Yes, you’re the author of your novel – but are you the one telling the story? If the answer is yes, then maybe you’re doing it wrong!
Jane Austen was definitely the one telling the story in her novels. She wrote as if she was a ghostly observer, able to flit around to any of her characters and describe what they were doing. That’s known as the “Omniscient” Point of View and it was common then – but it’s rare nowadays. If you are writing in Omniscient, you should rethink – modern editors don’t like it.
Pick up any modern novel and read the first few paragraphs. Chances are, the writer is using his skill to make you feel you’re seeing the story through the eyes of one character. If it’s well done, you feel as though you’re inside the character’s head. That’s clever, because once you start identifying with that person, you become involved in the story and you want to go on reading.
That’s why modern fiction is all about Point of View (POV). Most novels are now written from the point of view of one or more of the main characters.
You can do this in a couple of ways. The simplest way is to choose one character, then write the whole book in first person, i.e. “I walked into the room, I did this, I did that”. The snag with this option is that you can only write what your character sees or hears. If something is going on that you’d like your reader to know, but your character isn’t there or doesn’t hear about it – bad luck.
That’s why so many stories are written in third person, so the author can choose to be different characters in different scenes. This has to be approached carefully, because if you overdo it (which is called “head-hopping”, you can totally confuse your poor reader!
A good rule of thumb when you’re starting out, is to pick one character at the start of each scene, and stay inside that person’s head for the whole scene. Once you get more confident, you can try switching POV once in the middle.
Tip: If you find yourself switching POV’s more than once during a single scene, then you’re probably overdoing it.
When I say “pick one character”, I mean decide which character you’re going to be, then really immerse yourself in that personality. Write the scene using his vocabulary (including slang), and refer to other characters by the nicknames he/she would use. Describe the other characters’ actions as he would see them. Don’t be afraid to include his inner thoughts and reactions. Be very careful not to include anything that your chosen character can’t see or hear.
If you find yourself wanting to tell the reader something your character can’t know, that may be your cue to switch into another character who DOES know. But be careful: never use the POV of a minor character, only your principal “actors” – and you should use the POV of no more than three or four different people in the whole novel. Once they are ushered inside a character’s head, your reader automatically assumes that person is important, and is confused if they’re never heard from again. And readers find it difficult to follow if they’re bouncing from one mind to another every few paragraphs.
If you’re going to break the rules, do it because you know them, not because you don’t!
Of course, there are writers who get away with ignoring these rules very well. But for new writers, it’s well worth sticking to them at first. The reason is that it’s very, very easy to get lazy with POV, especially if you’re writing anything involving suspense. Unlike Jane Austen, you can’t pop in as yourself and write, “Unbeknownst to Emma, the storekeeper was not telling the truth, and was plotting to ring her aunt as soon as she left the shop”. But you’d like your reader to know that. How tempting is it to pop inside the storekeeper’s head and show us what he’s thinking?
If you don’t set limits, you’ll find yourself popping in and out of heads all over the place. And nine times out of ten, there turns out to be a much better way of doing it – but it’s one that takes a fair bit of effort. Unless you have the rule to discipline you, you may not make that effort, and your novel will be the poorer for it.