29 March 2011

Shifts in Shifting Point of View

Not so long ago, authors were strongly advised to define their point-of-view character for each novel, or at least for each chapter or scene in a novel. While it was possible to describe events that character wasn’t privy to, the informal rules said, a good novel’s narration should show readers only one person’s thoughts or feelings at a time.

Shifting from inside one character’s head to inside another, the tastemakers warned, could confuse readers and/or remind them that they were reading fiction. If one had to make that shift, it was imperative to wait for a chapter break or other obvious signpost. And ideally such a book should be about different views of life; the shifts should not be driven merely by narrative convenience.

There were exceptions to this rule, of course. Many novels of the past had shifting points of view, and readers still enjoyed them—but new authors had to look at what was being published today. There were also some individual exceptions, such as Phillip Pullman.

Something changed over the last decade. Perhaps Pullman’s success undercut the rules. Perhaps the rebirth of the intrusive narrator via Lemony Snicket opened the door to other types of old-fashioned narration. However it happened, three of the last four novels I read had shifting points of view.

Catherine Stier’s The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club works with very close point of view in part one, with each short chapter following one of four kids. The point-of-view character’s name even appears in each chapter title, and the story focuses on how different characters view and misinterpret the same events. That type of narrative complexity grew in popularity over the last couple of decades.

But when Tell-All Club’s action shifts to a school camp, Stier abandons those delineations. Part two is titled “All Together Now.” (The first part has no title.) The narration starts jumping from one protagonist’s head to another within the same chapter and scene. That speeds up the action, but I’m not sure it serves the story—in part because I thought the story sort of petered out into valuable lessons about life.

M. T. Anderson’s Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger!, like the previous titles in the Pals in Peril series, features an intrusive, metatextual narrator who shifts point of view like a silent-movie comedian wrestling a fire hose. But all three books introduce us first to the thoughts of Lily Gefelty, the most normal of their three protagonists. The first couple show us the least normal, Jasper Dash, mainly from the outside, with the third finally letting us into his highly trained brain.

As I recall, the Pals in Peril series was originally presented and re-presented as a trilogy, which harmonized with its three protagonists and the first volume’s tripartite structure. But commercial success and the lack of any narrative limits in this universe put Agent Q in the interesting position of this trilogy’s fourth book. No single protagonist’s point of view or genre dominates as much as in the previous volumes, which results in a lot more switching from one head to another.

Agent Q also brings on a couple of claimants to be fourth member of our heroic threesome. However, neither of those young men gets point-of-view time, nor cover space on this volume or the next to come. (All I can say is that someone else appears to have disliked the Alex Rider books.)

Finally, Diana Wynne Jones’s Enchanted Glass has two protagonists/point-of-view characters, middle-aged Andrew and adolescent Aidan. Indeed, it proceeds for quite a while from its opening with no child in sight, still an unusual feature in a novel for children. As in Pullman’s novels, the narration jumps from one main character’s thoughts to the other within chapters without any section breaks or other typographical signals. But at that point in her life, Jones was well able to break the rules.


Coreena McBurnie said...

Thanks for the article. I am struggling with this issue myself right now, I have a novel with 4 main characters and shifted the point of view without thinking about it. I am now working on making it consistent. Nice to see I am not alone!

J. L. Bell said...

I think the most important step is to establish the pattern you’ll use in the first chapter so that readers will be ready for any shifts later.

The Tell-All Club changes narrative strategies from part one to part two, and although the author provided some indications of that change it still felt jumpy.

Kimberly Mitchell said...

Great post! I wrote my first story from a close 3rd person POV, but the 2nd is from 2 characters' POV so I've been wondering about what is acceptable. Great to see the variety.

Anonymous said...

I believe the current version of the Hardy Boys alternate between Frank and Joe as first person narrators on a chapter by chapter basis.

Back in the late 90's the "Animorphs" series had a rotating narrator appraoch, with each of the five (six?) main characters taking turns to narrate a novel from their own viewpoint.

J. L. Bell said...

The Hardy Boys Undercover Brothers series indeed uses first-person narration, alternating between Frank and Joe. According to this wiki page, each chapter heading includes the name of its narrator just so’s we don’t get confused. That’s more elaborate than the original books, of course, but less free-form than the sort of shift this posting described.

Remembering the old Hardy Boys books that I read as a boy, I’d have a hard time distinguishing Frank’s narrative voice from Joe’s. Maybe Joe would sound a little blonder. But the same wiki page says that in these books they make fun of each other and disagree, which I don’t recall them doing in the original and blue-spine books.

Anonymous said...

I believe one of the main intents behind the current Hardy Boys series (novels and graphic novles) is to highlight an actual difference between the two, who up until then could basically be viewed as a two-headed, eight-limbed, adventuring teenage... entity (Even their parents are aware that they tend to thing of them as "The Hardy Boys", not "Frank and Joe" at some level.

Frank is now the more thoughtful one, the planner. Joe is the more impulsive, risk-taking one. Judging by the current GN covers, they seem to be working on developing an actual (doubtless temporary) conflict between them.

J. L. Bell said...

So that’s what Gerry Conway’s been working on, huh?

Anonymous said...

Indeed! :) And taking over from fellow comic scribe Scott Lobdell