Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alternating Point of View

In my current work-in-progress, A MATCH FOR EVE, my narrators are an American girl and a British boy. As an American married to an Englishman, these voices are coming easily to me. The hard part has been figuring out how to split the narrative, especially when both main characters are in a scene together. For guidance I have been reading novels written in the boy/girl point of view.

One Day by David Nicholls (2010) uses alternating point of view to show the complexities of a relationship over time. The narrative follows two Edinburgh University graduates from 1988 to 2007 in London. We connect with them “one day” every year. Both characters are English but from different socio-economic backgrounds. Dexter is a charismatic alcoholic working in television, and Emma is a literary liberal, scrambling to pay the rent. Nichols, writing in the third person, splits every chapter between the male and female perspectives. The voices evolve and converge as the characters age. Unrequited love drives the delightfully haphazard plot.

One Day is a laugh-out-loud satire for the Gen-X generation. The cultural references are spot on, although you will need a firsthand knowledge of the UK to get all the jokes. One problem with alternating voices is that the reader often bonds more to one than the other. I was impressed by how well Nicholls, as a male author, conveyed the female voice and avoided convention. If I had issues with a character it was with Dexter, not Emma. Also, the ending was too abrupt and random. Still, my husband and I really enjoyed this novel.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares (2010) was written for teens, but its cynical humor and off-beat characters would appeal to adults too, especially to fans of J.D. Salinger. The material pushes the envelope as to what is appropriate for younger readers, but I'm letting my 13-year-old daughter read it...soon. She picked it out while we were in NYC, and I stole it from her. Bad mom.

Two bored teens are on their own for Christmas in NYC. Dash told his mom he's with his dad and his dad he's with his mom. Lily's big brother is meant to be looking after her, but he's distracted by his new boyfriend. Lily leaves a moleskin notebook in a used bookstore with clues and a dare for a stranger who fancies J.D. Salinger. Dash picks up the challenge. The dares escalate from braving the Santa line at Macy's to clubbing at 2am for Jewish punk rock. Seriously. I usually find holiday books too schmaltzy, but this one had me laughing so hard I had to put it down.

Rachel Cohn wrote Lily's chapters and David Levithan wrote Dash's. This is the third time these authors have collaborated. They swapped chapters back and forth like the fictional notebook and a wacky but surprisingly cohesive story emerged. Occasionally the chapters fall out of time sequence but mostly the structure worked and was full of surprises. Having 2 authors also facilitated the rendering of gender. However, lonely Lily sounds more like a real teenager than jaded Dash. It's hard to imagine a 16-year-old boy more into words than messing around. For most of the book, the two are apart with parallel narratives, only connecting on the page. Both need to reconcile the Plutonic ideal in the notebook with the real person when they finally meet under the worst circumstances.

Dash: "I was a firm believer in preventive prevarication-in other words, lying early in order to free myself later on."
Lily: "I'm pretty sure my curfew is suspended on holidays. Like alternate side of the street parking rules."

Flipped (2001) by Wendelin Van Draanen is a he-said-she-said story for a younger audience. Every scene is replayed in paired chapters for a dual perspective. I found this construct too repetitive. It was, however, interesting to see which details were important enough to be noticed by each character. Unfortunately, I disliked the boy and found the girl too good to be true. My favorite character was a tree. The narrative is set in eighth grade with flashbacks. Although Flipped is labeled young adult fiction, it would appeal more to tweens than to teens because of its sweet innocence.

Young adult author Simone Elkeles has written several novels in alternating boy/girl POV chapters. Each chapter is labeled by character and narrated in first person. Elkeles uses dual narration effectively to break stereotypes and to show that there are two sides of a story. Her romances are a bit formulaic: good girl falls for bad misunderstood boy.

In Perfect Chemistry (2009) a Hispanic gang member is paired with a popular rich cheerleader as lab partners. I loved Alex but never connected with Brittany. The story about gang warfare was gripping, but the schmaltzy epilogue went too far in tying up all the plot strings. There are two more novels in this trilogy, following Alex’s brothers. Drugs, sex and violence make these novels upper young adult.

