Please welcome back guest Molly Best Tinsley. Molly taught on the civilian faculty at the United States Naval Academy for twenty years and is the institution’s first professor emerita. Most recently Molly is the author of just-released middle grade fantasy thriller Behind the Waterfall. She is also the author of My Life With Darwin and a story collection, Throwing Knives, as well as two spy thrillers, Satan’s Chamber (with Karetta Hubbard) and Broken Angels, and a memoir, Entering the Blue Stone. She also co-wrote the textbook, The Creative Process. Her fiction has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sandstone Prize, and the Oregon Book Award. She lives in Ashland, Oregon.
This topic and my passion for it are tightly linked to my reasons for venturing into a new genre for my latest book. Behind the Waterfall features twin brothers and was written to answer a complaint from my twin grandsons that there weren’t enough books about twins. Even with what became three young collaborators, I thought the writing process would be simple and straightforward. I certainly didn’t think it would wind up taking me through a refresher course in point of view.
The Power Of Point Of View
Until recently, I didn’t think there was anything new I had to learn or share about narrative point of view—its various options are simple enough to map out in a workshop.
You can write in the first person, as one of your characters, or in the third person, as an anonymous observer. (The rare story-teller chooses the instructional second person—which is what I’m doing here.) From each vantage, you can also vary the narrator’s distance from the action. Thus in the first person, the “I” may be the central protagonist or a more peripheral witness to what’s happening to the protagonist. Similarly, a third person narrator may be situated virtually in the mind of the protagonist, or may hover above the created world enjoying access to several minds. In the case of the fly-on-the-wall point of view, the narration denies access to everyone’s mind, and sticks strictly to external action and dialogue.
What Point of View?
How useful is all this theoretical knowledge? It’s not what inspires you to write. When you sit down to a blank screen, your first thought isn’t, What point of view should I select? The sentences just start to crowd in, already permeated with one. Except for my two spy thrillers, whose global stakes and dimensions inspired a different strategy, those early whispers of a story have always come to me through my protagonist, usually in the first person.
But if all the possibilities for point of view aren’t what drives you to launch into a draft of a new story, they may be exactly where to poke around if you sense that your draft is faltering. That’s what I learned a year ago, halfway through the crafting of a fantasy thriller for middle grade kids.
My eleven-year-old grandsons had complained that there weren’t enough books about twins. “Okay,” I said. “We’ll just have to write one.” They thought I was joking: what about soccer and trombone, science projects and endless homework? Coaxed into brainstorming, they fished from the backs of their minds surprises they hadn’t realized were there. They got excited, I took notes, and after I got home, I drafted a bunch of chapters about fifteen-year-old twin brothers. On a subsequent visit we projected the action further, until we could discern an arc. We identified the fictional twins’ mission, and the bad guy, and the bad guy’s son—no, let’s make him the stepson, and he’ll switch sides during the showdown!
I thought completing the draft would be easy after that. Instead the story ran out of gas—or, rather, I did. I found myself plodding from plot point to plot point. Around their kitchen table, the twins and I had what-iffed our way into plenty of cool twists and confrontations, but the excitement was getting lost in translation to the page.
I happened to visit my seven-year-old granddaughter around then, and I mentioned the book and my concern that something just wasn’t right. I read aloud what I had so far and asked what she thought.
“It’s obvious,” she said. “These twins need a younger sister.”
Her idea had merit. A triangle of siblings might generate more tension. Back at my desk, I wrote the sister into the action from the beginning, but realized the whole time that this brainiac sidekick was not going to rescue a listless narrative.
Epiphany #1: There is a reason writers aren’t eager to commit to twins books even though the rate of twin births in the U.S. has spiked 76% in the last thirty years. Twins create a big challenge to point of view.
My fictional twins, Chetan and Nashota, were almost always onstage at the same time, working as a team toward the same goal. But you can’t write from the point of view of two people at once. Bouncing between the thoughts and feelings of two characters in the same scene would open me to accusations of head-hopping. And their differences in personality were not critical enough to warrant delivering alternating chapters from their individual points of view.
So I’d played it safe, opting for a neutral third person narrator, hovering at a middle distance from the action. He (or she, because how would you know?) had no discernible position on events; the voice was colorless, factual, blah.
Epiphany #2: Now that we’d gone to all the trouble to give the twins their kid sister, Shyla, why not let her tell the story in the I-as-witness mode? I could get back to first person narration, and I could anticipate an energized voice coming from a sibling in perpetual protest against her position at the bottom of the family pecking order.
But handing her this task seemed impossible—a major overhaul of everything. How would she be privy to scenes she wasn’t formerly present for? How much older would she have to be than her original seven years to handle this narrative task? If we made her about to turn fifteen, the exact age her twin brothers were when her story begins, what is driving her to tell it at this moment in time five years later? Where are her brothers now? Maybe something has happened to them. Maybe this adventure she’s decided to share did not end well.
Shifting to this less likely, more problematic narrator created all sorts of tension—knots and wrinkles that would have to be woven into the story’s threads. It opened the doors to the unplanned and unexpected, ideas and happenings neither I nor my three collaborators would have dreamed up on our own. And this finally is what we write for: the surprises, the happy accidents, the gifts—the sense that some power other than ourselves is guiding the process. In the case of Behind the Waterfall, that power worked through the point of view.
How has point of view changed your story? Have you ever switched POVs after you’ve already started to write? We’d love to hear!