Here are some big things that I work on from the beginning of a first draft and all the way through revisions: framing, point of view, and giving characters entrances. I may add other things to this section by and by, like developing characters and writing dialogue, but for now, this is what I have:
What is “framing”? To me, “framing” a story means crafting the way the reader enters, views, and experiences the story. A first chapter is the doorway into the story and it opens from there. You might go through the doorway and find yourself in a vast landscape with the whole world of the story already open all around you, or you might enter into a dim chamber that opens into a dark corridor where you catch glimpses of shadowy things as the story ushers you along. Is it airy or claustrophobic? Tense or calm? Mysterious? Funny? Shocking? It’s all up to you.
The framing establishes how the reader experiences everything.
Imagine your book is a world and you are the god of it and your reader is a tiny human navigating it. Your first job is to pick up that reader by the collar and drop him into your world. Where are you going to drop him? Will he land hard or soft? What’s the first thing he’s going to see? How much will he know and understand by the end of the first paragraph? The first chapter?
What do you want the reader to wonder about and hope for and fear? You want to set up certain expectations, and you want to dash some hopes -- but first you’ve got to put the readers where you want them. You have the power.
Point of View
Framing has a lot to do with Point of View. From what narrative perspective is the reader experiencing the action of the book? In first person through the eyes of the main character? From a limited third-person? Omniscient? This is what determines what the reader can see and know and there are many different way to go about it.
For me, I find it impossible to stick with one point of view. I use a third-person limited POV, but I switch whose POV it is, depending on whose perspective I think will make a given scene the most interesting. This is a classic no-no in children’s fiction but I just had to disregard it. I think I’ve done it in a way that ushers the readers along smoothly with me, so they don’t get disoriented or even really realize I’m doing it. (Fingers crossed. No one has yet said otherwise!) For example, at certain points I want the reader to know what Magpie is thinking, so I’m in her POV. At other points I want the reader to see what’s happening to her, as the other characters around her are seeing it, so I slip into one of their POVs.
This might sound confusing, but to show you what I mean: in Chapters 15 and 16 of Blackbringer, Magpie meets the Magruwen for the first time. Over the course of about 18 pages, the POV shifts several times between Magpie’s experience of the Magruwen, and the Magruwen’s experience of Magpie. Sure, I could have chosen just one or the other, but I felt it was richer and more fun to be able to experience it all, so I did what I wanted to do and hoped for the best.
Thank goodness, my editor did not ask me to revise the book down to a single POV. It would have been impossible for me. This is how I have to do it to have the freedom to frame scenes in whatever I feel is the “coolest” POV for that scene. To see what I mean, read the climax, Chapter 39, and imagine if it were only told from Magpie’s POV. See how much you wouldn’t be able to see and know? There are scenes in that chapter when we know the Blackbringer’s thoughts, and segments where we are with Talon, watching Magpie. For me, this gives me the freedom to pan around the scene and tease out the most dramatic frame for each part of the action.
I put extra spaces between scenes where the POV shifts, so usually in the first line of the new scene you know whose POV you’re in without having to think about it. Like I said, I hope no one even notices this until I mention it. The goal is always flow and a feeling of inevitability. When I’m watching a movie, the only times I notice technical stuff like camera work or the soundtrack are either if someone points it out to me, or if it’s badly done so it sticks out. I want to be swept into the movie and not be thinking of the fact that somebody made it. I want it to just be. Same with a book. I want to forget that it isn’t real and simply experience it. And as a writer, I want to provide an escapist experience for my readers.
There may, however, arise places where I haven’t handled things as deftly as I could, where I slip back and forth too rapidly between POVs, where you are in one character’s thoughts and you suddenly find yourself knowing a different character’s thoughts. That’s not okay. It’s got to be crafted carefully, and revisions are the place to really take this on.
Giving Characters “Entrances”
One of my favorite things is introducing my characters. This is a very important specific kind of framing. You want to set up your readers to feel a certain way about your characters, and you do this from the very first glimpse of them. How does the reader “meet” them? What are they doing or saying? This is somewhere I’m always trying to brainstorm up the “coolest” possible narrative choice.
The writer Sid Fleishman said at a SCBWI conference that you have to give your character “an entrance” -- an interesting and memorable introduction, and I agree with that entirely. In The Golden Compass, we meet Lyra sneaking and hiding and spying on her uncle. We immediately know a lot about her, and we also get to learn a lot by virtue of her spying and what she overhears. That’s a great frame and a great entrance. I chose to have readers meet Magpie while she’s doing what she does best: hunting devils. Take a look at some of your favorite books and memorable characters and see what those writers did, how they set you up to meet their characters, how they built windows through which you would experience the world of their story.
It’s craft. It’s a big part of the author’s power, and a big part of the fun of writing.