One of the loveliest comments people have made about my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, is that it has a cinematic quality. I think that’s because I craft scenes rather than chapters and because I think about what happens to my characters as if looking through the lens of a camera.
Writers have a great deal to learn from the art of film and television, not least how to dramatise chapters and how to create pace and suspense.
My love of multiple point of view also comes from film, which so brilliantly get into the heads of different characters and shows the world through their eyes.
One of the perspectives I played with in Norah Wells – a camera angle if you will – is the bird’s eye view. The novel is structured over a long, May bank holiday and at the beginning and end of each day you pull away from being in one particular character’s head and, instead, weave between all of them, as if looking down on them from above.
I’ve include the opening bird’s eye view chapter from Norah Wells below as an example. Have a look at how I give a snapshot of each character and how, in each of these small sketches, I reveal something about that character and also about the plot. Look, particularly, at the questions I try to raise through this bird’s eye view scene: my aim is to make the reader curious and to propel the reader into the next chapter.
What makes this exercise effective?
The bird’s eye view is a wonderfully concentrated way of getting across key details about plot and character in a short space of time. It allows each character to have a moment in the sun and so to share herself with the reader. It taps into the relationships between the characters. And it’s a style which is highly visual so it helps your readers to picture exactly what is happening in the scene.
- Think of a confined place in which a bunch of characters might be co-existing: a bus, a car, a lift, an airplane, a house, a cinema, a classroom. Consider how you can bring this setting to life and what it will contribute to the way your characters are presented and how it relates to the plot too.
- Think of a dramatic situation connected to this scene: maybe a secret that they are all about to uncover or some kind of incident that they’ve just experienced or are about to experience.
- Decide how many characters you are going to feature. Here, I have five – well, six, if you count Louis the dog.
- Decide the order in which your characters will appear – this is an important thing to consider as regards building towards a climax and raising questions.
- Make notes on one key characteristic you want to reveal about each of your characters.
- Make notes on the questions you want to raise in your reader’s minds. A few of the things I wanted my readers to wonder why the little girl wasn’t able to sleep and what was going wrong in the teenage girl’s life and who the woman was standing on the doorstep.
- Think about how your scene foreshadows (points to) something that is going to be addressed in the following scene. In my story, the next scene is going to tackle the woman standing on the doorstep and her relationship to this family.
- Consider the tone and emotions you would like to be present in this scene: will your scene be slow and languorous or fast and furious; will it be full of anger or grief or regret or joy or danger? You want your reader to feel these things.
- Now write a bird’s eye view scene, weaving in all the points above. Think carefully about how your setting might contribute to your story in the way that I have used the skinny, redbrick house in my story.
- Write the scene which follows this one, choosing one of your characters as the person through whose eyes you want to see what happens next.
- If you are working on a novel, think about how you might use a bird’s eye scene at another point in your story.
Extract from The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells by Virginia Macgregor, pp. 1-2
The world is waking up. Or it’s trying to, anyway.
It’s waking up in the small town of Holdingwell.
It’s waking up on Willoughby Street.
It’s waking up in Number 77, the tall red-brick house with scaffolding that stretches up to the roof.
At the top of the house, dawn tugs at a teenage girl. She rubs her eyes, sticky with the soot of make-up. Her bed is littered with A4 paper; strips of neon highlighter smudge the words. At the foot of her bed sit a pair of battered running shoes. The girl sinks deeper under her duvet and prays to the alarm on her phone: Just give me a few more minutes …
On the landing, a little girl hovers outside her father’s bedroom. She spent the night out here, comforted by his sleeping body on the other side of the door. They’ve made a deal: no more sneaking in in the middle of the night, not unless it gets really bad. If you don’t pander to them, the dreams will go away, says her father. You need to train them, like we trained Louis. But the little girl isn’t sure. She’s never heard of anyone who could train a ghost.
On the other side of the door, the father reaches out for the woman he loves. Nothing but cool, empty sheets. He rubs his eyes and reaches for his glasses, and listens to the house waking up.
A bark from the kitchen.
His little girl’s footsteps on the landing.
His teenage daughter’s alarm.
In the tall red-brick house, a big dog lies heavily in his den under the stairs, his fur as curly as an old lady’s perm. He drools, his mouth slack with sleep. He smells a shift in the air. He’s smelt it all night, weaving between dreams of lampposts and the Chihuahuas from across the street and the bone he’s going to get tonight because it’s Friday.
Across town, in the Pediatric Ward of Holdingwell General, the Mother who Stayed washes her hands. She rubs her palms, scrubs under her nails, and laces her fingers under the scalding water. Her raw skin flushes pink and she wonders whether one day she’ll rub so many cells off her hands her skin will give way to flesh and bone. She closes her eyes and releases a long breath to ease the nausea. She thinks of the May bank holiday – a whole weekend away from the hospital. Sleep. Peace. Home.
Back on Willoughby Street, two old ladies lift their net curtains and look at the tall red-brick house. On the doorstep, under the full bloom of a cherry tree, they see the Mother who Left put down her trumpet case and look up at the house she hasn’t seen for six years.