TV Shows and Alternating POVs

Jack has fallen in love with two women and has to choose between them. Liz has revisited every past boyfriend and decided she might as well settle for the guy she can’t stand because fate keeps throwing him in front of her. And Kenneth has been told he can’t turn down a promotion that will send him to L.A.

Those were the plotlines for the season finale of 30 Rock last week, which was hilarious — and which got me thinking about plotlines.

Admittedly, I don’t watch enough TV to really know how typical this is, but the few shows I have gotten into the past few years (The West Wing, The Office, 30 Rock) all do this the same way: they divide the episode into roughly three plotlines following three different sets of characters, and they alternate scenes between those plotlines until they’re all resolved.

And it seems so normal for TV shows to do it that way that I hadn’t even thought much about it until now.

So what I wonder is . . . why is it so normal for TV shows but much less the norm in novels, which (at least in YA fiction) seem to tend toward single viewpoint?

I wonder about this question especially because I’m writing a novel with alternating viewpoints and I’ve heard comments from readers who say they can’t stand the format. They want to be firmly set in one character’s head.

Why is that? Do they feel the same way about TV shows? Would they have complained about Liz’s and Kenneth’s plotlines last week and demanded to see the episode only from Jack’s point of view? Think how much we would have missed out on, like the Somali pirate groomsman or Matt Damon as Liz’s pilot/destiny.

Does it all just come down to conventions? We’re used to TV being that way, and some readers are more used to strict single-POV books? Is it a difference in audio/visual material versus text-only, where because we don’t have the faces and voices of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to tell us immediately whose plotline we’re glimpsing now, we might end up feeling confused by the words on the page?

Just something I’ve wondered about.

For me, I feel like the viewpoint(s) a story is told from should fit the story. Multi-POV fits well with large-cast sitcoms like 30 Rock but also dramas like West Wing with multiple main characters. It’s also fit some of my favorite books like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series, David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, etc.

But then I can think of plenty of novels I’ve loved that made more sense from a single viewpoint, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jacqueline Kelly’s Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Octavian Nothing

So as much as I love multiple POV, I try to go with the flow and see how the format matches the story.

Any insights? Do you have a preference for single or multiple viewpoints? What favorites do you have of either type?

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Attention: Tense, Tension and POV

Hello, you elusive trio.

Why is it the three of you can be so hard to track down? Or is it just me? Trial and error seems to be my only approach for tackling you, Tense; with you, Point of View, all I can do is pray you don’t have any more surprises in store; and Tension, it’s like I have to reel you in an inch at a time. Why can’t you guys just play nice? I was so frustrated last night that you nearly had me in tears. Seriously. What kind of relationship is that?

Let’s review our recent history. I started writing my current WIP in third person past tense from Wendy’s POV. You know, the normal mode. One character’s point of view, told in the classic storytelling tense: past — the more believable, less jarring, comfortable and somewhat invisible tense that backs out of the way to give us the story.

Forty pages in, you threw the first kink in the works, Point of View. You insisted on not only adding a character I wasn’t planning on but making that character a narrator. As if that weren’t bad enough, this character was a fairy — jerking me from the solidly realistic contemporary novel I planned on writing into the strange in-between genre of contemporary fantasy. And then you somehow talked Tense into meddling, too, by having this character narrate in first person present tense. Great.

But I was a good sport. I went along with it. I let the fairy talk, and then traded off with Wendy’s narration, which I also switched to first person present. Two narrators. Slightly unorthodox, but doable. After all, I loved Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, which switches between two first person narrators (although, *ahem* they narrate in past tense and they’re a guy and a girl, the two love interests, as opposed to an unromantic girl-fairy/teen-girl combo).

What was up with then convincing me the boys should butt in there, too? Seven narrators? Were you insane? Because now any writer I talk to thinks I am. They might not say it out loud, but they’re thinking I don’t know how to handle you, Point of View. They’re thinking that I’m just trying to be weird and different, whereas really I started off with a perfectly normal story until all these surprises came up. (At least I set my foot down at eight narrators. Gina can have a bigger role as a character, but she doesn’t need to narrate.)

