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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints


Key Points: Juggling multiple viewpoints and multiple storylines. Broadens scope, let's different characters describe each other or an event, broadens interest, let's you show a range of reactions. But it can stop momentum when you switch viewpoints. You also need to be careful to give characters enough attention so that readers don't lose track. When you switch characters, set the scene and make sure the reader knows who the new viewpoint character is and what they are doing. When you use cliffhangers, plan to get back to that character quickly. Make sure that readers know the multiple threads are part of one story -- start together then split, start separated and then gather, or whatever, but make them one story.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because 13 is bad luck.
[Dan] I don't know how to follow that.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] We can of worms'd this last week. Juggling multiple storylines. Let's dig into it. This is one of the hardest things to learn in fiction, I think. What are the pitfalls of using multiple viewpoints... actually, let's back up. Why do you... why would you want to use multiple viewpoints in a book? If it's so hard...
[Howard] Per the last podcast, so that you can broaden your scope so that you can write an epic.
[Brandon] Yeah, it helps you with writing an epic. Even in... not in an epic, though, having multiple viewpoints on the same events or... letting characters describe each other is a much better way to show who a character is than having the character describe themselves. It's one of the things you gain by adding more characters, is that different perspective in the world.
[Howard] It can also broaden interest in the story. If you have a male protagonist and a female protagonist whose point of views you are switching between, and you do both of them well, you have now potentially doubled the size of your interested audience.
[Dan] The book that I am currently writing is a science fiction about a kind of society reacting to a new technology. I went with new... I went with multiple viewpoints because I wanted... I knew that different people would react to that technology in different ways.

[Brandon] It's a wonderful tool to use... and... so... anyway, let's talk about how to do it. Pitfalls. What are some of the pitfalls of changing viewpoints in your books?
[Howard] Losing momentum. Losing steam.
[Brandon] OK. Explain on that. What exactly does that mean?
[Howard] If you're pacing... when you are writing a single viewpoint, if you're doing it correctly, as you're writing that viewpoint you're building up momentum, you're building up a good head of steam, you're moving the story forward. Now you are going to change viewpoints, and that momentum... that momentum is immediately sacrificed because you change viewpoints. The only way you could capture that exact momentum again is for the viewpoint that you've switched to, to be somebody who's in the room or part of the same event. Now you've recaptured that, but sometimes that's not an option.
[Brandon] I suppose we ought to split this apart and say switching viewpoints and switching storylines are two completely different things. In my mind, most of the time when I'm switching viewpoints, I'm switching storylines, because I'll pick a central viewpoint character for a story. But not always. You can have three people in a room or on a plot and switch between them and keep your momentum.
[Dan] This is the exact reason that horror, for example, very rarely has multiple viewpoints. Because they keep the scope small because that allows them to keep the tension high.
[Brandon] You'll see it in thrillers a whole lot. Particularly also young adults. Things that... like when we were talking with Dashner, the books that the goal of the author is to have you pick it up, read page 1, and then blink blearily a few hours later, turning the last page, and say, "Wow, that ripped me through by my tonsils the entire story." In that case, switching viewpoints...
[Howard] multiple viewpoints will get in your way.
[Brandon] But the type of stories I write, you aren't going to do that. You're not going to pick up a 200,000 or a 400,000 word epic fantasy and generally you're not going to read it in one sitting. I can't afford to have the tension constantly ramp up all the way to the end. I've got to have dips and troughs. Multiple viewpoints... I can actually use the momentum as beats to let me do that.
[Howard] So what you're doing... you're actually taking the disadvantage or taking a potential pitfall in your using that as a control rod to slow down the reaction of the story.
[Dan] And to give a wider scope, to give it a sense of size.