In Leaving Paradise (2007), the bad boy has spent a year in juvenile detention after his car hit the girl next door, disabling her. Of the two Elkeles novels that I read, I preferred Leaving Paradise for its plot twists and the unusual relationship between the characters. Elkeles’s approach to disability felt emotionally true and realistic. The sequel  Return to Paradise was released recently.

Having sampled these five books and others, I have settled on the alternating first person narration with labeled chapters because it is easiest for readers to follow. I won’t be replaying scenes in NOT CRICKET, but for pivotal scenes one character will narrate the first half and the other character the second half, a technique Elkeles employs very well.

I actually prefer the writing in One Day and Dash & Lily, but Elkeles's narrative structure would work better for my story because my characters, like hers, are in school together and sharing scenes. I’m aiming to use my dual voices to show that English really is two languages divided between the US and the UK. Structural form can shape the story; it’s the author’s invisible hand at work.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: no free products were received. Flipped was a library book (recommended by  Maria Padian –thanks!) and I purchased the other books. My daughter picked out Lily and Dash with her book allowance. She is reading it now and loving it, although a bit traumatized by my book snatching.

Book Blog Watch for the Holidays:
A List of Books From the House of Edward.
Check out my Gift Book Suggestions from 2010 (posted 2 weeks ago)


Bee said...

I love the sound of One Day and Dash and Lily. I cannot read a post of yours without reaching for a pencil to jot down titles for my ongoing Amazon book list.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Noughts and Crosses for my daughter's Book Club. It also employs the alternating point-of-view; in this case, between a teenage boy and girl who come from different races.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I grab a pencil when you recommend books too. We first connected via author Lionel Shriver. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman sounds great - I'll track down the first one. I love that you have a mother daughter book club. You'll enjoy One Day and Dash & Lily would be fun for your book club next December.

troutbirder said...

Mmmm. Well, a certain author who visited Oprah on Monday to kiss and make up used a similar technique in his latest literary effort. Crossing over to the popular culture must have been hard for him though. :)
p.s. Bee allowed me to link to her wonderful essay on same author.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah, As I have scant knowledge of young adult fiction, I have not heard of any of the authors you feature today or their work. I am, however, most intrigued about the literary style which you wish to employ in your current novel. I shall eagerly await it in print!

Commonweeder said...

I love getting this list of excellent books to put on my list. There is never as much time as I would like but winter is a good time for reading. I'm currently reading Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick which uses different viewpoints. If you visit I am giving away an excellent winter cookbook. I hope you'll help me celebrate my blogoversary!

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, it’s nice that Frazen reconciled with Oprah, but he shouldn’t have snubbed her in the first place. She’s done wonders for the book industry. Also Frazen’s work, from what I’ve sampled, is more commercial and less literary than he’d like to think. His arrogance put me off his writing.

Edith, the first book, One Day, is actually adult fiction although the rest are YA. I’d be honored if my novel introduced you to YA. Fingers crossed that a publisher will make this happen.

Commonweeder, Foreign Bodies is a modern retelling of The Ambassadors by Henry James, right? I recall reading a review of it in the NYT. Thanks for the recommendation – I shall check it out – and also for the give away as I entered. Happy Blogoversary!

tina said...

It's so great you are so thorough with researching your book. It's going to be a good one and a bestseller I hope!

walk2write said...