The only book I’ve read with that many narrators regularly switching off is Adele Geras’s Troy, and that’s an epic. Epic’s can get away with that sort of thing. (Plus, it’s third person past.)

The closest thing to my brand of madness might be Edith Pattou’s East, which has five narrators in first person past tense. At least that provides some precedent, I guess. Though the polar bear’s POV hardly counts. And the majority of the book stays in Rose’s head.

Okay, though. I will admit that I love my seven narrators — now. And I found one other reader a couple months ago who agreed that it’s awesome for this story. So fine. Here are my begrudging thanks. Would it be so hard to tell me what I’m in for from the beginning, though? Why all the surprises?

And all this while I’m still tugging on Tension’s fishing line with my pinky finger, trying to get him to come a little closer and step into the story a little more. Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times had the perfect amount and made me wildly jealous. Tension, can’t you hang out with me, too? What do I have to do to lure you in? Switch back to the third person past tense she uses? I know you and POV aren’t as tight as POV and Tense, but I can see how an omniscient narrator might help.

Tense, you may in fact be my biggest challenge yet, though. I realize that you and POV are somewhat conjoined, so maybe I’m really talking to both of you, but here’s why I nearly started crying last night:

  • First Draft: third person past tense.
  • Second Draft: first person present tense.
  • Synopsis: third person present tense.
  • Third Draft: ?????

Why does the synopsis matter? Because I finally understand what my thesis chair, John Bennion, was trying to tell me when he helped me with my first novel. If you can nail your synopsis early on, it can set the whole tone of your novel and help you stick to it. And I feel like I did nail the tone in the synopsis. Listen to the first paragraph:

Seventeen and staring down the last summer before graduation, Wendy and the four guys she’s grown up with are making a break from gray-skied Portland — trying to run away from looming adulthood by driving south on a whim and a blog (the ad revenue–generating kind).  They’ve got an SUV on loan, Costco-sized granola bars, plenty of techno-gadgets for world-wide webbing, and no idea about the fairy that’s tailing them.

Third person present is a reporter’s POV/tense. It’s for newspaper headlines. So that’s why it works for a synopsis. The only full novels I can recall reading in third person present, though, are two that I breezed through this week: Wake and Fade by Lisa McMann. They were short novels, and fun, but I never fell in love with the tense. Usually I can get used to a tense and it will become invisible by the time I’m a chapter or so in, but that wasn’t the case in those books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a jarring tense is what’s called for in a book, and McMann’s premise works with “jarring.” But I don’t think “jarring” would work for Wendy and the Lost Boys.

And here’s the main reason for my frustration with the three of you. I lose something every time I switch things around.  It’s not just a matter of switching -s to -ed and I to she. The scenes change perspective with a different POV or tense. I have to rewrite them. And it sucks. My favorite scenes won’t be the same afterward. They’ll be different, and possibly not as cool.

The only slack you’ve cut me is that at least I think I can eliminate the second person POV I’m writing this letter in. Don’t get me wrong. Second person POV works great for Nancy Werlin in Rules of Survival and probably other novels I haven’t read yet. I’ve got nothing against it as a POV. I’m just glad to narrow things down at all.

Last night, the near-crying was because I’ve been trying third person past again, and it takes forever to change it, and I’m not sure if it’s getting better . . . or worse. And you, Tension, certainly aren’t featured enough yet. I’d really like you to be front and center, but you keep hiding in the background!

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Why don’t I just choose a tense and a POV and get on with seducing Tension?

I believe there’s a best fit for every story. If I’ve learned anything as a writer and a writing teacher and a reader, it’s that most writing decisions aren’t about right or wrong but about “best.” And I’m determined to figure out what’s best for my story.

So if you could come on over and chat civilly, or even just creep up behind me and whisper the best answers in my ear, I’d appreciate it.

Any time now.


The Writer

p.s. anybody else out there relate to these struggles? If you want to read more discussion about these choices, I’m sure there’s plenty out there, but I appreciated Maureen Johnson’s recent blog post about POV, which addresses more of the factors involved. I wish everybody better luck with the decision than I’m having!

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