Advice on shifting narrative?

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Jay Wesson
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Sat Jun 09, 2007 11:58 pm Post

I'm 10,000 words into my first novel. I'm really enjoying the process, even more so since I've switched to Scrivener!

I desperately need some advice. I've written everything thus far in an "over the shoulder of the protagonist" style of third person narrative.

I have some expository elements that involve the main character's wife and her interpretation of events that have already transpired. If I could find a way to shoehorn in a shift in narrative, not only would this move the story along more naturally, it would give me a chance to develop a character that to this point has fallen a bit flat.

Would it be too jarring to just have a narrative shift in chapter ten to an "over the shoulder" of the protagonist's wife, and then back to the main character in the next chapter?

Can anyone offer an example of another work where such a narrative shift has been used effectively? I just can't think of one right now... I get flustered when I write, apparently.

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Lord Lightning
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Sun Jun 10, 2007 3:24 am Post

There is one that will be published in 41 days.

Para [3rd person, past tense, omniscient author voice]

Para [3rd person, past tense, omniscient author voice]

Para [1st person, present tense, protagonist voice "I am feeling tired"]

Para [3rd person, past tense, omniscient author voice]

Para [3rd person, past tense, omniscient author voice]


Just right in the middle of things we get a complete shift from the author telling you the story to an affirmation of the author's POV from the hero.

While you come to accept this style shift it is very strange and wrenches you out of the story - because it slams writing style in your face. The effect is to distrust the author because the person whose story it is is both there and quite capable of telling his own story.

You could give it a try and see if it gets the reaction you want from disinterested but knowledgeable readers.

8)
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janra
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Sun Jun 10, 2007 3:48 am Post

It's used quite a lot, actually. A story with multiple POV (points of view) is a perfectly valid storytelling method.

I will add a few caveats to that, however:

* If you do it for one scene in the middle of an entire novel, it will be jarring; either don't do it at all or spread the POV shifts over the entire book. This will make the second POV character much more important in the story. Some people like to be jarring, but unless you want the reader to notice your stylistic choices, jarring is usually considered a bad thing. (Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of the style-over-story branch of literary writing; I prefer story to dominate so that I don't notice style intruding.)
* Change POV on scene boundaries (and preferably on chapter boundaries), otherwise the reader is likely to get confused over who is the POV character. Also, indicate very early after a POV shift who the new POV character is. In the first sentence if possible, but at least in the first paragraph or so. Unless you want ambiguity, which some people do.

... that's about it, really.

I normally stick with one POV, but I have written stories with more than one; alternating chapters between two POV characters, for example, is a long standing method and one I've used.

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howarth
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Sun Jun 10, 2007 8:34 am Post

Jay Wesson wrote:I have some expository elements that involve the main character's wife and her interpretation of events that have already transpired. If I could find a way to shoehorn in a shift in narrative, not only would this move the story along more naturally, it would give me a chance to develop a character that to this point has fallen a bit flat.


One way to introduce other voices, without changing the POV, is to include their letters or diaries, which the main character reads. This would seem awkward unless you have prepared the reader for it in earlier sections.

If you are using 3rd-person omniscient, you may shift constantly to look over the shoulder of other characters without confusing readers. However, it might be better if you do this several times for the wife, and not once only.

And another way to provide some variety in that 3PO is to use italicized phrases that simulate the character's unspoken thoughts.

Thanks for raising the question, and good luck with your book.

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KB
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Sun Jun 10, 2007 9:23 am Post

This is coming from someone who is a born procrastinator and would love to have got as far as you have, so take it for what it's worth:

If you feel that the shift in narrative is the right thing to do to move your story along at this point, why don't you just do it and see how it turns out? Remember that it's the first draft. You won't know how jarring it is (or isn't) until you have tried it. Once you've done it and finished the draft, you can re-read and see whether it works or not; you will be able to see, if it does work, whether and where you need to work her voice in elsewhere in the book to make it less jarring (or not); if it doesn't work, you will be in a better position to see what else might work instead, having reached the end of the draft.

Now, like I say, this is coming from someone who manages to write about one sentence a month and then stop and freeze because the sentence doesn't seem perfect, so feel free to ignore me completely.

Best,
Keith

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antony
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Sun Jun 10, 2007 10:23 am Post

I was going to suggest what both KB and Janra said.

- Give it a try, and see if you think it works.

- At the same time, be aware that a single 'new POV' chapter or scene may look very odd in isolation; but that may spur you on to think of what other scenes from the wife's POV may be valid, and worth writing. It may be that including several chapters from her POV makes the story stronger.

Personally I'd separate her POV scene/s out into specific chapters, rather than just a mid-chapter scene change. If you're shifting POV, a chapter break is never a bad thing.
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Studio717
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Mon Jun 11, 2007 12:04 am Post

In Leonard Bishop's Dare to Be a Great Writer*, he says that, basically, you can change pov wherever you want to, but that to keep it from being jarring to the reader (or do what LL's example did and pop the reader completely out of the story) it helps if you have already introduced the character to the reader. That way they are familiar with the character and won't be as confused about where they are in the story or who they're with.

I do agree with what the others have said in that it's better to introduce the shift fairly early and then occasionally (at least) thereafter, but this is just to keep your reader from being confused. A recommendation, not a rule.

All of my novels have been multiple third, so I'm comfortable with the form.

*pulled from memory so it could be totally inaccurate.

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Lord Lightning
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Wed Jun 13, 2007 12:01 am Post

This is well worth a read. It gives a lot of examples you can look at.

http://www.scriptmag.com/earticles/earticle.php?535

:)
Lord Lightning

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When I make a declarative statement it applies to ME. Not to everyone.

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werebear
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Mon Jul 30, 2007 9:54 pm Post

I would just like to agree that if you are going to shift POV, don't do it just once. That sticks out way too much, and the reader will end the story having waited for the other shoe to drop, and then wondering why that POV never popped up again. If they are important enough to have their own POV, they need some coverage.

Also, can the wife not tell her side of the story to the protagonist? And if not, why not? Suspense? The protagonist is clueless about this aspect, but you don't want the reader to be? (Having the reader/watcher know more than the characters was how Hitchcock was so successful.) Figuring that out might give the wife some tangibles that would keep her 3-dimensional.

The book The English Patient has numerous points of view, and I found them to be handled very well, mostly with scene breaks within the same chapter. But everyone got proper coverage, and an ending of their own, so it worked well.
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