A Pilgrim's Guide

The Craft of Creative Writing

 Part Four

The Craft of Creative Writing

A Robust Viewpoint ~ Writing in the First Person


i) A vantage point from which something can be viewed.
ii) The angle from which a story or article is written, or an issue is presented.

In the early nineteenth century, when the first tourists ventured courageously north to the Lake District, certain places were prescribed as being the ‘right’ viewpoints from which to admire such wondrous sights as the Jaws of Borrowdale and Buttermere. Incredible though it sounds to us today, tourists were issued with appliances through which to view the lakes and mountains, apparatuses that were as much de rigueur as the camcorder today.

We may be freer today in our viewing habits, but from a literary point of view, everything that we write ultimately depends not only on the style in which we couch it but also on the viewpoint. Pitch it right and readers will barely give it a second thought; pitch it wrong and readers will notice almost nothing else.

We gain our first experience in writing in the first person form at infant school as we write our accounts of how we spend our days. Despite this valuable ‘formation,’ it is commonly considered unwise to attempt to write a first novel in this form. To me the advice appears unnecessarily restricting. In today’s experience-orientated society, what other style can draw us so intimately into the heart of a story or message? Such a close-up viewpoint has a great deal to recommend it, provided that we do not make the mistake of confusing the protagonist with ourselves.

Elements of autobiography may find their way into the text (and from the point of view of inspiration and authenticity, it would be a shame if such a ready-made source of inspiration were not put to good use) we must take the greatest care to sift original events through several layers of filters in order to avoid a possibly hurtful identification with real people and places.

Few of us lead such exhilarating lives, however, to escape the principle that fiction demands larger than life characters and episodes. More will need to be made of even promising material if they are to be sufficiently illuminating or dramatic.

Writing in the first person works is particularly popular in historical novels. The usual technique in these cases is not to make the protagonists the famous people themselves, but an associate who sees those people at ‘close up’. I adopted this strategy in Celtic Quest, where Elfleda has the opportunity to learn at close quarters from the example of St Cuthbert.

I love dwelling on those passages of Scripture in which the Lord speaks in the first person. After the gospels, I find the writings of the prophets the most inspirational in this respect. There is so much we can learn here about the heart and character of a God who is so entirely different from us, and yet so intimately involved in the affairs of mankind.

Perhaps I have subconsciously absorbed this standpoint so deeply that it has served to heighten my expectations that I will share the narrator’s standpoint when I pick up others publications too. I am predisposed to identify with them, whilst at the same time expecting them to be endowed with a great deal more virility, stamina and foresight than I could ever hope to achieve. I am not in any way put out, however, if I find their viewpoint to be a flawed one. As we mentioned earlier, this can be an asset – although we as writers may find it strange to set out with the express intention of creating an ‘unreliable’ protagonist.

What readers do expect is that the central character (because he is narrating the story) has a better than average chance of surviving to the end of the story. This greatly reduces, one possible source of suspense.

Where writing in the first person form does require great skill is in overcoming the potential limitations of the viewpoint from which we can present events. For example, we may find ourselves obliged to resort to indirect speech to report events that happen when we are ‘off-stage’. And how can we legitimately provide certain descriptions except by the narrator going out of their way to mention them. Suppose we want to draw attention to the hairstyle of the woman our protagonist is speaking to. In order to supply the reader with the merest intimation as to what the woman may actually look like, the narrator needs to say something like, ‘I love the way the hair falls over your eyes’. This calls for a degree of ingenuity and almost lateral thinking — but it should by no means be beyond our ability.

All this is summed up in our banner, which highlights the fact that first-hand accounts, if skilfully constructed, are always absorbable and often spunky to the point of being unputdownable. ‘I was there so I can describe it!’

Pause and Put into Practice

 Try writing a short account (in the style of an impersonal news report) about some bizarre incident that has recently taken place. If you are struggling to find a starting point for inspiration, here is a real-life example from our home town you might like to flesh out. An unattended 4×4 self-started its engine, and promptly caught fire. It then proceeded to lurch its way across the supermarket car park before colliding with another vehicle. Both were engulfed in the flames.

Now write the account again, but this time in the first person form, highlighting your own role (bystander, participant, perpetrator or victim). Notice how the two accounts bring contrasting emphases. Some of you will have written deliberately dull descriptions, but have come into your own when your own part in the story is allowed to come through in the first person form. Others of you may have written a brilliantly witty or concise third person account in which case the introduction of a first person character may actually take away more than it adds. For others again, both accounts will have will have been equally as good. This is a particularly interesting exercise for discovering where your strengths and interest lie.

