One of the first things an editor wants to know about your novel is how many points of view you’ll use. In the broadest strokes, who gets a point of view will determine the structure of your story; down to the smallest detail, it will determine how perspective will illuminate it.
Will this be a story sunk deep inside one character’s perspective, as Garth Stein chose to do through Enzo, a dog, in The Art of Racing in the Rain? Will it alternate first-person perspectives that define and deepen the conflict between adversaries, as in Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog? Or will it represent the seven principal parties impacted by one young girl’s fight for self-determination, as in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper?
Such a decision shouldn’t be arbitrary. Some readers choose the novels they read for the way they allow a new perspective through which to view the world.
Not all POV decisions can be executed perfectly. Dubus’s plan worked out just fine until about three-quarters of the way through, when his story demanded that the reader know something that only a non-POV character was experiencing—which led to an odd chapter in the third-person perspective of a secondary character. Picoult—or perhaps her publisher—anticipated that her multiple points of view would be so hard to track that they put each character’s chapters in different fonts.
I could tell you never to do that because it’s cheesy and against all principles of good book design and if your novel is that confusing just simplify it, but this is how much readers care about such things: My Sister’s Keeper, which came out in 2004, still carries an Amazon ranking of #12 in contemporary literature. And Dubus’s novel, with that glaring POV switch, was an Oprah pick, a National Book Award finalist, and a #1 New York Times bestseller.
The most important thing is that these novelists told great stories through perspectives that would serve their telling.
So, how might you handle sixteen perspectives?
That’s how many WU contributor Bryn Greenwood employed in her New York Times best-selling novel, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Why would she even attempt that, and how did she get away with it? Let’s see what we can learn from her mad skills.
Why choose multiple perspectives
Greenwood’s story zeroes in on a volatile cultural taboo: age of sexual consent. As much as I enjoy exploring topics that make us twitch, even I had never thought to look at this issue. I mean, we should be protecting our youth from adult predators, right? Case closed.
But what if the greater danger comes from the child’s own parents?
To raise this question in a way that would make her readers think—all while managing the emotions of readers whose opinions are entrenched—Greenwood chose a very loose POV structure that allowed her, in any given chapter, to dip into the perspective that would best illuminate that part of her story.
Her opening gets right to the heart of things, fittingly enough, through perspective. [Read more…]