I wonder if the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who studied why certain articles in The New York Times online are e-mailed more frequently realize that they’ve unlocked for fiction writers the ultimate code: what creates word of mouth. Thanks, guys.
So far in this series I’ve discussed character strength, evoking high emotion, story scale and awe…which is to say, giving the reader (or really, your characters) new ways of seeing, feeling, believing and understanding themselves and the world. Lift your readers out of themselves and they’ll talk others into making the journey. Oh, it sounds so easy.
Let’s dig into a subject I glossed a bit: scale. One commenter asked plaintively whether it’s necessary to write a multi-POV novel. Of course it’s not. It’s just that readers respond powerfully to a sense of vastness, a depth and sweep, being transported, journeying far and yet feeling at home. It may be easier to evoke all that with multiple points of view.
Then again, that by itself is not the whole trick. To create a true sense of scale, every characters’ storyline must be equally absorbing.
Last fall I had the privilege of co-teaching day long workshops with award-winning mystery writer Nancy Pickard and best selling women’s fiction author Susan Wiggs. With each, I did a scene-by-scene breakdown of a recent out-of-category novel. For Nancy it was The Virgin of Small Plains; for Susan it was Summer Cottage. Susan’s novel had sixty-four total scenes. Nancy’s is a past/present story told in seventy-three scenes.
But here’s the thing: Both Nancy and Susan each used just three principle points of view. One of those carried most of load. The character Abby in The Virgin of Small Plains had 40% of the scenes; Sarah in Summer Cottage had a little more than 50% of the scenes.
Still, what gave those novels their sense of scale was the completeness and depth of the storylines involving the other characters.
In Susan’s novel, the love interest Will has eighteen POV scenes all to himself and several problems with which to contend, not least of which is his troubled teenage daughter, Aurora, who herself has twelve scenes. In Nancy’s novel, the characters Rex and Mitch both have fifteen scenes. (There are sixteen further scenes from other points of view.)
If this sounds like a simple formula-Hey kiddies, all you need are three points of view, one dominant, two secondary, then write sixty-plus scenes, et voila!-it isn’t that simple. In Susan and Nancy’s books those extra POV characters are highly compelling and their storylines are not simple. No scenes are filler.
So, how do you make sure that a given secondary character has enough storyline to justify their existence and fill a dozen or more scenes? Here are a few steps to get you started:
- For each POV character, ask: As this character sees things, what is the main problem going on?
- Find four major ways in which that problem will get worse. If there are easy and standard solutions to the problem, make them fail.
Write out how this character can be completely defeated by the problem…then let it happen on the page.
- For each character, build in a parallel (or reversal) of something happening to the novel’s main character.
- Find three ways to connect each storyline to others, for instance with characters that have multiple functions or places that host more than one event.
Scale may sound like a function of plot elaborateness but it isn’t. Three points of view aren’t that many. Three storylines—how hard is that? What’s hard is making those extra storylines compelling, whole and connected.
Maybe next the researchers will invent ambition pills. We can hope.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s also the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Wolfgang Staudt