A focused Viewpoint

Given that most authors ultimately opt for a third person viewpoint, the question we must ask ourselves is: to what extent are readers to be made privy to the thoughts of our central characters? Josip Novakovich claims that we will be able to answer that question best if we can decide ‘where the camera is filming from’. Is it from inside the character’s head – in which case we ought to be able to read their thoughts explicitly? Or is it from outside – in which case the narrator is more like an unseen cam cord operator, filming the episodes but remaining largely unaware of what is going on inside the character’s hearts and minds.

This last technique has the great advantage of permitting the reader to deduce the inner workings of the characters for themselves. Most authors ‘cheat’ slightly, of course, by prompting readers to the desired effect by the use of certain ‘intensifying’ words that make the matter plain.

The following sentences illustrate these two primary ‘camera angles’.

‘Thomas looked straight at Susan, his mind reeling as he reflected on what his hands had done to her the night before’.

‘Thomas looked straight at Susan, his fingers clenched together and his face wracked with guilt and grief’.

Because the first example comes from inside the character’s head, the stage is set for Thomas to go into detail both about the terrible things he did to Susan the night before, and how he is feeling about it now. In the second example, it is obvious that something terrible has happened, but the reader is given no clue as to what it might be. It is impossible to tell whether Thomas might not be feeling upset because of something he has done to someone entirely different.

We can either continue to show Thomas’ agony, as in the second example, until enough details emerge for the reader to deduce the full picture, or we can take a faster route and recount it in full. The choice is ours.

But so too is the responsibility effectively to ‘become’ the person around whom the story is being told. We have already stressed that our personal thoughts and actions need in no way mirror those of our protagonist, but we must take care to ensure that we present nothing except through that person’s consciousness. For example, we could continue the first sentence above, ‘Thomas sensed’, (or ‘knew’) that he had wounded Susan to the depths of her being’. Verbs such as these orientate the reader and leave them in no doubt as to where the viewpoint is coming from.

If we are take care to present the viewpoint as clearly as this, we will have little need to superimpose our additional comments into the story. At the same time, readers will develop a lasting sympathy for the viewpoint characters – which in turn makes it easy for them to be concerned for their fate.

Lack of attention in this respect leads to confusion. Suppose, for example, we have been following the storyline above exclusively from Thomas’s perspective, and then come across some such line as ‘Susan found Thomas’s sudden solicitude profoundly hypocritical’.

This begs an important question. How do we know that Susan felt this way? Have we suddenly switched from Thomas to being ‘inside’ her viewpoint? The simplest way round this sudden change would be to keep the same viewpoint and to say instead, ‘Thomas sensed that Susan was having difficulty coping with his new found solicitude. He wondered if she thought he was being hypocritical’.

By contrast, François Mauriac, a leading Catholic writer of the mid twentieth century, and a man blessed with profound insight into human nature, and a superlative ability, to evoke the stifling atmosphere of bourgeois life in south-west France, found it impossible to refrain from inserting heavy-handed authorial interventions into his text. Why should this be? Thérèse Desqueyroux is widely held to be one of six best French books from the first half of the twentieth century.

It succeeds because Mauriac creates a person he became fascinated by. Unable to leave Thérèse alone, he follows her fortunes through several other novels and short stories. Her history is a tragic one – inevitably, one is tempted to say, because Mauriac, likes Thomas Hardy, veers towards a doom-laden fatalism in which character flaws lead inexorably to a disaster that seems almost preordained. From the outset it appears that Mauriac feels compelled to judge and denounce Thérèse’s deviant life and thought processes, perhaps because he feared that his conservative clientele might be shocked by her moral stance, and assume that he was showing too much partisanship for the ‘deviant’ person he had created? How mild her rebellion appears by modern day standards!

Mauriac’s viewpoint, traditionally known as the omniscient narrator, is less common these days. Nevertheless, authors must always know their characters that little bit better than they know themselves, and retain the right to share in their thought processes. What they should not seek to do is to ‘use’ protagonists to download all their own points of view.

Pause and Put into Practice

Our banner here takes the form of an exercise. Examine a few chapters or articles that you have written. Underline every time the viewpoint shifts to anyone other than the primary character. Are these alternative viewpoints really necessary? If they are not, revise the text to make it say what you want it to within the confines of what the principal character could legitimately experience.

A Roving Viewpoint

Presenting material from alternating viewpoints cannot modify the basic realities of what happened, but it can certainly affect how the reader sees it. For example, ask any three witnesses for an account of what happened at a seemingly straightforward road accident. One, the driver who is at fault, might want to distance himself from his part in the episode and colour his account to such an extent that it is almost impossible to recognise that we are describing the same incident as the other driver (who is determined to prove that the other was driving ‘like a bat out of hell’). If something so simple can prove so contentious, think what happens when we are dealing with multiple events and complex motives. (Marital breakdowns are notorious examples).