I've just begun to think about getting serious again writing fiction, so your book reviews and comments about your own writing are fascinating to me. Especially what you said in your first paragraph about the struggle with splitting the narrative. You identify with the characters because of your marriage. The voices come easily to you. They don't want to come apart, though. Maybe it's not just, as you say, structural form shaping the story. The characters sometimes want to step outside the structure and leave the building constructed for them. I've noticed that "the author's invisible hand at work" more often than not is the result of the author's invisible mind guiding the invisible hand to turn the pages of someone else's book--someone with similar tastes, background, education... It's inevitable since writers are invariably readers or they wouldn't be very good at their craft. Should they only stick to reading things that resonate with them and therefore write what they believe will sound good to their peers--authentic or adopted ones? I ask this question because of a seminar I once attended some years ago. The speaker was a "published author," and his advice to the aspiring students/writers in the class (the ones who were willing to do what it takes to be published--that's exactly how he described them): Scan the bestseller shelf at the bookstore and emulate--no, don't copy, never that--what you see. Is this how the publishing world works today? Is it something from the past buried and best forgotten? Was the speaker's perspective far removed from the truth, and was I scared away from writing by a lie? Be gentle, now. I really am mystified about what goes on in publishers' minds and what formula, if any, is used to determine a bestseller.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, when the research involves reading novels, it doesn’t feel like work. Thanks so much for you encouragements!

W2W, really interesting comment and questions. I’ll break my answer into my use of 2 voices, writing/publishing advice, reading to improve craft and choosing narrative structure. If you want advice from an unpublished author…

I actually started NOT CRICKET in one voice then switched to two because I wanted a broader perspective. My novel isn’t just about how Americans feel about the English; it is also about how the English feel about Americans and all the amusing misunderstanding that come from sharing a language that has dual meanings. I also liked how 2 voices show 2 versions of the same story: boy vs. girl and Brit vs. Yank.

I hope you didn’t have to pay for that bad advice about emulating bestsellers. By the time you write a book, find an agent, then a publisher and get it to a bookstore, years will have passed and the market will have moved onto a new trend. My agent told me that what she liked about my writing was that it didn’t sound like anyone else – that’s called voice. The best advice I’ve heard is to write the book you want to read. If I knew what made a bestseller, maybe I’d be one!

I read both for pleasure and to perfect my craft, but that’s for refining skills NOT for copying content or style. It’s helpful to see how other authors coped with similar narrative constraints. It’s my story but there are many ways I can tell it.

A novel isn’t a house built from plans (unless it’s formula fiction), it’s a sculpture that is reformed and reworked daily. A good exercise for novice writers is to rewrite the same scene from 3 different points of view. At some point though, the writer must settle on one structure that best fits the narrative.

walk2write said...

Sarah, I'm sorry to say I did pay for that bad advice. It was a short course offered by a community college through their continuing education program. It wasn't all a loss, though. I did weigh what I was hearing from the mouth of an "expert" and found it incredible. It was a lesson in critical thinking that has served me well.

I like your metaphor of a sculpture that's "reformed and reworked daily." Art in the hands of an artist doesn't just evolve; it acquires a soul. It must be difficult for an author to finally let go of it when it's time to publish.

Thank you for the great advice.

Shaista said...

Wow Sarah, thankyou so much for these recommendations. Like Bee, I love the sound of the first two.
I have a kindle (present from little brother) so I'm one click away from your suggestions :)
I'm simultaneously reading Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens and Yours Jack by C.S.Lewis... to really mix things up :)

Sarah Laurence said...

W2W, perhaps it’s reassuring to know that even fools like that author/teacher get published? Good to hear that my advice was more helpful.

Shaista, a Kindle is a great present. Let me know what you think of those books. Thanks for your recommendations too. I’ve only read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

Rose said...

I've often wondered how authors decide to use alternating voices. When it's done well, it adds a depth to the story. But if not, it can be very confusing and repetitious as you say. A popular young adult novel many years ago was "The Pigman," which I think used this technique (but it's been a long time since I read this). I remember thinking that it helped to develop the characters more fully.

A Cuban In London said...

Excellent analysis of the split point of view.

I would say, without being a writer myself, that at some point you will have to resign to the fact that one character will come across stronger than the other. That's not defeatism. You still don't know which character will be, and we readers, always have surprises in store for you, authors.