[Brandon] OK. What are other potential pitfalls?
[Dan] The reader will forget who a character is, or they'll forget about a key plot point, because they haven't read about them in a while.
[Brandon] I think this is the most important... most problematic. Do you have any advice for that, Dan? How they don't do that?
[Dan] What I'm trying to do... when I do multiple viewpoints, is I'll kind of figure out maybe a couple of different tiers. Here's my main character or characters, here's my side ones, and then here's the ones that I'm just going to throw in, maybe one or two chapters throughout the book. Then I know how frequently I need to get back to them. The main characters, we need to see them a lot. If we go three or four chapters without the main character, that's too many. Whereas those kind of side characters, we can maybe go four chapters without getting their viewpoint because they're not as big of a deal.
[Howard] Somebody built a database of Schlock Mercenary character appearances several years ago and told me that by virtue of the number of times the characters had appeared, Tagon was the main character of the strip, and Schlock was a secondary character. I remember looking at that and thinking, "Oh, I need to write more Schlock strips." Then I backed up and realized, "No, hang on a second. Schlock is my Everyman character who works in some ways. The strip is working just fine. The statistics don't tell me I need to change. The statistics just tell me I probably need to know more about Tagon's background because he's a main character."
[Brandon] Right. And what you're doing is... you can use Schlock to say... when Schlock appears on the screen, we can suddenly say, "OK, we're probably going to relax for a little bit now. This is going to be fun." Although you changed that in some of the most recent stories where you put Schlock in control. But for while, it was, OK, here are some Schlock strips, we'll relax and breathe for a little while, these are going to be fun. Then we'll get back... of course all of them are fun, but then things will be more intense. So you were actually using the form of that in the same way.

[Brandon] Let me talk for a minute about the different strategies authors use, just so that you are aware of them, as listeners. I see two major strategies for character jumping. The one is... first is the way I call the George R.R. Martin way. The George R.R. Martin way is, if you read his books, he's very... he has brief viewpoints from a character and he switches frequently. It's like Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam. Because he is telling one overarching main story, he's able to use each of these viewpoints to keep that rolling.
[Howard] George R.R. Martin does that. Tom Clancy does that.
[Brandon] Yeah. Tom Clancy does that. The other big way is the large chunks from a character's viewpoint... several chapters or very long chapters, where we did a big piece of their story, and then we know we're leaving them for a while. Robert Jordan did this very frequently in the later books of the Wheel of Time.
[Howard] HowardTayler currently does this.
[Brandon] Yes. HowardTayler currently does this. Each has their own foibles and their own disadvantages.
[Howard] Did you see what I did there? Pretty clever, wasn't it?
[Dan] That was good self-promotion. Can of worms self-promotion there.

[Brandon] Speaking of stuff that HowardTayler does, do you want to give us our book promo for this week?
[Howard] I would love to plug this audio book. It's by my friend, and one of my favorite authors, John Ringo. The book is called Live Free or Die. The main character is the ultimate Howard Tayler Mary Sue self insertion, except that I did not write this, so it doesn't count.
[Brandon] He literally based the character on you?
[Howard] He based the character on me. The character is a web cartoonist who takes over the world. The aliens have shown up... John e-mailed me and said, "Do you mind if I riff off of your universe? It's got me excited about writing a first contact story." I said, "John, go ahead. Have fun. Knock yourself out." What he wrote was huge fun. It's a mixture of hard science fiction and space opera. I love the main character...
[Brandon] Because he's you.
[Howard] Because he's me, only better. A little bit shorter, and a whole lot more Napoleonic.
[Brandon] OK. Well, Support the podcast, support great authors, and support Howard's hero complex.
[Dan] Megalomania.
[Howard] My megalomania. Live Free or Die by John Ringo.

