Dana's Dojo: Talking Heads

Today in the Dojo: choosing the right spokesperson and keeping the voices from turning your multiple POV masterpiece into Babble-on.


The problem with a Cast of Thousands is that everybody wants to be a star. When you choose the third person point of view, limited or not, you open the door to a flood of potential narrators, all of whom want to tell the world about their part in the drama. Some of them just seem to want to tell the world about their drama, and be dramatic doing it. It’s like wading into the crowd at a big premier with a camera crew and a microphone: people who would have been content to be part of the background are suddenly pushing themselves into the lens, grabbing the microphone, and telling all.

I know that when you’re in the middle of the crush, it’s hard to believe you’ll ever get something useful out of it. The impulse is to scream, flee and go write something nice and first person after barricading your door against the masses. But you don’t have to. You can wrestle order out of the chaos. Wade right in: you’ll be grateful for all those spotlight hogs once you’re through.

Step One: Choose your Stars

In a multiple POV novel, you’re probably going to have more than one star. People like to yammer about the main character, and there’s some books where one character is the megastar, but there’s just as many where one character barely edges out others as the be-all and end-all of the story. That’s fine. There’s room for more than one star in just about any show.

What you want is star power with a good, solid supporting cast. You’ve probably already got a good idea of who the stars are: they’re the people the most things happen to. But you’ve also got these incredibly talented folks that really interesting things happened to. It’s tempting to give them the spotlight a bit more often than you strictly should. And it can be very hard to tell the difference between Starring and Also Starring.

This is where knowing what the novel is ultimately about will help save you. If your novel is about the Free Weasel Foundation triumphing against the Evil Fur Coat People, you’ll know that the two freedom fighters who ultimately dodged all the security, courts and police and released the captive weasels in a dramatic nighttime raid are the true stars. That will keep you from getting ensnared by the CEO of Furs, Unlimited who is having a crisis of conscience and slowly turning vegetarian. You won’t be so tempted to turn to story toward the freedom fighter who, after a vicious bite from a weasel, sells out the FWF to its enemies and goes on to be a fur-coated runway model. Your focus will stay on the two heroes, where it belongs.

In special cases, you may discover that you mistook one of the stars for supporting cast and vice versa. It’s quite all right to go back and make the switch. Just make sure you don’t fire the star halfway through without revision – you’ll have to rewrite the opus so that the new star was the real star all along.

How many stars should you have? Probably no more than two or three in a mega-opus, perhaps four at the outside. More than that, and the reader’s focus gets spread too thin.

Step Two: Choose Your Supporting Stars

Your supporting stars are those really interesting folks who complicate the stars’ situations and star in their own subplots. They’re important to the main story, but not as much as the stars.

They’re the buggers who will be really persuasive about hogging the spotlight.

But you can’t just kick them out. Let’s go back to our premier-crowd metaphor. The stars of your interview are, say, the mother and best friend of the actor whose movie is opening. The supporting stars are the blokes who have some experience with the actor: the kid who overcame cancer because of the actor’s support, the old friend who got drunk with the actor and his best friend and taunted the actor into becoming an actor in the first place, that sort of thing. Maybe your interview was focusing on the how the people closest to the actor affected his stardom, but these folks have something important to say about the actor, and they can’t be shushed. They add to the picture you’re creating. They have a hand in his life, too.

So keep sight of your goal. You want the FWF heroes to free the weasels. But the CEO and the Disillusioned FWF Chick complicate the heroes’ situations and add important insights to the story. If you show those bits of their stories where the heroes aren’t directly involved but which impact the heroes anyway, and leave out those bits that have nothing to do with the path to weasel freedom, they’ll have a lot to add.

Supporting stars are really limited in number only by the size of the novel. If you’re writing an epic, you’ll probably need quite a few. In a regular novel, not so many. It’s up to you, but use the acid test of: how much can this person really add? If the answer is lots, then let them have a say.

Step Three: Be Firm with Others

You will be tempted by really entertaining extras. You know, you never meant to give so-and-so a speaking part, but he’s got this really quirky accent and a funny thing he does with a banana and a condom that’s to die for… Yeah. Maybe in another story. After all, DVDs come with special features and deleted scenes: there’s no reason you can’t take all those talented extras and give them starring roles in short stories that can come out after the book. Right? Right.

Stars should do most of the narrating. Supporting stars should do the rest. Only in the most extreme situations should you have a talented extra stepping up and narrating the action. Only in the most extraordinary situations should you allow an extra a moment in the spotlight that really hasn’t much of anything to do with the main plot and subplot.

