·   · 163 posts
  •  · 4 friends

Sweet clarity

Last week I talked about a scene in which an author (Delia Owens) switched seamlessly, and delightfully, between two different characters. So the scene started with Kya, dipped into Tate’s perspective, moved back to Kya, stayed with her for a while, then moved – decisively and perfectly to Tate – before drifting back to Kya.

OK, that’s clear. But I got a number of responses which asked about the validity of various different point of view (POV) arrangements through the course of a book.

And look: there’s a short answer to that question, a long answer to that question, and a wide answer too.

The short answer is: anything goes. Don’t worry about it.

The long answer is: anything goes.

You can have a first-person, single point-of-view structure that endures, not simply through a single book, but through an entire series. My Fiona Griffiths series doesn’t have one single page – not one single paragraph – that isn’t narrated by her, and strictly from her point of view.

You can also have a third-person, single point-of-view structure. That’s a bit less common (because part of the power of third-person lies in the way it liberates the author to enter multiple heads), but it’s common enough.  It’s certainly absolutely fine as a technique.

Then you can have books that alternate points of view, often between two halves of a couple (The Time Traveler’s Wife, say) or a sort of couple (All The Light We Cannot See).

Or you can have books that play with a limited, but larger, cast of characters. My first novel worked with three brothers (George, Matthew, Zack) and one sister (Josephine) who played a somewhat lesser role in the story. There wasn’t a strict alternation between those three-and-a-half viewpoints, but there was an approximate one. Readers knew that if they had just finished a George chapter, the next one would probably be either Matthew or Zack, except that every now and then Josephine claimed a space.

Or you can have books that play with a really huge cast of characters. There was a fantastic example, a while back, Maynard and Jennica, by Rudolph Delson. Some big geopolitical thrillers work with huge numbers of characters. (Hello, Tom Clancy.) Some highly literary work does the same.

It all works. The only real constraint on the number of characters is that the more characters you play with, the reader inevitably has a weaker bond with them. Authors have, broadly speaking, three options to deal with that problem:

  1. Have the secondary points of view focus relentlessly on the characters you want the reader to care about. So in Maynard and Jennica, the two main characters are the pair in the title. Their points of view claim the greatest page space. The book is clearly about them – and the huge number of secondary characters end up talking almost entirely about those two. In other words, the secondary characters’ role is to keep shining a multiple light on the central pair.
  2. You place the emphasis on grand external events more than any character’s inner journey. That works well for the huge geo-political thriller and perhaps some epic fantasy. It works less well in most other genres.
  3. You’re a highly literary author and you’re too grand to care about whether your readers bond with your characters. You're just there to collect the prize money and the adulation of the little people.

I don’t really recommend the third of those choices. The other two are fine.

And finally, the wide answer is: anything goes.

Whatever the specific issue – points of view, timelines, first / third person, tense or really anything else – the thing that readers need most is clarity. So give them clarity. Once they have that, they’ll be happy to sit with you on whatever journey you care to take them on.

Dual timelines give another good example of this wider answer.

So take Where the Crawdads Sing, again. There are two timelines in the book, which end up meeting and merging. That could feel messy, but it never does, because the rhythm is established early and communicated clearly. The book’s structure is roughly:

  1. 1950 – 1969: Kya’s childhood and coming-of-age. In this part of the book, time flows quite quickly. Chapters can jump whole years at a time.
  2. 1969: a murder investigation into the death of a local man. Here time flows more slowly. Chapters trace the evolving police investigation with, often, mere days between chapters
  3. The timelines come together. We understand why Kya is under investigation and, finally, accused of the crime. We see what happens in the courtroom and what happens thereafter.

In the first three-quarters of the book, the two timelines alternate. Short chapters deal with the 1969 murder investigation. Much longer sequences deal with Kya's childhood and coming-of-age.

Towards the end of the book, the two timelines meet and merge – and the merging is expected by the reader from early on in the book. Because Owens’s plan is clear, the reader accepts it without demur.

In that case, the two timelines merge, but they don’t have to. In AS Byatt’s Possession, a hundred years separates the protagonists, so no merging is possible. But again: so long as the author has a clear structure for the book, and so long as that plan is plain to the reader, there’s no difficulty.

And, to bundle this email up, tie it off, and make it ready for shipping, here’s an answer that is simultaneously short, long and wide:

Make a clear plan. Stick to it. Communicate it to the reader. Do those things with purpose and clarity and – anything goes.

Easy, huh?

1 0 0 0 0 0
  • 530
Comments (4)
    • An extreme example is Jake Arnott's "The Long Firm," an excellent crime thriller set in 1960s London, in which each chapter is written as first person singular POV but by a different key character. Difficult, but it worked well here.

      0 0 0 0 0 0
      • So, (long but eloquent answer short), fail to prepare then prepare to fail. Write with passion, conviction, facts(accuracy) and focus. But even after all that, there is more to a good book as we all now know. I have heard you expound that even good books don't make it to be published or indeed get the necessary audience/volume they deserve. Many games do a season make, or win the battle and lose the war! 

        This links neatly into getting the first chapter(s) spot on. Setting it up well (and later following through) will deliver rewards, for writer and reader. The horrendous figure you quote at one point way back when, of books that just get put down after a few pages and never completed. The whole (writing/publishing/promoting) process is, I think as I see it, interdependent and cyclical.

        0 0 0 0 0 0
        • Using the multiple POV works well with crime or mystery stories, and adapt well to the screen. I've seen a number of tv programmes where the viewer sees the crime scene or another significant place or moment again and again, but each time from the POV of a different suspect. Needless to say, one doesn't see the same thing again and again.

          One reader of my WIP complained about my jumping POV within a single chapter, to another two readers who had no problem with it. You can't please all the people all of the time. (In other words, what Harry said : anything goes.) Conclusion for my chapter : the multiple POV's are staying !

          0 0 0 0 0 0
          • Thank you. That examination of p.o.v. was very useful for me. Clarity about pov for the reader is critical, but elsewhere in blogs the necessity of preciseness in description is explained too. Just lately I cannot shake off a scene that came unbidden one night.  I see a woman trundling a tartan shopping bag behind her down a leafy suburban street. She passes most days with the bulging little trolley and one sunny morning I am on the pavement, tinkering with my car, when she rattles by. I smile, but she doesn't, then I see a scattered trail of oily drips from her little trolley. I realise it is blood. 

            Now I can certainly work on that. How do I know it's blood and not a broken bottle of ketchup? How will I find out it's human blood?  What is she wearing? Maybe more preciseness about the tinkering work. Am I on my knees? 

            But the bit that's nagging me, is describing the woman. How old is she? The trolly suggests elderly, and I am compelled to suggest she is of 'a certain age.'  How peculiar that we say that. A phrase with the word CERTAIN in the middle, but I have no idea what that age is. It's an abominable cliche because, at least to me, it means nothing. Nor would we say a man of a certain age. So I won't ever use it in my work. The scene doesn't belong in my books either.  That's certainly scary. The murdering of Mrs Greenbottom came unwanted and I must let it go.

            0 0 0 0 0 0
            Not logged in users can't 'Comments Post'.