This is the first part of the script I used as a guide to the first podcast episode on creative writing I did for Starship Sofa:
A while back, I was on a conference panel with some other writers including a very successful and famous one. During our public talk, I said that I thought there needed to be better training facilities for writers. This very famous writer said he didn’t think writers needed training; they just need to write a good book.
Well, if that’s all he did to get his first book published, good luck to him. But in all the years I’ve been teaching and editing fiction writing, I’ve never seen a complete, ready to go, book produced by a new writer who’s had no training or teaching.
With that in mind, the issues this series will be working around, as they occur to me today at least – they’ll probably change as we go on, or if someone asks me an awkward question about one of them – are:
No one can teach you to write but somehow you have to get yourself taught.
- There are no rules to what makes a great story but you can’t be a real writer unless you know the rules in every cell of your being.
- You have to write stuff that the market wants but no one knows what the market wants.
- The story you’re writing now must become a finished piece of work but you as a writer will never finish learning how to be one.
I’m going to work live, so to speak, with issues that are bothering my own writing at the present time and the writers I work with.
Let’s start with Point of View:
I’d say this is the area that most of the writers I work with have the most trouble with. Which in one way is odd, in that we all spend all of our lives fixed in one POV.
The most important thing to understand is that POV is the main tool by which you create a sense of wonder in the reader. Here’s how it works.
When people used to gather around the fire for a story after supper, instead of now when they all go to their separate rooms to watch four different stories on TV, someone had to tell it. The story-teller was the POV for the audience. He would say, “Once upon a time . . . ” and everyone would switch off their worries and settle down for an adventure. But here’s the thing: he had to find ways to draw them into the story, otherwise they’d get bored, no matter how exciting the subject matter.
So a good story-teller used his face and hands and knowledge of his audience to draw them into his POV. He’d used analogies they could relate to, like – “The prince felt as happy as a hunter who finds two bears that have just killed themselves.” Even though the story is set in a magical land where there are no bears. He’d even directly bring in members of the audience, say how the prince’s son looked just like little Mugwug over there, only with more teeth; that kind of thing.
And so the wonder: the audience felt as if they were inside the story, and the story-teller as POV was the medium.
Now, moving forwards to the invention of the novel. For quite some time, novels and written short stories tended to carry on the story-telling tradition of having a POV that was not directly inside the story. Only now it was the author’s POV, not the story-teller’s. This is sometimes now called ‘omniscient’ POV which basically means ‘knows everything’ and is often associated with God, which is apt here in that the author’s POV tends to come across like a voice from on high.
You may be wondering how early novelists managed to draw their readers in to their stories and create that sense of wonder. Some people today will argue that they didn’t; that the sorts of people who read novels way back were toffs who liked to keep their emotions, like the peasants, at a safe distance. But at the same time, society was smaller then, people still shared common beliefs, perceptions and experiences. So writers could reasonably assume their readers would know what they meant for the most part. They also discussed the novels they read with each other, and so deepened the effect of the story. These days you could spend a week trawling every pub in London to find someone who’s read the same novel as you, if you didn’t get arrested first.
So, it’s fair to say that omniscient POV is a hard sell today and later we’ll look at why. But for now, think about the Sherlock Holmes stories: here we have a main character who’s brilliant but aloof, insightful of others yet often disdainful of them too. Yet we care about him. Why? Because Conan Doyle was clever enough to use first person POV, not omniscient. First person just means ‘I’ basically: the POV is directly inside one character’s head. If Doyle had used omniscient POV, we’d have hated Holmes and wanted Moriarty to have beheaded him, not just dragged him over a cliff into a gorge, to make sure the arrogant bastard could never return.
And here’s where Conan Doyle showed what a great author he was, because he chose the right first person POV: Holmes’s friend, Dr Watson. The obvious choice would have been Holmes, because then the author had the perfect vehicle for telling the reader every brilliant thought passing through the great detective’s mind. But then readers don’t want brilliant thoughts coming at them like an AK-47 (incidentally, that’s a POV violation, which I’ll explain later), they want to feel wonder and mystery and magic and emotion. Holmes doesn’t have time for any of that wimpy stuff; he probably doesn’t even believe in it. But Watson does. He’s clever, too, but can’t usually keep fully up to speed with Holmes because a large part of his psyche is fuelled by empathy and compassion. And it’s those qualities that draw us in to the story. From inside Watson’s humane view of the world we can admire Holmes but not hate him as we would if forced to sit inside his immense head for the duration of the story.
Which brings me on to another very important consideration in the history of POV, the invention of the movie camera.
Now, obviously theatre had been around for a long time, but it wasn’t such a big jump away from the story-teller, who was as much an actor as narrator anyway. But the camera is an inanimate object, not really any different to a pair of eyes looking at whatever they happen to point at.
So, when they came to make films of Sherlock Holmes, there was a problem: the story couldn’t be told from inside Watson’s head. Therefore, there was no contrast and conflict between the empathic Watson and the some would say sociopathic Holmes to draw in the viewer’s interest. Instead, they followed more of a music hall approach – which early cinema tended to follow, rather than the novelistic method – and created a nice obvious contrast between the two main characters: clever and stupid. Watson became the straight man for Holmes, except Holmes wasn’t very funny. Watson was the bumbling fool against which the director could easily show Holmes’s brilliance. This would have been impossible in the books, even if Doyle had wanted to do the same, because we were in Watson’s head and therefore he had to be at least clever enough to understand Holmes’ explanations when presented to him. But in film, Holmes just had to tell the camera.
As film making has matured, and equipment improved, Watson’s intelligence and empathy have been restored and as a result Holmes can be seen as less than omniscient – freed from that point of view – and be far more attractive as a result.