lacking authenticity in others. To me it seemed that it was coming across as phony. And like many a writer when faced with a similar problem, I set the story aside and got on with another writing project: drafting the screenplay of a short film, I’m currently collaborating on.
While I was writing that screenplay, (if you’re not familiar with this genre, a screenplay is always written in the present simple): I began to consider that there might be a problem with point of view. With fiction, a writer can choose to tell their story in any number of different ways, but as a novelist with only one book, I’ve stuck to the third person, almost as a default setting.
Although I do admire those first-time novelists who manage to write an entire book in the first person, I know that I would come unstuck at some point, as the narrator has to be in every scene. And I know there would be times when I would struggle with that. As far as I’m concerned, the place to experiment with point of view is in a short story first, before attempting to tackle an entire novel.
At around the same time that I was getting to the heart of what wasn’t working in the new book, I came across a piece of writing advice from best selling author Deborah Moggach, (Tulip Fever) and Pulitzer prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri. Writing in The Daily Telegraph in May, Moggach’s writing tips include this: ‘if you have a character who stubbornly refuses to come alive, switch to the first person.’
So I hadn’t considered switching point of view before now, as Moggach suggests, in order to revive a flagging story. Because once you’ve managed to breathe life back into the character that you are struggling with – you can always switch back. As writers we tend to work in isolation and it hadn’t occurred to me that there were other writers out there with the same problem. So I was intrigued to read Jhumpa Lahiri writing in The Guardian, explaining how even she had to set aside several of her short stories for several years before she found a way to tell them. The story “Once in a Lifetime,” found in her collection, Unaccustomed Earth had both a premise and tension between the two characters, Kaushik and Hema. But, according to the author, even though the characters were real there was a problem with the way the story was structured. Seven years later, Lahiri realised that if she switched the third person narration and instead have Hema tell the story to Kaushik then she would at last find a way to bring it back to life.
In the case of Nighthawks I found I was able to write the sections that feature the characters from Revolution Earth, but was struggling with the characters I’d introduced in the new book. It’s taken a few weeks for it to sink in but the reason for this is fairly simple – I just don’t know these new characters as well as I do Cara, Stephen, Ginny and Tariq. Telling a story from a different point of view might sound like an absurdly simplistic piece of writing advice but it’s one that sounds like it just might work. And I’m going to give it a try and report back.
Of course, if you want to see how far you can push the boundaries with different viewpoints, there’s no better teacher than that master storyteller of suspense, Stephen King. Dolores Claiborne, for instance, is narrated entirely in dialogue, as Dolores tells her version of events of Vera Donovan’s death to her police interrogator. You have to be in the right mood to read King, (not home alone at night), as he’s not to everyone’s taste, as many of his most compelling characters are evil, unreliable narrators. But despite all the unpleasantness, once he has you hooked, you just can’t put one of his books down. And surely, that’s what every writer is hoping to achieve, isn’t it?