Saturday, January 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Double Duty: Pros and Cons of Multiple First Person

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s questions:

The novel is a YA paranormal story told from the alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Mariella and Hudson. Mariella hasn't spoken a word in four years and Hudson has just survived a trial that has destroyed many who went before him. The story begins before they have met each other and follows them through one dangerous week and its aftermath.

I have several questions which may or may not be answerable in the section of writing provided:
1) Does Mariella's chapter work or is it too vague?
2) Does simply placing the character's names at the beginning of their chapters make the transition clear?
3) Does the section compel you to read more?
4) Pros-Cons of double narratives? I've heard a lot of talk on both sides of the fence. From what you see here, do you think the dual first person narration might work?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Mariella

Sleeping is the best part of my day. Everything goes slowly downhill from there. Waking up, searching for new music, faking my way through school, studying useless information for hours, suffering through dinner. The only thing I look forward is the buildup of anticipation before it’s finally time to go to sleep.

Can you imagine living like that? What kind of life that would be? I can tell you right now.

It’s no life at all.

That’s why I’m trying so hard to make sure I spend the rest of my life asleep. Who wouldn’t if they had a choice between paradise and Swallow’s Grove?

Hudson
I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. In most people’s lives, this wouldn’t be a story that goes beyond that sentence. That’s it. I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. The End. That, however, is not my life.

In my life, this event is much, much more complicated.

Horace forgot that we were almost out of food, so he asked me to make a run for necessities. I don’t think twice about this because A) I don’t really have the right to refuse Horace such a simple request and B) it’s the grocery store. What can happen? I grab a cart at the door and start coasting through the aisles, automatically pulling our usual staples off the shelves as I pass. The normality of it, the routine of the actions, lulls me into complacence; I don’t see the danger until it’s too late.

It’s the hair-raising tingle that alerts me first. My head snaps up and some inner sense I’ve always had immediately locks on to the watcher. I almost drop the glass jar of spaghetti sauce in my hand when my gaze meets my mom’s.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Mariella

Sleeping is the best part of my day. Everything goes slowly downhill from there. Waking up, searching for new music, faking my way through school, studying useless information for hours, suffering through dinner. [The only thing I look forward is the buildup of anticipation before it’s finally time to go to sleep.] Intriguing.

[Can you imagine living like that? What kind of life that would be? I can tell you right now. 

It’s no life at all.] Personal issue, but talking directly to the reader here pulls me out of the story. Feels stronger to me to go right to the plan to spend the rest of her life asleep. Readers chime in about this.

That’s why I’m trying so hard to make sure I spend the rest of my life asleep. Who wouldn’t if they had a choice between [paradise and Swallow’s Grove?] Very intrigued by why sleep is paradise and what's wrong with the Grove.

Hudson
I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. In most people’s lives, this wouldn’t be a story that goes beyond that sentence. That’s it. I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. The End. That, however, is not my life.

In my life, this event is much, much more complicated.

Horace forgot that we were almost out of food, so he asked me to make a run for necessities. I [don’t] didn't since this is past tense think twice about this because [A) I don’t really have the right to refuse Horace such a simple request] Makes me wonder what Horace does that he feels indebted to him and B) [it’s the grocery store. What can happen?] Makes me wonder why he's worried about what will happen I grab a cart at the door and start coasting through the aisles, automatically pulling our usual staples off the shelves as I pass. The normality of it, the routine of the actions, lulls me into complacence; [I don’t see the danger until it’s too late.] Quick general comment since this is a great example of something: In a first person POV, a phrase like this would normally be telling, since he can't know what he doesn't see, but this is him telling a story about what happened this morning, so he does know.

It’s the hair-raising tingle that alerts me first. My head snaps up and [some inner sense I’ve always had] Makes me wonder if this is something supernatural or just sharp instincts immediately locks on to the watcher. I almost drop the glass jar of spaghetti sauce in my hand when my gaze meets my mom’s.

The questions:
1) Does Mariella's chapter work or is it too vague?

I was intrigued by the end of it, and I like the voice in it. I don't yet know what's going on, but I suspect the cover copy would provide enough context for it. It's quite short, so it could be jarring to go from person to person with a really short chapter. You don't always get enough info to be drawn in before it's gone. However, Beth Revis does it in Across the Universe, and it worked fine there. She mixes it with other longer chapters.

I'm actually a bit torn on this one. I like it, and want to know why being asleep is better. I want to know what the deal is here, as I suspect it's a dystopian future (and I love those). I think it's going to depend on what readers know when they open the book. If they already know she prefers to stay asleep and there's no mystery there, this might not hook as well. It'll be known information. But if they don't, it will probably work to pique their interest. (readers chime in here) I want to know more about this girl and why she prefers sleep.

2) Does simply placing the character's names at the beginning of their chapters make the transition clear?

Yes, if you start each chapter as you normally would. Title halfway down the page, etc. If you treated them like scenes and went name to name, that might be a little hard to follow if they're all this short. Could be easy to miss a name and a transition.