[Brandon] Let's talk about other problems and other advice... other issues to avoid and things to do if you're jumping through a lot of viewpoints. Do you have any advice for our listeners? How do you do it?
[Howard] My concern is that any time I switch to a viewpoint where I know the character is doing something that the reader doesn't like, I may not have a momentum problem, but I have a pacing problem because the reader wants to move away from that. The reader doesn't like that character, and if I spend too much time there, I'll just lose the reader. Your brother Jordo talked about that a little bit. He's picked up books before and said, "Ah, I got to this viewpoint, and I just hated it. So I stopped reading the book."
[Brandon] You know, I've had an interesting phenomenon with Elantris. Elantris is interesting in that it has a strict rotation for most of the book. Character one, character too, character three, character one, character too, character three. You can estimate exactly how it's going to be. Each of them... each of these groups, they cover the same time period. So you see character one, two, three during a time, character one, two, three during a time. Anyway, historically, people who've read this book generally latch on to one character that they like a lot, are indifferent or kind of like a second, and then come to hate a third... one of the third characters. Not just hate them as a person, but really just don't like reading their viewpoint, to the point that many people who have this in extreme numbers will just skip that viewpoint every time it comes up. I think the form of the book actually nudged them toward that. Because they would love a character so much...
[Howard] They could tell how many pages they needed to skip ahead.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. They know when the character they didn't like was coming up. The characters were all divided, they were all off doing different things. Because of that... they didn't start to really influence each other until the middle... about the three-quarter mark or the two thirds mark. Because of that, I had an interesting sort of situation. People did... sometimes really hate one of the characters in the book, and it's evenly split which one they hate.

[Dan] Another thing you can do to facilitate multiple characters... like you had a very strict rotation in Elantris. If you're not going to do that, so it's not immediately obvious which character you're in, you need to set that scene right off the bat.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. I think that's important no matter what.
[Dan] You need to give us a very clear sense of who this character is and where they are, because we just got finished reading about somebody else.
[Brandon] That's excellent advice. In fact, if you're using the large chunks of story, where you're going to give us a big thing, I would suggest trying to make each of those chunks have a beginning, middle, and end, even if it's across five chapters.
[Howard] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] Tackle one issue, and bring us to a resolution point. Which is bad for people who are writing thrillers. They're going to say no, you want to end with a cliffhanger.
[Howard] You can't do that for a thriller.
[Brandon] I say don't end with a cliffhanger. End with a satisfying conclusion, and then they will feel OK picking up the next chapter.
[Howard] That's exactly what I'm doing right now with the Family Antimatter story in Schlock Mercenary. I did a story on the docks, I did a story at the circus, I did a story on Credomar. Each of them arrived at a conclusion, and then there was sort of a cliffhanger, which is oh, no, we all need to get back together. Then we rewind and move to the next story. I've had complaints about that. People say, well, gosh, I want to see Schlock again. The only solace I can offer them is I promise that the story I'm telling right now will end in a satisfactory way, and we will come back to the characters you like.
[Brandon] It's what I'm doing in the Wheel of Time books. When I picked up tackling these, I said I've got to do something like that, where I give complete arcs. Because there are just so many people in these books that if I tried the rapidfire sort of thing, number one it would feel wrong for the Wheel of Time, but also you wouldn't get the complete story arcs and nothing would feel satisfying. You get one third of the book, second third of the next book, and then the final third in the final book.
[Dan] If you've never written viewpoints before, that's very different. If you're just writing one guy straight through, you could start a chapter in the middle of something. You can give us some thoughts without telling us where he's standing. Whereas when you do multiple viewpoints, you really gotta give us that information.
[Brandon] Right. That's not to say you can't use cliffhangers occasionally and whatnot. But I would suggest that most of the time, if you're going to use a cliffhanger, you should be planning to get back to that character very quickly, rather than just leaving for chapters and chapters and chapters.
[Dan] Don't do what Tolkien did to me when... I think it was Pippin was fighting on the front line, and a troll fell on him, and then we cut and we get about 400 pages of somebody else.

[Brandon] Yeah. Tolkien did that all the time. Another big piece of advice... and this ties into what we did... talked about last week with epics, but... you'll notice that what Howard did is quite ingenious. It's what Tolkien did. It's actually what George R.R. Martin did. Which was most of the viewpoints started together, and then broke apart. So you have an initial situation where you can explain all these characters, they can look at each other, get to know them all. Sometimes just from one viewpoint. That's what Robert Jordan did. We start with Rand. We get to know all the people around Rand. Then when the group shatters, then we start picking up other viewpoints because Rand is no longer there. It works wonderfully well. It's actually what Martin did essentially. He kept us to a few viewpoints until the shattering happened, and then the viewpoints multiplied.
[Dan] Now the alternative to that is what Tom Clancy does which is completely disparate viewpoints that eventually all come together.
[Howard] Start to come together.
[Dan] That's a very satisfying conclusion.

