Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rotating POVs

I’ve completed five novels, of which three are in apparently perpetual revision. Two of those five have been first-person narratives; the other three are third-person, multi-POV.

In third person multi, I tend to establish a pattern of POV characters chapter-by-chapter and stick to that pattern until fairly late in the book (where I let it collapse under the story momentum—I let some POVs vanish, let more than one into a single chapter, etc.). In Shock and Awe, if the characters were letters of the alphabet, then the pattern is a simple rotation: A—B—C—D, A—B—C—D…(although after some point I ease in character E and ease out character D).

Tomorrowville takes place in 2088. The protagonist, Toby (sorry, Alis—but I wrote it back in 2002) is someone from our own time, but the other POV characters are all from the world of 2088. In this case, the chapter rotation pattern was Toby—Toby—Somebody Else 1—Toby—Toby—Somebody Else 2…which is a lot of Toby, punctuated by some radically different viewpoints. (Indeed, some people who’ve read the book remember it as being first-person from Toby’s POV.)

Why am I blathering on about this? Because this rotating narrative structure isn’t working for my current novel.

I think I have three third-person POV voices in my current work-in-progress. But try as I might, A—B—C, A—B—C isn’t working for this one. For starters, the three story lines are not immediately connected, and any time you juxtapose two apparently unrelated chapters, readers start hunting for the connections. This can be a good thing, but spinning round and round through the pattern without any clear intersection can make the reader crazy after a few iterations.

A related issue is that I have big backstories with dramatized scenes. So we start with character A in the present, but at some point we need to drop back for a long chapter into character A’s past. Fine. But jumping in time and also rotating POV characters not only dilutes the impact of each story, but also may be downright confusing. As in the earlier post about musicals, it would be nice if these characters could just stride onto stage and get their backstories and motivations out of the way…but novels don’t work like that, do they?

Which has brought me to a horrible realization. My standard policy of rotating POVs isn’t going to work—at least not on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I need maybe eighty pages, four or five chapters, from character A; and then a similar amount from character B; and then again from character C; all of these, as sort of novellas, before I let the three stories collide.

This is making me very nervous. Each time you pull the reader away from one POV to another, you are asking them to make an effort, but if you keep this up in a predictable pattern, they will adjust. On the other hand, writing a novella's-worth and then yanking them away into another novella may really make them frustrated. I don't know. I've never done it.

Another fear is that I don’t have all my wares on display at first. With rotation, you get to meet all the POV characters early, and see the POV span of the novel. I have three very different POV characters in this one—an American male doctor, a Canadian female biologist, and a Peruvian male revolutionary—and each of the POVs has a rather different voice and emphasis. If I don’t rotate early on, people may think they are reading a book about just one of those characters

This book is making me crazy.


Usman said...

David Hi,
I feel for you. I have a similar problem: multi-POV 3rd, Timelines do not allow for a symmetrical structure.
My solution: I've allowed it to free fall from Chapter 1.
Ch1 from MC's POV, then a scene from a secondary cahracter.
Ch 2 MC.
Ch 3 MC + Sec Char.
Ch 4 MC.
Ch 5. Sec Char.
right to end of BOOK 1 where a big chapter 5,000 words from a Sec character's backstory happens.
This randomness is an unstructured structure.
Time shall tell, if my bets were right.

Tim Stretton said...

Very, very tricky, David.

Two and a half out of three and a half of my novels are third-person single POV. The one that's different is The Dog of the North, where I have two alternating third-person POVs.

I tend to use long chunks (10-15,000 words) but I had to have much shorter initial appearances for each character:
A - 2,000 words
B - 2,000 words
A - 12,000 words
B - 12,000 words
etc until
A&B combined 20,000 words

I thought it was too big a risk to keep B off the stage until 12,000 words in when he was a co-protagonist.

I wholly sympathise with your more complex version of the same problem. I wonder whether shorter introductory scenes for each might be the answer--at least then there's an expectation that they will all be picked up later in the story.

Sam Taylor said...

My one novel (that is in perpetual revision, but very close) is 3rd Person Multi POV.

One thing I've done is cluster the POVs together. So I have two people travelling together, and we get one or two chapters from one person's perspective and then a few from the other in no particular pattern -- which is no big deal, since they're travelling together. Then I have another two characters travelling together (with a cadre of companions), and I do the same with them. Since my basic plot is a chase and/or race, this works very well.

Another thing I've done -- that's risky, I admit -- is something I've never seen done before.

I tried typing up a brief explanation, but it's a bit complex. Basically, I alternate different chapter structures between the acts.

If I showed you my Table of Contents, you would understand. :)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

If it feels right, it probably is right.

