Multiple POV

I wrote the Suicide Arc rather quickly despite they’re being the most complex works I’ve ever written. Having a single POV throughout made it easy. If all I can see is Suicide’s or JT’s or Mitsuko’s points of view, I know what I can and cannot show. And I only had to inhabit one head 90% of the time.

And then we get to Suicide Solution, the troubled, thorny final chapter of the arc. Last time, I wrote about how ending a series or an arc proves the most difficult. The first two Amargosa novels have only one or two points of view, with additional POVs near the end to expand the action. But Storming Amargosa has four primary points of view, several dramatic POV scenes, and one head I get into late to late the reader look down at the action from orbit. I did this partly to wrap up several narrative threads from not just the trilogy but the series as a whole. Suicide Solution has the same problem. I need to either explain something that writing solely from Suicide’s POV will not permit, or I have to wrap up the arc as a whole. This time, the current draft makes judicious use of interludes, and the epilogue now consists of single POV scenes from each major character (and one who doesn’t get a lot of screen time.)

There’s an argument that multiple POV is not good writing. I disagree. Head hopping is not good writing, and, in all my reading, only four writers can pull it off – Frank Herbert, Stephen King, George Pelecanos, and SA Cosby. They do it so seamlessly that, unless you’re so pedantic that you look at that first instead of reading the damn story, you don’t notice it right off the bat. But all four authors write cinematically (which doesn’t explain why it took almost sixty years to make a decent film based on Dune while Pelecanos dove right into The Wire.) But head hopping, switching POVs mid-scene, is really a no-no. When you’re a King, a Herbert, a Pelecanos, or an SA Cosby, you can do it. Everyone else?

Before I began writing seriously, Tom Clancy used to grate on my nerves switching POVs back and forth within a scene, often based on who was talking. Clancy could write a gripping tale, but I still noticed the head hopping. Sometimes, it threw me out of the story.

My rule is simple. When writing multiple points of view, only one head per scene. Period. Some say it should only be one per chapter, but that’s not always feasible. I’ve gotten away from chapters that come out to three pages in print because it looks silly. And really, the reader needs to see what’s going on in two locations at the same time. The Holland Bay series I write as Jim Winter is moving to four points of view per chapter. One chapter doesn’t end until all four of the story’s major characters have had their moment. There’s a trick I also employ to give it the feel of a streaming series – using a minor character or a dramatic POV scene to begin and end a three-chapter arc, but I’ll talk about that over on Jim Winter’s blog when The Dogs of Beaumont Heights comes out.

The curtains were blue!The one-per-chapter rule and my own one-per-scene rule (the latter coming from Lawrence Block himself, so when you’re Larry, you can lecture me that I’m wrong. You’re not the creator of Matt Scudder, so…) is to keep from giving the character whiplash, especially in this era of rushing everywhere and short attention spans. Navel gazing is bad enough, and it’s a reason I don’t do the one-per-chapter method unless the entire book is a single POV. I often harp on Jonathan Franzen because The Corrections took eleven pages to establish that two characters were hoarders with one suffering dementia, and I still didn’t know what the point of the story was. Literary types get upset when I mention this, but I always believed the writer – any writer, even Shakespeare – exists for the audience. When the audience exists for the writer, you get my tenth grade English class, where my teacher believed that the blue of the curtains must represent the author’s depression whereas the author meant “The curtains were f***ing blue!” (Symbolism and theme are important tools in writer’s toolbox, but the hammer and the saw are not the point of the house you build with them. Get over it.)

You can bounce people around multiple heads. Marvel does it constantly, letting us be both Thanos and Doctor Strange, when really we’re all just Peter Parker, bewildered by the whole thing. As long as the audience knows which head they’re in, you’re golden. Give them only a couple of lines before switching?

Now you’re just dissing the audience.

Unless you’re Frank, Steve, George, or Shawn.

Which I’m not.