After pulling an all nighter last week and drinking too much coffee, I found myself staggering around the Austin airport trying to keep my eyes open. I wandered over to the news shop and bought a king size bag of peanut M&Ms and Celeste Ng’s novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU.
Not only did she keep me awake through my flight, she made me think more deeply about the use of multiple points of view in fiction.
By point of view I mean through whose EYES are we experiencing the story? In the case of multiple povs, we get access to the thoughts and perceptions of several different characters.
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is about a transracial family in the 1970’s. The mother is white, the father Chinese, and their three children, Lydia, Nath, and Hannah, are growing up in a small town where they are the only Asian family. The book opens with a mystery. Lydia has drowned in a nearby lake. Was she murdered or did she commit suicide?
In unraveling this mystery, we experience all the events before and after Lydia’s death through a voice that guides us in and out of all the family members’ perspectives.
Here’s the opening line of the book, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” We start with an all knowing narrator who reveals the conflict, and lets us know there is a set of characters (“they”) who we will meet.
At the beginning of the novel, Ng uses section breaks within chapters to differentiate the characters she focuses on– this cues the reader to accept a shift in perspective. But a bit further into the story, we move quite fluidly in and out of all the family members’ thoughts within scenes. She handles this by using the narrator (who is outside the action) to help make these transitions. Here’s an example. We start with Nath…
“His father is hardly home these days anyway, and his mother has locked herself in Lydia’s room again; through the wall he can hear her pacing, like a prowling cat. Hannah raps at his door, and he puts on a record, loud, until he can’t hear the sound of her knuckles, or his mother’s footsteps anymore. Later, none of them will remember how the day passes, only a numbed blur, overshadowed by all that would happen that day.
When evening falls, Hannah opens her door and peers through the crack.” And now we go into Hannah’s perspective.
See how deftly Ng uses the narrator to make the shift from Nath’s perspective to Hannah’s within the chapter without injecting a break? She writes, “Later, none of them will remember…” and this guides us out of Nath’s pov and into another character’s state of mind.
Alright, I am going to mention the dreaded phrase THIRD PERSON. This is the approach that Ng uses and it’s the one that affords the writer the greatest latitude in terms of getting into his/her characters’ heads.
If you are considering using multiple points of view in your novel, ask yourself these questions…
1) Is this the best way to tell your story? Do you need to get into the heads of multiple characters to tell the most effective version of your narrative?
2) If you want to give the reader access to multiple characters, which ones will you focus on? Who are the most important players in your story? Choose only the key people.
3) How will you use different points of view stylistically? Will each chapter be told from a different point of view? Will you interweave points of view, like Ng does, through a narrator, within chapters? Whatever approach you take, make sure you are consistent throughout the book.
4) If you weave povs together in a chapter, how will you avoid “head hopping” (the seemingly random jumping from one character’s thoughts to another’s?) Will you use an omniscent narrator to help guide us from person to person? Will you masterfully find some other way to make these shifts? While juggling povs within scenes can be effective, it’s tough work. Do you have the chops to pull it off?
5) Make sure each character has a solid arc/transformation. This is key, whether you separate your points of view, or weave them together through a narrator. Each person needs a set up (their problem), development (where they struggle with their problem) and a pay off (where they change.)
6) Beware of including too many points of view. When we spend only a little time with too many characters, the result can be that we connect with no one and the narrative feels diffuse. Of course there are exceptions. Anthony Doerr uses lots of character povs in his book ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. But he separates them in short chapters, and orchestrates them to rise together in a thrilling climax at the end.
Take Action! What’s the best way to use point of view to tell your story? If you’re using multiple points of view, who are the key players? How stylistically will you shift from person to person? Does each character have a strong, fully developed arc in the story? Do you have a plan for how all the povs will come together in the end, or add up to something thematically that brings cohesion to the book?
The next time you read a novel you love, check out how the author handles point of view. It’s one of the primary style choices an author makes, and should be in service of the kind of story you want to tell!
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