In the course of a novel, we would expect one viewpoint naturally to dominate, but there are times when the story benefits from a complete change of viewpoint. Here are some suggestions to try for creating unusual effects.

The first person plural form makes an intriguing alternative if a sort of “collective narrator” is required.

“We [the friends who had come to watch the match] ached for him as he missed chance after chance in the first half. How we rejoiced when he rediscovered his scoring touch with the last kick of the game.”

Flaubert uses this form at the beginning of Madame Bovary, before modulating to a more conventional third person viewpoint. With consummate skill, Flaubert continues to swap between a traditional third party viewpoint, and third person ‘omniscient’. (Josip Novakovich describes this as ‘authorial interpretation’ rather than ‘intervention’ because, unlike Mauriac’s decidedly more flat-footed interjections, they neither grate nor slow the pace of the story down).

Another alternative is the second person form. This is particularly useful if the aim is to make people feel ‘wanted’ and included. I came across an example of this the other day in a glossy magazine that happened to be describing a sea cruise to Scandinavia. To paraphrase the delights on offer:

‘You walk the teeming streets of x delighting in the y and then re-join your ship at z o’clock where dinner is waiting for you, before adjourning to the cinema…’

There undoubtedly is a flattery in being so directly addressed. The downside is that it can all feel somewhat prescriptive. ‘You will return to the cruise ship in time for dinner and attend the cinema, whether you happen to like the film or not!’ It may suit the crew to have everyone under their eye at all times, but what if we would prefer to skip the meal and stay ashore an hour or two longer? Nevertheless, this is such an unusual viewpoint that it is worth exploring from time to time. And why restrict it to travel writing?

‘You feel claustrophobic when you enter this church. It is not the surroundings which produce this effect; they are light and airy. No, it is the fact that you are expected to perform. You have to sing loudly and look cheerful or you stand out like an unregenerate mannequin. You want to sit down because your legs are aching, and you can’t stand the ear-blasting music, but you don’t want to look out of place, so you remain on your feet, opening and shutting your mouth like a goldfish and wondering how long it will be before you can decently make your escape’.

This particular viewpoint is most effective when used sparingly. It would be tiring on the reader if we persevered with it for too long. Why not continue the passage above by switching to the equally unconventional first personal plural narrator form in order to highlight the change of emphasis?

‘And then we went to the Orthodox church. It was like a breath of heaven. The reverence and simplicity, the heartfelt depth of faith that shone on everyone’s faces, but which in no way intruded on our space . . . We sensed a stillness that was born of something more profound than peaceful surroundings, as though the One these honest folk had come to honour was Himself in some mysterious way present and responding to their outpoured devotion. We felt, at last, as though we had come home’.

Although we will probably not often choose to write in these particular forms, it is always useful to have one particular ‘target’ person in mind. It is mind-numbing to focus on some unknown and impersonal audience ‘out there,’ but relatively easy to concentrate on someone we know and care for. The banner for this section reflects the effect this personalising influence can have: ‘If my friends are interested, others will be too’.

A Propagandist’s Viewpoint

There is one other point to be aware of in this context. This is the viewpoint which William Empson was hinting at in Milton’s ‘God’.

“The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions very different from your own.”

Oh that people who are comfortably ensconced in their right-wing views would expose their narrow view of the world to thoughtful proponents of the left — and that those on the left would humble themselves similarly. We would soon find within ourselves a longing for justice that renders all facile terminology of ‘left’ and ‘right’ hopelessly inadequate.

There is a sinister side to Empson’s words. Propaganda is an enormously powerful weapon, and every cult and tyrant knows how to exploit it, just as every ram, stag or bull knows how to make good use of its horns. Corrupt regimes fear the power of the pen, rearing intuitively that it can achieve far more against their cause than any mere sword.

To some extent, we are all the victims of propaganda. In the face of a continual barrage from relentless consumerism and competing ideologies, our paramount need is for discernment. Consider, for example the following statement of intention – and the heart-breaking ways its author later put these thoughts into practice.

‘I understood the infamous spiritual terror which this movement exerts, [he was speaking of the Social Democrats in Germany during 1919] particularly on the bourgeoisie, which is neither morally nor mentally equal to such attacks. At a given sign it unleashes a veritable barrage of lies and slanders against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down . . . This is a tactic based on precise calculation of all human weaknesses, and its result will lead to success with almost mathematical certainty.

I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror toward the individual and the masses . . . For while in the ranks of their supporters the victory achieved seems a triumph of the justice of their own cause, the defeated adversary in most cases despairs of the success of any further resistance’.

The author, of course, was Adolph Hitler, who used the dreary ramblings of his infamous biography, ‘Mein Kampf’ to signpost so many of his subsequent atrocities. The same man declared later before launching his unfounded assault on Poland.

