About writing a book

In my previous blog post I had expressed my intentions to write a thriller book. I am happy that some of my dear friends took it really seriously and personally mailed and commented that they take the risk of reading the first drafts.

However, as my question on Quora revealed, writing book is not just about writing the story in your head. There is a lot of “meta-thinking” that needs to be done.

First question I asked myself was how do I tell the story? What should be the narrative mode? The two narrative modes are First Person and Second Person. (Please read the wiki article to know the difference). In case of first person narrative you can either chose only one character narrating the whole story, in which case that character is required to be part of every incident of interest or the other approach is to have multiple characters narrating the same story in their own way. This second approach is good for a complex story but it is a pretty big burden for the author since the way these characters perceive the common incidences must be coherent yet reflecting the difference in their personalities. Consider the battle of mahabharata where Arjun and Karna are face to face for a fight. Now this scene can be written as if Sanjay is narrating it. (Third person). Or we might chose to write it as if Arun is retelling the story or Karna is retelling the story (First person). Karna and Arujan are completely different and hence details of the story will change drastically based on who is narrating it. For Arjun its about fighting a foe who has vowed to destroy him, it is just one of the battles he has to win but a difficult one. Arjun at the most has a slight doubt about his own victory yet knows that he will win. For Karna is it not about a battle but about his existence itself. It is the only moment for which he has lived. All the efforts of his entire life will go into fighting this particular battle. Irrespective of he wins or not, this is THE END for him.

If we chose third person narrative the focus is on the surrounding details. How the warriors are dressed, how the other soldiers are reacting to this, what does the facial expressions of warriors say and so on. These are small details but they matter a lot.

In case of first person narrative, the focus is on the internal thinking of the narrator. This has to be extremely consistent with image you want to build in reader’s mind. In case of Karna you need to highlight every now and then that he lives for revenge. That he looks at revenge as redemption for a lifetime of emotional torture. (Those who have read Mrutyunjaya a marathi biography of Karna will understand what I am saying).

While these are ‘in the face’ differences between the two styles there are more subtle differences as well.

Let quickly give an example.

A certain mystery novel was written and it got very popular. This novel employed first person narrative. The character narrating the story was a Nurse hired to look after recently orphaned children of a very rich man. The rich man lived in a mansion and soon after he died in an accident the trust looking after his property employed this nurse in the service of the 7 children the man had/adopted. But very soon, a strange supernatural power starts to dominate the mansion. The nurse is extremely scared and wants to run away but her love for the children holds her back. She even starts encountering this creature and learns about his plans. This creature is planning to kill the children one by one and the nurse is trying to stop it. Nurse herself has some horrible past which has left scars on her mind. As the time passes all the attempts by the nurse as well as the law enforcement officers fail and all 7 children get killed and the sad nurse leaves the mansion.

The whole story is narrated by nurse and that is the key point of the story. Why ? After many years the author said why he employed the first person narrative. The author wanted to suggest that there was not supernatural power in that house. The nurse herself killed the children without her own knowledge. Her past has split her personality, one one side she was extremely compassionate to the children where as in other the opposite. Her encounters with the creature was nothing but her own internal struggle.

Once the author revealed this everyone now clearly saw this fact which was hiding in plain sight. The way she spoke to the creature, or the way she had no memories for the time when the children were actually killed, the way law enforcement officers never suspected her and so on. Each and every scene was carefully crafted to give this impression but only few people had noticed it until the author revealed it.

I dont know the source of this story. I had only read about it somewhere. I suspect it was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance”‘s forward.

To make long story short, the “meta-thinking” involved in writing something serious is very painstaking and not the way we as readers would imagine it. It is perhaps as complex as writing an operating system.

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