Mine feels a little...off.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

An interesting suggestion. My opening chapters for each character run about 4,500 words each, which might be a little long for a "glimpse", but you're right--maybe the reader needs a taste of each POV before I leap into a long section from any one of them.

At any rate, at least it's a new angle of attack to consider.

Oh, well. What's the fun of writing if you don't come up against new, possibly insoluble, problems in each book?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Yeah, certain kinds of throughlines (journey, race or pursuit are good ones) have enough intrinsic structure that they can support almost any POV structure. (I wish I had the wisdom to choose one.)

The transition is structure between the Acts sounds interesting, but you're right--I'd probably have to see it to understand it!

Jen Ster said...

Hey, I have rotating POVs in the Mindbender trilogy but they did not get written that way. I had three "threads" going that basically each got written like a separate mini-novel. I didn't smoosh it together until they were all done. This was, of course, a lot of work--the downside. The upside was, I ended up writing several scenes more than once and I could pick which one I liked best. Sort of like shooting with five different cameras (well, three.) If'n I were you, sir, I'd just write whatever's buzzing through your head at the moment and cobble it all together later on. Oh, and I'll have some guerillas in the woods for part three, too. Should be fun.

Alis said...

POV - a nightmare. The work in progress started as mutlti POV - two first person, one third in the present day - with another first person in the nineteenth century. Even though the three POVs (should that be PsOV?)in the contemporary strand were related and in the same place, it still felt like too much jerking around of the reader, which is why I've radically changed the book in the rewrite and written from a wholly different contemporary person's POV in close third person. I think it's working better (actually a lot better) but I miss my old characters whom I'd got to know really well and whose voices I'd worked hard at developing.
Hard drawing a line under almost 100,000 words and saying 'this isn't working'...

Tim Stretton said...

"Hard drawing a line under almost 100,000 words and saying 'this isn't working'"

Alis - at least you haven't lost the capacity for understatement...This is not so much murdering your darlings as genocide. You have my sympathy.

Alis said...

Thanks Tim! Genocide - yeah, it did feel a bit like that. There was definitely a mourning period and things on the new version have been so rocky recently that I started looking at the previous incarnation with a rosy eye. But I saw sense in the end.

Jamie Ford said...

There's definitely a rhythm to multiple POVs that I've yet to figure out.

In my current WIP, I'm skipping between three POVS and am struggling. As much as I want to write them scene by scene in the order they appear, I'm finding myself jumping ahead with one POV, then working in the others. I think about all the POVs in The Stand and shake my head in awe...

Creative A said...

I can utterly empathize, David! I always thought I had a POV rotation method down (hah) until I started my new WIP. Now I have four POV's, each who's story starts at a different time, and all the action is in the wrong places...figuring out how to weave it together is nuts.

I created four new folders and started writing each persons POV separately. After a bit of that, I began to see ways to make it all mesh. The story is going to have a lot of people fading in and out; with only my protag remaining constant; but I think it will work.

I think there might def be a problem with the three novellas theory. I've read books that hinted at that, and hated them. You get attached to a character. Leaving them is annoying unless what you're reading now does relate to what you read before. I think Tim had a good suggestion. If you can at least hint of the upcoming characters before switching, that would be helpful - esp if we've been dying to know what's really happening from their side of the story.

Good luck with it. And sorry for the monologue.


David Isaak said...

Hi, all--

Well, I think we have a consensus here: multi-POVs (or, ala Alis, multi-PsOV)can be a problem.

I'm beginning to think the best course, is to jam on through and sort it out later--even if I may face the problem Alis has so stoically faced.

Oh, and Creative A--never hesitate to monologue here. Cyberspace is free-ish, innit?

emmadarwin said...

Of course you can always go the Jane Austen route, and simply weave all those PoVs into one third-omniscient, sliding in and out of whichever head/voice/opinions you need at any given time. What seems like the most 'old fashioned' way is actually the most fluent, flexible, powerful...

On the other hand, I, too, am addicted to first-person narratives - the unreliability, the subjectivity, the way it makes decisions about how and what to write so blissfully easy. So I get on with it, making damned sure that the first sentence after a change contains at least two strongly characteristic things - a turn of phrase, and a place or name - which tune the reader straight in. It only works, though, if you've really, really worked to differentiate those voices. But if you haven't, why are you doing it?

If all else fails, just head the top of each section with their name. Sometimes the most obvious, simplest ways work best.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Yeah, Omni can be fun. I don't think it works quite so well in suspense novels as a limited POV, though--the confinement helps.

I suppose my problem here is really one of the best order in which to tell the story. (<---terrible sentence!) That's the real underlying issue--when to move focus between three seemingly unrelated stories.

Maybe I won't know until I've told it in full once.

And maybe I'll never know.