Resources for Writers
Perspectives on Perspective in Fiction Writing by Kerensa Jennings
Literature is so subjective. We each bring our own feelings and contexts to every bit of reading we experience. And that makes things tricky for writers. The truth is, we cannot predict exactly how someone may respond to what we write. And we cannot – in many ways – control it.
Having said that, there are some technical devices we can use to hold the reader by the hand.
The filmmaker Steven Spielberg says: ‘The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.’
Now, I’m not a fan of the term ‘manipulation’, because it sounds somewhat insidious. However, I am a lifelong devotee to the art of storytelling. And of course it is an art, but also a science. When you practice your writing and make good use of technique – that’s the science bit. Crafting a narrative means mapping out structure, deciding on plot devices, and planning the atmosphere you want to create, as much as it means having a sense of what your story might be.
In my psychological thriller, Seas of Snow, I have drawn on a plot device familiar to all of us who are voracious readers. The perspective shift. I did this to establish the ambiance and emotional impact I needed to permeate the drama. Although Seas of Snow is a thriller, and many are classifying it as ‘crime fiction’ – which it is – there is also something of the fairy tale about it. And for that to come to life, I needed to create a hazy, dream-like quality to the storytelling.
One book blogger, Ali the Dragon Slayer, said this in her 5* review: “A fabulous story, hauntingly magical, with an almost hypnotic quality.” I created this quality by drifting between time, place and perspective. I deliberately set out to create ambiguity, and used fragmented narration which gives the camera’s eye view of the action.
Having spent more than twenty years as a television producer, I write in a very cinematic way, with close-ups and mid-shots, as well as the arcing widescreen.
TV writing also helped me develop the ability to write in someone else’s voice. I have spent years of my life writing words, lines and stories for others to read out loud. For the audience to feel they are experiencing something authentic, it is vital that the writer inhabits the vocabulary, vernacular, delivery and pacing of whoever is speaking.
I bring the same approach to fiction writing, especially when using perspective shift. We don’t want the reader to feel confused, so it needs to be clear whose window on the world we are seeing. I did, however, sometimes want to catch my reader off-guard, and jar the narrative in places so that the unsettling, disturbing scenes that unfold through the book were mirrored in the discomfort experienced by the reader. I introduced a sense of fragmentation to reflect the broken, shattered lives affected by the abominations perpetrated by my antagonist, Joe.
The key for me was to inhabit through my imagination the worlds of my characters – learn to be them from the inside out. Try to feel what they would feel, speak how they would speak, think how they would think. With Joe, I found this to be a particularly disturbing experience. It was truly nauseating trying to think through how someone as monstrous as that might think, feel, speak. But if I did not put myself through that horrifying torment, how could I expect my readers to believe in the authenticity of my writing?
To inform my approach, I read numerous books about real life characters like Joe. My starting point was the Soham murderer Ian Huntley, the school caretaker who had so callously stolen the lives of two innocent little girls. I got to know what happened in intimate detail through my work over many months leading the BBC News coverage of the case. It was a profoundly affecting experience, and my outrage and horror at what that man had done, lead to a fascination with the question of whether evil is born or made… the original inspiration and the question at the heart of Seas of Snow.
The book also sees the world through the eyes of Gracie, the little girl whose life is changed forever when her uncle Joe appears. It was important for me to create a touchstone of innocence in the book, as a counterpoint to the evil. The way I did this was to use friendship, playtime and poetry. Gracie ends up discovering – and coming to rely on – the joy, solace and escape of poetry to sustain her. By introducing her to poems, we are able to discover this joy alongside her. And hopefully this makes poetry – which so many people think of as intimidating or difficult – accessible instead, because we are seeing it through the eyes of a child.
Getting Gracie and her best friend Billy’s vocabulary right was the hardest technical aspect of writing the book. We first meet them when they are five and seven, and they grow up through the book. Again, I did so much reading to underpin my work and to imbue it with authenticity – especially as the story is set in North Tyneside, so getting the dialect correct was important.
Literature is deliciously, frustratingly subjective. But devices like perspective shifts can help readers immerse themselves in your world. As Gracie says: “Welcome to my life. I’ll try to show you around.” Come on in…
(c) Kerensa Jennings
About Seas of Snow:
1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations.
But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?
Pick up your copy online here!
Kerensa Jennings is a storyteller, strategist, writer, producer and professor.
Kerensa’s TV work took her all over the world, covering everything from geo-politics to palaeontology, and her time as Programme Editor of Breakfast with Frost coincided with the life-changing events of 9/11.
The knowledge and experience she gained in psychology by qualifying and practising as an Executive Coach has only deepened her fascination with exploring the interplay between nature and nurture and with investigating whether evil is born or made – the question at the heart of Seas of Snow.
As a scholar at Oxford, her lifelong passion for poetry took flight. Kerensa lives in West London and over the last few years has developed a career in digital enterprise.
Seas of Snow is her first novel.