Four reasons your POV isn’t working

It’s one of the first decisions you need to make when starting a novel (or a short story or screenplay or pretty much all writing in fact): who is telling this story, and how are they choosing to do so?

This week at Bloomsbury House, our Writing A Novel students have been learning about point of view. First person, second or third; past or present or a combination thereof – finding the perfect voice can do wonders for your narrative.

But if something doesn’t feel right as you start putting the words down on the page, here are some of the reasons your chosen POV might not be working for you.

Your first person narrator doesn’t know enough… Or they know too much

Writing in the first person can be a real gift – done well, it can quickly bring your reader close, make your action feel more immediate. But it can prove tricky in terms of plot because we can only know what your narrator knows; while this can add intrigue and layers to the reading experience, you may also find yourself constantly having to invent ways for them to overhear or see things that move the story along.

At the opposite end of the scale, a first person narrator can sometimes know too much for your plot to feel believable. If your main character is withholding information from the reader that will provide a twist at the end, think carefully about the mechanics of this. Of course deliberate misdirection can work brilliantly (do we even need to mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd here?), but this suggests an interaction, a dialogue between narrator and reader. You can do this by playing with form – the diary sections of Gone Girl are another oft-used example – but if your novel features a more traditional first person narrative then there should be a good reason that a relevant fact doesn’t surface in their inner monologue until the point at which it serves you best. It can feel like a cheat, for example, if your main character spends an entire novel watching a murder investigation and only acknowledges to themselves right at the end that they’ve held a vital clue all along.

Your third person narrative is keeping you at arm’s length

A third person narrative can give you a lot of freedom. If you choose an omniscient narrator you can decide to move from character to character, even to impart information that none of them have; whilst even a close third person narrative can offer a cooler, more balanced perspective than being inside that character’s head. But it can also be limiting in certain stories.

Sometimes we need to have a closeness to our protagonist(s) in order to fully experience the things that are happening to them, and in the third person, you may find yourself resorting to that much-feared writing sin of telling your reader what your character is feeling and thinking. Consider this: Brian thought that Miranda was an idiot, especially since that time she had broken his favourite mug in the kitchen on the same day that he had stepped in a puddle on the way to work. He thought about what an awful day that had been. It becomes laborious to read; distancing for a reader. Instead, novelists from Jane Austen to Stephen King have made excellent use of free indirect style to bring their narrative to life. Miranda was an idiot. What about that time she had broken his favourite mug? That had been an awful day; his trousers still wet from the puddle he had stepped in on the way to work. The content is essentially the same and yet it subtly positions us, the reader, in a different way.

Your past tense is… not so tense

While writing in the past tense offers you a great level of control as a writer, if you’re also using the first person, it can make it harder to add suspense. Because how to make us wonder if things will turn out alright when the narrator is patently here to tell the tale? The third person can offer better grounds for toying with your reader here, giving you all the power. But it can work in the first person too – if you have that relationship between narrator and reader mentioned above. Is your narrator holding back what happened from us? Or do we know from the outset where they are now, and the drive of the narrative is therefore in finding out how that came to be?

Something to consider with any story is the question: why should we care? Why will we read on? Is it to watch events unfold, or to simply enjoy being in the company of an irresistible narrator? Is it because we can’t stop, because we need to know what happens next? Knowing this when you set out will help you work out at an early stage whether the POV you have chosen is going to help you achieve that goal.

The voice you’re using is great – but it doesn’t belong to the character you’re writing

Sometimes everything can be great in the thing you’re writing – you love the prose, you can tell the pace is there, exposition is no problem – but somehow it just still feels… wrong. If you’re writing in the first person, take a step back and consider your narrator. Think about who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through. Is the voice you’ve given them built up from that? Does everything that gives it depth – their vocabulary, their speech patterns, the unique way they think about and look at the world – come from it? If the answer is no – if the voice came first and their story is something you’re figuring out along the way, or if your plot has shifted and changed the longer you’ve been working on it, it could be time to revisit who this narrator is. Character questionnaires and other short exercises can be a great way to do this; on Writing A Novel, we often recommend students attempt writing a letter to themselves, the author, from their protagonists. Get to know your character again and you may find your POV slipping back into place.

#QUICKFIC 18/11/2019: The Winner

Runner Up: Thom Willis

Time Alone

Imitation snow on the window, light blazed, bath filled with thick bubbled. Almost time. Later, water clouded and slick with scented oils, the cold invades once more. Time passed, the time is past. The steam misting the cold window now water again, soaking into the snow-foam.

Cold tiles. Feet bare, tread high and find the bath cold, water stale and still. She steps in, lies back. The water moves slows, closes clammily over her skin. Imitation snow on the window spreads milky patches across the sill. The lights are dim, the blue night grey in the white bathroom.

