The raptor sent me an online discussion and analysis of long series epic fantasy today, written by Marie Brennan, which had some very interesting things to say about structure. The point that I found most interesting – partly because I hadn’t come across it before – was a mathematical approach to dividing up your points of view. This is primarily relevant to people who write in third person or omnipotent, which I haven’t for a couple of years, but the idea behind it is fairly universal.
Every word is furthering the core story in some way (and if it isn’t, get editing). If you only have one point of view, then in a 100k novel all 100,000 words are furthering the story of that protagonist. If you have two POVs, that number is cut in half. Sure, there may (should) be overlap because their arcs intersect but the airtime is divided and therefore so is the focus. Start ramping up the number of POVs and you quickly end up with not much word count in which to further each character’s focus. That impacts both the pacing and the reader’s connection with each character.
You also need to be aware that adding more characters not only affects pacing – it can also create subplots. Let’s say Jimmy is the first narrator, before Barry takes over. Presumably Barry takes over because he has his own thing to focus on and Jimmy’s not able to narrate that. Fine and dandy – Barry goes off to handle his issue. Subplot 1. But what’s Jimmy doing whilst Barry’s dealing with it? He’s got to find something to occupy him, so we introduce Subplot 2. For each new narrator character, you likely have to create at least one additional sideplot.
Let’s put it another way. The Fellowship of the Ring gets to the Falls of Rauros, where Frodo decides he needs to deal with the Ring on his own (+ Sam). Fine and dandy, but what do Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas occupy themselves with in the meantime? Subplot: Merry and Pippin are kidnapped and need rescuing. That actually creates two subplots – the hobbits, who end up with the ents, and Aragorn & Co. who end up with Rohan’s politics.
Again, remember your word count. Subplots mean that you have X fewer words to forward the main story. Is it worth it? Is there any way that you can take the important bits of the subplot and include them in the main tale? Or, alternatively, can you avoid creating that fifth POV character, and present what he was going to say through the eyes of Narrator #3? You risk losing focus, bloating word count and losing your reader’s interest – do the maths and decide if it’s worth it.
Finding the right voice is one of the biggest starting challenges of any story, and using more than one can actively help in the narration style. I’m certainly not advising you to always stick with one POV as a hard and fast rule. But you do need to be aware of the drawbacks of multiple narrators and handle them right. As Marie Brennan said:
There’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.