Convention, and why it is important

This is an adaptation from a response to a beta read I just sent.  It’s about convention, and why it’s important if you want people to read, and enjoy, your story…

It’s very challenging to shed your author’s blinders when you read your own work (why it’s _imperative_ you get someone else to edit your work; while some beta readers may note some issues, you can’t rely on them; it’s not their job). You know exactly who’s thinking what, when each character speaks, when they react, etc. But your reader isn’t inside your head, and only has the words on the page to go by.

Point of view (POV) is important to set at the very start of your novel. We, as readers, need to know who is ‘doing the talking’ in the narration. My first was in first-person, which puts one kind of straight jacket on, meaning your character/narrator can only know what they know, they can never know what other people are thinking/feeling/etc. unless those others voice their thoughts. And, of course, the other can be lying. Third person has many levels. There’s close-in third-person, where it’s slightly removed from first-person, but enables the narrator to remark upon such things as other people’s expressions that might have been missed by the main character. You still can’t know other’s emotions, though. Your third-person can back off to objective, meaning you describe what’s visible, but can’t get into the emotional aspects of the characters. Then there’s third-person, omniscient.

Omniscient POV is a very common one for beginning authors, as it allows the author to convey the thoughts and emotions of every character. Some authors do this very well. I was rereading one of my favorites after I’d been learning lots of craft issues and realized he was ‘hopping heads’ (rapidly switching POVs) all the time. He did it so smoothly, though, that I never had any issues knowing where the narrative focus was. That’s the critical difference that’s so hard to clearly define for beginners. ANYTHING that confuses the reader is a ‘bad thing’ (unless you’re deliberately trying to confuse, such as in a murder mystery with red herrings or with an unreliable narrator). The reader should never have to go back and reread to figure out which character is the focus. Every time your reader has to stop and figure out where the focus is, you risk them putting the book down, never to pick it up again.

Each POV has it’s own restrictions and conventions. Third-person objective is like watching a movie, the reader can only observe. First person, as I said, means you can never know what other characters are thinking. Omniscient is fraught with issues for a debut author (if you assume that anyone will immediately think ‘hopping heads’ (which is a ‘bad thing’) you’re probably safe). Generally, the ‘safest’ POV is third-person, close in. This allows you, as the author, to explore the thoughts and emotions of the MC, as if in first-person, but allow your attention to wander around and see things that are visible to your MC, but not their focus.

Tense is another issue. I wrote my first in present-tense, because I wanted to create a sense of immediacy. Also, I have the conceit of the diary and wanted everything to feel like it was happening in real time. However, after rereading some favorite books, I realized, as a reader, it was all happening in ‘present time’ in my head, so it was largely irrelevant. That being said, if you’re writing in present-tense, you can’t foreshadow anything, unless you want to break that ‘contract’ with the reader.

But, you exclaim (assuming you’ve read this far), I have an artistic vision and want to keep with it! You have a decision to make: write purely for yourself, or write for others to read and enjoy. If the former, then do as you wish. If the latter, then you have to accommodate conventions. Conventions exist so that people well removed from each other, geographically and temporally, can communicate concepts and ideas smoothly and efficiently. If I make up a language each time I write something, how many readers should I expect to be willing to decode it just to see what I’m writing about? Naturally this is the logical extreme, but walk back and you can see that unless you stick with accepted convention you’re forcing your reader to decode your meaning. Sometimes that’s the point of your story, but you need to understand that translates to fewer readers willing to invest the energy. I’ve had readers complain about a handful of ‘archaic’ words scattered in a 80K manuscript and state that they’d put the book down if they didn’t feel obligated as a beta reader.

The first step is to determine what your artistic vision is. Are you trying to tell a story that other people will enjoy, or are you trying to be clever with your prose and impress literary people bored with convention? If the former (I’m assuming, for the purposes of this email), then you need to minimize any characteristics about your prose that will pop the reader out of the story, so they can focus and enjoy it. How to do this? Stick with convention as much as possible. Violate it only in specific ways and the minimum number of times.

Conventions can feel like a straight jacket if you let it. If, on the other hand, you look upon your writing as a challenge to yourself, to select words to formulate sentences such that you can have your readers so focused on the story that the very words vanish into a movie projected in their mind, then the conventions become something to embrace. I admit that I left in most of the archaic words mentioned above. I learned my vocabulary by reading and internalized meaning through context. The words were few and far between and were small accents to my character’s speech mannerisms and I felt would diminish that impact if watered down. That does mean I’ll be turning off the readers that refuse to learn new words, either via Googling (not an option when I started reading!) or through context.

Does this mean you must subsume your voice? Voice, you ask? That difficult to define, but immediately noticeable, characteristic that each author develops as they write. Regular readers can often tell who an author is simply by word choice, phrases, dialog layout, etc. (computer programs easily detect this and are used for finding instances of plagiarism). You might think adhering to convention would dilute/subsume your voice, but it will always show through. What you want to do is to develop your voice while also mastering the conventions. Conventions can be broken and still entrance the reader, but the more you do so, the more you risk restricting your readership. Fewer potential readers means less opportunity for commercial success. If you don’t care about commercial success, then you don’t have to give a damn about convention. But if you want others to read and enjoy your work, stick with convention unless you have a very valid reason for breaking it, and break only the minimum your story requires, and be absolutely consistent when doing so.

Author: mitusents

Biochemist, MBA, then programmer. Now novelist, screenplay writer and hopefully director. What a strange trip it's been.