1.31.2019

More Than an Angle

An author writing a plot-driven book usually braids multiple story lines. Each one launches from its individual starting point and pursues a track that eventually intersects with the different tracks. This junction may occur late in the novel, taking place as a titanic collision between the good and evil forces. In this extreme case it is easy to see why each plot line needs to be governed by an independent point of view.

A scheming author likes to float numerous pieces that don’t seem to connect at first. That increases the mystery quotient for the reader: why am I reading about this? Indeed, in a mystery the plot lines may correspond to the various suspects under the protagonist’s investigation. If each one tells their story from their vantage point, a Rashomon effect is achieved.

Let’s take a novel in which each of the first ten chapters is told from a different point of view. This technique works wonders in terms of presenting each side of a complicated plot concept. Some characters are nasty in tone, some are vain, some are good-meaning but futile, etc. You can almost hear the author say, “Nailed it!” at the end of each chapter.

While a novelist can be quite skilled in capsule characterization, framing each character in a distinctive fashion, acuity of vision cannot be mistaken for depth of reader involvement. What is the common reaction as the narrative point of view switches to the next slice on the roulette wheel? Readers keep looking for characters they have already met.

The desire to put their feet down in an imaginary world resembles the off-kilter blundering of any tourist in a strange land. It’s why McDonald’s is so popular overseas even for Americans who normally would never eat there. That sense of identification, prompted by the species’ need to belong, is a major reason that readers like to participate vicariously while following a story line.

By the time character #5, or 6, or 7, has taken the reins, disgruntlement can set in. Why do I keep meeting new people? the reader asks. Can we go back to Kitty? She was so smart and funny. And what about Kenny? Is he going to bull into another china shop?

Most novels can display as much variety as they like through a more limited number of narrators. I would put the top limit at four if the author wishes readers to engage fully. Even then I would pick a champion who runs 60 percent of the scenes through their filter. The more dishes are broken, the louder I’m cheering.

Exercise: The idea of appendages is a useful one when devising characters. Rather than owning a point of view, could a character be appended to one of the major characters, appearing as a foil? A great deal of the descriptions about the character, opinions the character has, etc., can be divulged by external means.

“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.”
—Victor Hugo

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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