I don’t care how persuasive they are. Tell them no. It’s a simple word, two letters, one syllable: NO.

And mean it.

Righty, then. You’ve got the respective stars sorted out. You’re ready to write. However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Because the stars, being stars, are often going to be starring in the same scenes, and if you’re switching between multiple points of view, how the hell do you decide who gets to be the viewpoint for this particular scene?

There’s an important word you need to have handy. It’s “argh.”

If you’re so inclined, you could add an “oshit” if you like.

There’s a calculus to this, only it doesn’t come in neat little packets of mathematical symbols with one single correct answer at the end. Let’s just do our best with it, shall we?

Equation One: Who’s There?

This is the easiest equation. If you’re picking the viewpoint for a scene, you’ll probably be best to go with someone who actually viewed it. Hearsay works no better in books than it does in court. There are sometimes exceptions, but generally, you’re safe going with the people who were actually there.

Equation Two: If It’s a Star and Supporting Star, Then…

Gets stickier here. Generally, in this case, you’ll pick the star. But there are times when you want to see the star through other eyes. There are times when your star will understand something you don’t want the reader to catch on to just yet. So in those special cases, you’ll pick one of the supporting stars.

Equation Three: Who Did Most?

Another way to choose is to pick the folks who aren’t lurking around the fringes of the scene. Think of it as a cocktail party: you want to be in the thick of the big conversation, not getting the dish from the guy lurking by the cocktail wienies. You’ll generally go with the viewpoint who’s the most active, even if there’s a star over there by the buffet snarfing sausage on sticks.

Equation Four: Who’s Loquacious?

If you’ve got players of equal qualifications as far as star power and vantage point, pick the one with the most interesting way of portraying it, or has the more intriguing take, or suffered the most, or has some other little edge. Yes, you may have to write the scene from different viewpoints until you find the right one. Yes, that’s extra work. But it’s worth it.

Equation Five: What’s the Scene Really About?

You might think it’s about the main action (two people falling in love), but don’t be blind to the fact it might really be about something else entirely (third star seeing first two stars fall in love and having to painfully confront feelings for one or both lovebirds). In such cases, you’ll go with the character whose viewpoint says the most.

These methods work for both supporting stars and superstars. There’s a lot more to the calculus, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. Once you’ve run through those bits of it, the rest usually sorts itself out. Often, anyway. And if it doesn’t, banging head against wall, having a shower, and playing five hours of the video game of your choice might let your subconscious solve the problem all on its own.

And Now, the Really Big Question: How to Keep the Views Balanced

Be le bel auteur sans merci, that’s how.

I’m not going to give you hard-and-fast rules, but here’s a some guidelines:

1. Give the most scenes to your stars. After all, they are the stars.

2. Cut out scenes that don’t serve the main story. If they creep in there during the first draft, don’t worry about it. That’s what those little scissors on your taskbar are for. You just have to be brave enough to use them. The acid test for any secondary character’s scene, no matter how good it is in and of itself, is how well it serves your main plot and subplot(s).

3. If the subplots are trying to become the stars, set ’em down. Subplots are there to enhance the main plot, not outshine it. If the subplot doesn’t feed into and support the main plot, time for ye olde scissors again. Tell the supporting stars to can the complaints: maybe they can be the superstars next time around, but not this time.

4. If the subplots insist, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Seriously. If the subplot is so much more interesting to you than your main plot, if it’s constantly trying to take over, the two might need to switch places. Nothing wrong with that. Do what the story demands.

That’s really what it comes down to. That’s it: keep it star-centric, keep the supporting cast supporting. And when things go awry, as they will, have faith in the scissors.

Dana's Dojo: Talking Heads

2 thoughts on “Dana's Dojo: Talking Heads

  1. 1

    Good post!

    For who’s viewpoint, I try to make it the person who is changing the most, or has the most at stake in the scene, or who is hurting the most. It’s not always a conscious decision. Since I seem to spend too much time in the main characters’ heads, occasionally I want someone different to step up – show the stars from someone else’s viewpoint for a change.

    Number 2 is hard, so hard. Some famous author online called it “murder your darlings,” and that’s what it feels like.

    Since I’m world-building, it’s hard to know how much is too much. Argh. Oshit.

  2. 2

    Very well put! I’ll be printing this to put in my writing resources, I think. And quite applicable even for the coffee house book, which has a cast of thousands (well, hundreds) and is in first-person POV.

    It can be hard as a writer to determine whose story will further the overall story arc since our natural inclination is to tell people’s stories. Sometimes everyone can seem important.

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