For those who missed it, here’s my January 12th post on my publisher BWL’s website Author Blog.
I wrote my first two novels entirely from the perspective of my sleuth, Paula Savard. My third novel, To Catch a Fox, which BWL will publish next month, shifts between five point-of-view characters. While working on this new novel, I was struck by a number of differences between writing single and multiple point-of-view stories. Here are my thoughts and observations after trying my hand at both types and reading a variety of novels.
Single viewpoint stories are great for surprise, which is why they’re the traditional approach for whodunit mystery novels. Readers only know as much as the protagonist, or a little less if she or he is smart. While reading the story, they are surprised along with the sleuth to the end. In fact, I most enjoyed writing those novels when something happened that I didn’t expect and I was surprised by a new development.
In multiple perspective, the reader knows more than the protagonist. So you lose some surprise. The trade-off is suspense, as readers grow worried or curious about how one character’s actions will affect another one. For instance, there might be a scene with the bad guys building a bomb to blow up the local theatre. The next chapter ends with the heroine heading out to the theatre that night. We have to turn the page to see what happens. In single viewpoint we’d be as blind-sided as the hero.
Both forms are equally effective at driving the plot and might be two sides of the plot-coin for any kind of story. While writing To Catch a Fox, I tried to use the strength of multiple viewpoint to heighten suspense by showing each character’s motives and deeds to be increasingly harmful to my protagonist, Julie Fox.
Writing multiple point-of-view involves making choices. How many viewpoint characters should your novel have? I’ve read books that shift between a dozen or more characters. I chose to limit my narrators to five, the number I felt would produce the optimal suspense. I also wanted readers to engage with them all, so I introduced him or her early in story, made sure each one appeared regularly and gave each a story arc that peaked in the climax scene. My five narrators were an effort to juggle, but fun.
Do you start a new chapter or scene with each change of voice? My writing instructors taught me this was essential for reader understanding. In my reading, I find that when stories shift viewpoint mid-scene, I sometimes feel jerked in and out of characters’ heads and confused by whose viewpoint I’m in. So while drafting my multiple viewpoint novel I started a new chapter with each point of view shift.
But last fall I read The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a novel that shifts between about 20 characters, often mid-paragraph. I always knew who I was with and connected to them all, and now think this fluid style works when it’s skilfully done. I’m not ready to try it in a novel, but might be some day.
My one problem with The Nest is that I wasn’t clear on who was the story protagonist. Ensemble cast novels are rare, probably because most readers prefer a main character to engage with. In Two Catch a Fox, I gave Julie’s point-of-view the most page space. She is present in the most scenes and all the other characters want something from her.
For novel structure, is it better to set up a fixed pattern of narrators, rather than have them randomly appear? With three POV characters, a chapter pattern might be A, B, C, A, B, C …, with A-the-protagonist’s chapters longer than the others. In general, I think readers like to get comfortable with a pattern, so that the structure remains in the background and they can focus on content. For the same reason, I usually prefer chapters in a novel I’m reading to be roughly the same length, so I’m not jarred by an unexpectedly short or long one.
But with five POV characters I didn’t consider an orderly pattern. Usually the story determined who would come next, but I sometimes brought a narrator in because we hadn’t heard from him in awhile. While his scene contributed to the story, he didn’t always have a lot to do or say at that point. As a result, my chapter lengths were all over the map until the last draft of To Catch a Fox. In my final revision, combining scenes into chapters helped even-out the chapter length, cut the number of chapters in half, and, I think, make it easier for the reader to get into the story.
What about headers, such as the POV narrator’s name, at each chapter start to indicate who is speaking? As a reader, I find these helpful, but I couldn’t do it easily when many of my chapters combined scenes with different narrators. I tried inserting them anyway. My editor found the headers awkward and said they weren’t needed, that she always knew quickly whose viewpoint she was in. I hope my future readers agree.
Finally, after writing both single and multiple viewpoint novels, which form do I prefer? At the moment, I’m hooked on multiple perspective, mainly because I like the variety. While working on To Catch a Fox, I’d spend a few days writing Julie, the next day with her sidekick, then her estranged husband and then the novel antagonist, before returning to my heroine, Julie Fox.