I like the sound of the second novel you mentioned, although the second time I read 'Catcher in the Rye', I felt like slapping Caulfield. :-)

Great insight into your work-in-progress. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Stacy Nyikos said...

I love, love, LOVE this post! This is such a great resource for POV and narrative style. I started Shiverby Maggie Stiefvater, which is also alternating male/female POV across chapters, indicated by changes in temperature (because it is almost a character unto itself). I liked the changing POV but I couldn't get into the story. It was way too schmalzy and, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, dramatical. But, craft issues worked flawlessly. Great post.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


Dash and Lilys sounds like a good winter read. I always enjoy your book reviews--always good advice and I am still hoping your books will get published soon!

Tracy :)

TBM said...

"She is reading it now and loving it, although a bit traumatized by my book snatching." Too funny!

I am so glad we live in a town with a library again. I'm going to see if they might have some of these titles, especially Dash and Lilly's Book of Dares. and maybe One Day as well, but I might not get all of the references.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, it’s much harder to write in two distinct voices, especially when you revise because chapters are paired, but it does add depth. Thanks for the recommendation of Pigman by Paul Zindel. I’ve never heard of it, but the summary looks really interesting.

ACIL, good point about the readers taking over the story from the author after the book is in print. Philip Pullman called that “the democracy of the readers.” I got a bit frustrated with Dash, who is quite like Caulfield, but I loved him too for that same reason.

Stacy, I’m hoping this post will be helpful for other writers. Thanks for reminding me of Shiver. I read and enjoyed that book months ago but didn’t bother reviewing it because it was getting so much attention already. I loved the use of temperature in the chapter headings. It wasn’t really my type of book; I’m more of an Anne of Green Gables gal too.

Tracy, thank you so much for your encouragement. It helps me to keep writing while I wait.

JAPRA, One Day should be in the library since it was originally published in the UK in 2009. I think you’ll get it, certainly more than Americans who never lived in the UK who still seem to love it. It looks like Dash and Lily was released in both the USA and the UK in October 2010. Ask your library to order it if it isn’t there yet. I think your daughter would enjoy the music parts especially.

David Cranmer said...

I like the alternating point of view and when it is done correctly enhances a story ten-fold.

ONE DAY sounds like a winner.

Thanks for the superb reviews.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Sarah, the novel I'm working on now has four different povs, although I may be about to lose one. So I was also curious about what to do when pov characters were in a scene together. Nice run down of different choices.

BTW, I abandoned Freedom after 100 pages : )

Amanda Summer said...

i enjoyed learning how you plan to handle the dual narrative -- i have done similar research regarding this issue myself and appreciate reading what you have learned from these other books.

i look forward to reading NOT CRICKET, which i am sure will be fabulous!

Sarah Laurence said...

David, I think you’d enjoy One Day. My husband loved it even more than I did. It has a lot of guy humor.

Cynthia, if you have any other tips on working with multiple voices, do share. On Freedom, I quit after skimming about 50 pages in the bookstore and bought other books. I doubt I’ll return to it although my dad said it gets better.

Amanda, thank you! It spurs on my writing knowing that there are readers waiting for NOT CRICKET.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Thanks for this interesting and informative post. Francine Prose talks about "framed stories" as the answer to questions about the narrator's audience in Reading Like A Writer. Thanks for sharing the method through which you arrived at your decision to alternate first person narration with labeled chapters.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your process. I too am thinking of adding another character's POV to my WIP. Because as a reader I enjoy the immersion effect of 1st, I am going with 1st for my main prot and 3rd for the character on the other side of things. I enjoyed this set up in Diana Gabaldon's books amongst others. Thanks again for sharing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, Reading Like a Writer is in my stack – I shall have to check out that passage. Thank you and Happy New Year!

Alisha, welcome to my blog! I haven’t read Diana Gabaldon –thanks for the recommendation. I enjoyed your post on this topic too. Good luck with your WIP!