[Howard] The other thing that Clancy does is that sometimes he will... for instance, somebody has just fired a weapon. OK, we now switched viewpoints to somebody who is downrange and we're going to get their viewpoint on what happened when that weapon arrived. Maybe they live, maybe they die, we don't know. But that character, for two or three pages is interesting, and their perspective is moving the story forward, and we may never see them again.
[Brandon] You have to... also, one of the things I'll say on this is, matching your story to your readers. The first Clancy I read, when it did that to me, it really turned me off. I did not know to expect that this is what Clancy does. And sometimes he...
[Howard] Ah. What was the first Clancy you read?
[Brandon] I can't remember, honestly. Sometimes... though I think it was the Cardinal of the Kremlin. But anyway, sometimes Clancy I think went overboard. There is one book where he like... there was some lumber that is like...
[Dan] The tree. Yeah.
[Brandon] The tree that I think, yeah...
[Dan] It was a very cool viewpoint, but it was maddening in a lot of ways.
[Howard] I loved that. I loved the viewpoint of the tree. See, I thought that worked beautifully. I think that maybe a genre thing where...
[Dan] It's like Brandon introduced this by saying, you gotta know your audience.
[Brandon] Yeah, you gotta know your audience. One thing Clancy did very well was give you a sense in this book that all of these things were part of the same story. It became a mystery then, how is this fitting into the story? I mentioned in epic...
[Howard] Why do I care about this tree?
[Dan] Why do I care about this frakking tree?
[Brandon] I mentioned in the epic one that when I first tried to write The Way of Kings, I did a very poor job. That was partially because I didn't understand these things. This is what killed me on this book. I was trying to write a grand epic with lots of multiple viewpoints. I just picked all of these people around the world, and started telling their stories without any hint or indication that it was eventually going to converge. It was very... the readers kept having trouble keeping track of people, it was maddening for them. I eventually realized when I did the rewrite, I needed to bring some of these characters together. I eventually ended up doing only two separate storylines in two separate places, with some occasional glimpses here and there. But it's what Dan said, we know who the main characters are, and yeah, we have to keep track of two places. But there's a group of characters in one, and then there's another character in another place. Rather than having dozens of viewpoints, I ended up writing the book with three or four.
[Dan] It works much better.

[Howard] Spoiler alert. Way of Kings has a Michael Whelan cover.
[Brandon] it does have a Michael Whelan cover. Is that a spoiler?
[Dan] It's a well spoiled spoiler at this point.
[Brandon] I do also want to mention that Dan's book... since we're talking about people's books... Dan's book came out last week.
[Dan] Yes. As you listen to this, I am currently on tour.
[Brandon] I Am Not a Serial Killer... not me, Brandon, but the book I Am Not a Serial Killer came out last week.
[Dan] Brandon is a serial killer.
[Brandon] You should all buy it. I cover quoted it... I don't think they used it on the cover, but it's somewhere in there.
[Dan] It's on the back cover. [Garbled] is on the front, you're on the back.
[Howard] We're ending our multiple viewpoints, multiple story lines with multiple pimpage?
[Brandon] Yes, multiple pimpage. Buy Dan's book.
[Dan] Yes. And if you're on the West Coast of the United States, I will be there for the next two weeks. So please look at my website and come to a signing.

[Howard] I've got a writing prompt. I gotta writing prompt. OK. We talked about the tree in Sum of All Fears. I'm sure you've seen... there's the Christian metaphor of the trees that get built into things. I want a multiple viewpoint storyline, with a tree that is the focal point for multiple viewpoints that pass the tree.
[Brandon] OK.
[Dan] Wow. OK. Christian symbolism optional.
[Howard] Yeah, optional. It's a tree for crying out loud.
[Brandon] You might have some excuses in that case. But either way, go write. This is been Writing Excuses. Thanks for listening.
Tags: cliffhangers, storylines, viewpoints

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