Propaganda rarely succeeds, of course, in completely convincing friends or in fooling everyone else, and yet it remains a terrifyingly potent weapon. Constantly repeated lies and exaggerations in time become accepted in the public consciousness as gospel truth — and the way is prepared for a reign characterised by distortions and deceptions. Are we discerning enough to spot where such things may be lurking in our own hearts and society?

We must allow no trace of the propagandist to defile our own writing. The moment we become tarred as partisan propagandists, the less credibility we will enjoy. How much better to make our goal to convey accurate information and incisive truths.

There is a fine line between writing enthusiastically about a cause that is precious to you, and the twisted perspective of the propagandist. Scrupulous honesty about one’s motives and intentions is our first line of defence against falling prey to this pitfall. So too is a willingness to share our viewpoint with people of integrity who would not normally share our outlook and perspective.

Pause and Put into Ponder: A Case of mistaken Identity

A friend rang me just now, assuming I was someone else I know.

It focused my thoughts on the person that I wasn’t.

It made me wonder how I would have felt about the information that I heard.

They would have reacted to it in a different way to me.— and the consequences would have been entirely different.

It usually takes some apparent accident or setback to jolt us out of our own little world.

Just suppose for a moment that you were your wife or husband, or pastor, friend or boss.

Walk for a while as if you were in their shoes, and write a passage as if you were them.

It will help you to appreciate these people a whole lot more!

Passionate Prose

‘Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm’. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Whichever viewpoint we elect to adopt, the one thing we can never dispense with is a simple passion for our subject in hand. If all our efforts to communicate on paper fail to make much impression in people’s lives because our writing is sloppy, then we can correct these faults by applying ourselves with diligence to the ‘Art of Creative Writing’. But techniques and principles alone will not suffice if we are lacking in passion.

Think what it is that first draws us to a piece of writing. More than any trick of style or technique, is it not the writer’s love of their subject that speaks to us? ‘Only connect the prose and the passion,’ E.M. Forster urged in ‘Howard’s End’, ‘and both will be exalted’. As we have seen, skilful communicators can draw us into subjects we would otherwise have had no interest in.

Listen to what Ian Clark has to say about Shetland in his forward to Island Challenge (the biography of one of the island’s leading councillors). The style can by no means be described as top drawer – but perhaps it will help to make readers who know next to nothing about the Shetland Islands eager to hear more about them. Or perhaps I should say, ‘to ken moore aboot a-them’.

‘Taking London as the centre of a circle, the circumference of which passes through Unst [the most northerly isle], you find that Norway, Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria Italy and Spain are as near to – and Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland are nearer the political capital of the United Kingdom than is Shetland. Over and above this, a hundred miles of ocean separates it from the mainland of Britain.

The wonder is not that Shetland is different; it is that intelligent Mainlanders find this difficult to accept . . . Isolated but not insular, Shetland treasures the ethereal while remaining practical . . . What dwarfs everything else is that Shetland is a community and it is people that matter’.

I asked a fourteen year old friend who has just moved up here to write a few words about what they Shetland means to her. This is what she wrote.

To most people, they are cold, windswept islands, with nothing but sheep and sea. But to me they are oysters, concealing their treasure from passers-by. The harsh exterior is just an act, rather like a lonely man who pushes you away but is inwardly crying out for someone to discover his inner being. The weather is just a test . . . Are you passionate enough to endure the unpleasantries for the promise of greater beauty, never before experienced by man?

Another friend, on her first visit to the islands, came up with something similar.

Let me tell you about Shetland.
A great distance away. I don’t mean I miles, although it is that too . . .
I mean that it is further from the place where man rules,
And closer to where God imparts and impacts.

Out go the manicured gardens.
Out go the steaming queues of traffic.
Out go my decisions and my determinings—
And in their place?

Long fingers of land, stretched out into the sea . . .
Skies that dance and sing and streak . . ..
And people speaking with softened consonants,
Looking directly at you, and beckoning —
How can they have guessed what’s happening in my heart?

If your interest is beginning to kindle – then the reason is simple. We love Shetland, and we are succeeding in communicating our passion to you. Any subject becomes more interesting when someone perceives some fresh beauty or potential in it. That is why so many of us write best about the subjects that are closest to our hearts. To the enthusiastic writer, there are no inherently dull situations – there are only uninspiring authors. We can therefore fly this banner high: ‘Let your love and passion shine through’.

One final point. We may be writing passionately but are still making scant impression.. Quite possibly, our material may simply not getting into the right people’s hands. No one person’s style or subject material can possibly appeal to everyone. People who love the buzz of city life probably aren’t ready to consider living in Shetland. It is surprising how indifferent most all-in wrestlers are to fly-fishing!