It is a ritual, performed for no one and no purpose. The oil on the surface is flammable and its blue flame dances will o’the wisp in the room. Corpse-lights. Here, Dracula’s coachman sets a rock to dig in the morning. She extends a leg, and allows all to slip greasily back into the water. She speaks, addressing the room. She incants.

The light will soon be on the other side of the window. True snow is promised in the mellow bulge of the clouds, banking over the distant hills. She takes the water in a small bottle, caps it. Curses, blessings, simple comforts for superstitious minds. She trusts its power. Walks, feet flat to the frigid floor, back out the way she came. Time over.

Runner Up: Charlotte Risdale

How has it come to this? It’s Friday night, I’m in my twenties (just), and look at me. These are meant to be some of the best years of my life. All I had wanted was to sit back in a hot bath with a cold gin and read my book. Instead, I’m here in a lukewarm bath with no gin, trying to get an awkward patch of hair on my ankle without taking off half my skin all for a date I don’t really want to go on with my sister’s friend, Steve. Not that there’s anything wrong with Steve – I’m sure he’s a lovely guy. It’s just hard to mentally prepare yourself for a date you’ve been railroaded into by your mother who thinks it’s about time to start thinking about settling down. Obviously this is a ridiculously antiquated idea, and normally I would call her out on things like this, but sometimes it helps to placate her. Like, for example, when she is the woman helping you pay rent because your long-term boyfriend suddenly announced he had decided he was going to back-pack around Asia without you and left you to pay the entire rent for your apartment in Islington which you definitely could not afford but was ‘an investment in our future’ (his words, not mine). So here I am, in 2019, crumpled up in the bath, getting ready for a date my mother arranged for me. God, I need a gin.

Winner: Jessica Joy

Peach

I’m ten again. I hate this bathroom. It’s still as cold and soapy as it was back then. I prefer a shower but the shower never worked. A quarter-filled with tepid water, a bath forces you to hug cold knees or to contemplate your stomach and thighs. A bath coerces you to lie in your own dirt. And guilt. I avoid baths, usually.

My parent’s bathroom hasn’t changed one iota, since the Eighties. Cheap white suite. Cheap peach-coloured tiles. More ‘budget rental’ than ‘hotel boutique’.

Peach. I can’t stand peaches. They make my tongue itch. I was a peach once. Well, more than once. That’s what Uncle Mo called me, his ‘Little Peach.’

The track marks on my arm look like teeth marks. “Just one small bite of my Little Peach.”

I can hear the murmur of voices downstairs in the sitting room. They think I don’t know what’s going on. The invitation was to Sunday lunch, with the family. But it’s another Intervention.

I pull out the plug and lie back hoping the water will whisk me down the drain with all the scum and dead skin and hairs. I shiver in the empty bath. My shoulders squeak against the base.

There is a tap, tap, tap on the bathroom door. I freeze. But it’s Mum’s voice that whispers through the gap, “Are you coming down now?”

Maybe this time I’ll have the courage to tell them the truth. Maybe this time I’ll show them the real scars. 


Thank you all for some lovely interpretations for what even I deemed  ‘a weird prompt’ everyone! Biggest of congratulations to Thom, Charlotte and Jessica. Charlotte, if your piece has a name let me know and I’ll add it in.

Look out for a #QUICKFIC announcement coming soon. Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

 

#QUICKFIC 18/10/2019

Good morning sunshine! The weather has finally turned, I’m snug as a bug in a rug in a fluffy jumper and the pile of leaves outside my house made a delicious crunchy noise when I jumped in them. As we all know the only thing better than a crunchy leaf pile is a good old round of #QUICKFIC, Faber Academy’s Flash Fiction competition.

I know we’ve had a few new joiners, so if you don’t know what this oddity is, read the rules below. If you know what you’re about, scroll just a little further down to the prompt way below and get cracking!

  • At the end of this blog post you’ll see a prompt.
  • From that prompt, I’d like you to write a piece of flash fiction, 250 words or less (not including the title, because I’m nice,)
  • Once you’re happy with your piece, copy and paste it into the body of an email, including your title and a word count.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 18/10/2019.
  • Send that email over to the team at academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm GMT on the Friday afternoon. And not a moment later!

From 2:50 to 3:30 pm it’s waiting time until the winner and runner ups are revealed on the blog.

This week’s winner can claim a beautiful pile of non-fiction wonders. We’ve got Can You Solve My Problems? by Alex Bellos, Mr Lear by Jenny Uglow and The House Party by Adrian Tinniswood as this weeks prize:

(Typewriter and beautiful autumn weather not included)

Then, as ever, it is my duty and privileged to reveal the prompt!

Drum roll please…

 

 

 

 

 

Annnnnd go.

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.

#QUICKFIC 11/10/2019: The Winner

 

Runner Up: Sarah Nash

Cherry Tomatoes

Congratulations!Happy Anniversary!Surprise!

Dust settles over the garden like a cobweb blanket, muffling the sounds of evening.

Are you hiding, you cheeky pair?

At your age?

Fifty years. What an achievement.

A mouse scrabbles, a toad rumbles, a rat scratches.

Bit of a let down.

I wanted to pop the champagne.

They’ve only got beer. Honestly!

Silent petals drop from the flowers with the passing of years.

Perhaps they’ve gone for a walk.

They haven’t even eaten yet.

It’ll all go soggy.

Fireflies light the paths and the lamp remains unlit.

Cherry tomatoes are one of Mum’s favourites.

Last taste of summer, she always says.

Dad’s not so keen, though.

The leaves on the plate wither and fade in the gathering gloom.

It’s a bit late to go for a walk.

I don’t like the idea of them out in the dark.

Do you think they’ve taken a torch with them?

There are rocks along the way but they gaze ahead and do not falter.

Perhaps she told him before they sat down.

He won’t be able to cope without her.

We’ll just have to help him between us.

The path is long and winding but they have always walked it together.

What shall we do?

What can we do?

What do they want us to do?

On and on they stroll, hand in hand, fingers entwined, steps in tune.

On and on, into the white light and the forever.

Runner Up: Sam Heague 

The Broken Kingdom

She always was funny, even right up until the end. I mean, who else plays dead in a hospice? F*ck sake, Kimmy! My face breaks into half a smile. God I miss her. Why can’t you still be playing dead now?

Like always, I cooked this meal for two with one eye looking out over the garden. That was her space you see. I built this house with my bare hands, as they say, but she reimagined the garden with hers. A whole kingdom built together (queendom if you asked her), over a lifetime. Sometimes I still expect to see her out there. Sometimes I even think I do, daft old sod.

“Are we ’avin’ a party tonight?” she used to say, grin on her face, inspecting the feeding-of-the-five-thousand sized meals I’d prepared for dinner.

“Our kids have all left home now, y’know?”

I can still almost hear her say it now…

I know, Kimmy. I know.

I stoop and trim two of the freshest roses from the bush and inhale them deeply, before placing them in a glass. So colourful, so vibrant, so alive, I think. It was only three weeks ago today that I scattered her ashes over this garden of ours. God I miss her. The roses keep me going, just about: a kingdom broken, but not totally.

Winner: Casey Bottono

Writers Retreat

Like me, late summer fights to hang on. Just sometimes, it is easier to escape into a world of your own making. That’s why I didn’t notice him at first, standing there anxious not to break the dream.

In the world I’ve made, your body can’t betray you. In the physical world, no such luck. Harry clears his throat and weighs his words carefully.

“Do you want to come out in the garden with me, love?”

He took his grief out on the earth itself, while I escaped into my stories. Life slowed to a crawl, and I shut every door I could.

Early September days I stumble, but he’s trying. Eyeing cold coffee in a stained cup, I move towards the kitchen. The cup goes in the sink, he slips his hand in mine.

“Close your eyes, sweetheart.” Surprises frighten me, and my body braces.

We embark on an incredible journey, or so it seems. After the longest time, he releases my hand for just a second.

“Take a seat.”

While I’ve been locked in my stories, he’s made a splendid dinner, just for the two of us.
As though for the first time, I see the garden verdant and determined. Maybe I can blossom too.

Harry fills my glass and his own, then raises it aloft.

“To Rory, our little lion heart…and to life.”

I echo his toast, and something loosens. Like the leaves changing colour on the trees, Autumn is a chance to start again.


What a welcome back! Contemplative and moody, just like the weather. Congratulations to Sarah, Sam and Casey. Many thanks to everyone that submitted.

May your weekends be dry(ish) and cosy. See you soon!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 11/10/2019

Welcome home, flash fiction fans! The Academy’s new term is in full swing (hi to all the new students) and so it’s time to kick #QUICKFIC back into gear too.

Thanks to the long break I’m going to whip you through a quick rules refresher before we get to the good stuff. If you remember every detail of how to play, scroll on down. If you don’t, or you’re completely new, here is how #QUICKFIC works:

  1. At the bottom of this blog post and on Twitter on Friday at 9:50 am you’ll see a ‘prompt.’ Usually these are pictures, but sometimes I throw a curve ball. Keeps you on your toes.
  2. After gazing at the prompt for a while I’d like you to write a short story of 250 words or less inspired by what you see.
  3. Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm GMT that Friday afternoon.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 11/10/2019.

Once 2:50 pm hits I read through all the pieces and pick the runners up and winner both on this blog and on Twitter. 

Winners get not only my undying admiration but also an actual, physical prize in the form of books! This week you stand a chance of winning In the Fold and The Temporary, both by Rachel Cusk, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera and What Happened? by Hanif Kureishi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And all you have to have to do to get these in your possession is write me a wonderful little tale based on this beautiful scene…

 

Get writing!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.