3) Does the section compel you to read more?
Yes. I want to know why she prefers sleep, and why it's dangerous for Hudson to see his mother. I also love the little hints that this world is off from my world, and that intrigues me as well. There's more going on here, and I'm curious what that is.

4) Pros-Cons of double narratives? I've heard a lot of talk on both sides of the fence. From what you see here, do you think the dual first person narration might work?
That's a post on its own, and a question I'm asking myself right now (my WIP has dual firsts). I can think of three YA novels off the top of my head that use dual firsts and have been quite successful. Maggie Steifvater's. Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy), Beth Revis's Across the Universe, and Marie Lu's Legend. So yes, it can be done and done well. But there are extra challenges to dual firsts.

1. It's tougher to ensure the voices are distinct enough to keep track of who is who.
Since every chapter is "I" it's harder to maintain whose POV you're in, especially if the characters spend a lot of time together, where you see both from both sides a lot. The more distinct the voices, the easier this will be for the reader. All three of the books I mentioned tagged each chapter with the name of the POV, and Legend even went as far as to do all on one character's text in gold in and a different font. They worked hard to make sure you knew the difference.

If you go this route, I'd suggest putting time into each character's speech patterns, vocabulary, and how they see and refer to the world. Right now, both sound about the same. I like the voice, but they don't sound different yet. Make them unique and the odds of working go way up.

2. It's hard to hold reader interest in both POVs.
Pacing becomes trickier because you have two characters to follow, and unless one is the antag, odds are it's like having two protags. Each will have their own goals and plans. If the reader if more interested in one side, they might skim through the other to get to the good stuff, especially if you end on a cliffhanger.

I'm reminded of the prequel Star Wars movies. Multiple POVs, exciting stuff was happening, but every scene ended just as it was getting to the good stuff and threw you to another POV just ramping up to the good stuff. By the time you got back, the tension was gone and you no longer cared. After several scenes in a row like this you stopped feeling any tension at all, because you knew it was just going to end it and shift to a slow scene again.

Multiple POVs (first or third person) have this risk, so resist the urge to end every chapter with a major cliffhanger, or design them to dangle something in front of the reader every time. While this is usually exactly what you want, you have to maintain a much finer balance when you change POVs. Keep the tension even across the board so you raise it as a whole and keep readers reading, not make them feel like they're always being kept back from the excitement. It's more about keeping the story interest high than each particular scene if that makes sense. Wanting to see how a scene turns out can cause skimming. Wanting to see how the whole story turns out keeps them with you.

Making those plans connect and having something that ties the two sides together can help bring the story together here.

3. It's hard to ensure both sides have a real and separate story, yet at the same time making it all one story.

If one side is there to basically relay information the other side needs to know but isn't involved in, it can come across as a POV full of infodumping. If it's two people living two separate lives, it can come across as two stories in one book. Great multiple POVs work when every side brings something unique to the story and the reader can only get the full story by seeing all the sides.

Another snag is if both sides frequently explain the same info, even if it's from different perspectives, it's still the same info unless there's something very different in how each side sees that info. There's nothing new for the reader to discover. But if two sides each have different info, or (great fun) wrong info, and the reader can see the truth by seeing what both sides know and don't know, then you can build some wonderful dramatic irony. Readers can put the pieces together and figure out the truth for themselves by what the two sides know (or don't know).

Third person does has advantages over first in that you don't have to work quite so hard, but really, all the same issues apply. You want your characters to sound different no matter who they are. Even secondary characters should have their own voice. You still want the stories to be different, yet connected. You still want to keep your pacing tight and balanced. What's forgiving about third, is that when you slack off on those things, it's still clear whose head you're in.

There's also the issue that not everyone likes dual firsts. I had a writing instructor who hated it. She felt that you couldn't have two people telling the same story at the same time. It jarred her every time it switched. Folks can be iffy with first person, and I don't think I've ever seen a review that said "I don't like third person..." but I do see this with first. But you have no control of who might or might not like it, so if you prefer it, and you enjoy it, and even more important, you write better in it, go for it. (I did) Worst case, it can be changed if an editor or agent down the road thinks you'd stand a better chance with third over first. I'm seeing more of it these days than I used to in YA, though.

As for pros, the only real decision is which do you prefer to write in. Dual firsts, dual thirds, they're both fairly even, and as I said, the same problems do apply to both. Firsts is a tad more difficult, but if you're a stronger writer in first than third, it balances out those difficulties. Both are acceptable and readers like both. I'd suggest writing the story the way you feel it should be written, and how you feel you'll get the best story.

Overall, a good start that I enjoyed and would read more of.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you so much! Your answers to all my questions were very in depth, especially the last section on the pros and cons of dual firsts! Thank you for taking so much time to talk about it. You definitely went above and beyond!

    In the post you brought up a couple of questions that I might be able to clarify:

    Dystopian vs. Supernatural: The world is actually exactly like ours, but with supernatural elements. More like Shiver or Twilight than Hunger Games.

    Section lengths: The first bit from Mariella's POV is the only chapter in the book that is so short. While her chapters are generally shorter than Hudson's, there's a reason for this. The section from Hudson's POV actually continues for another ten pages, so you get the full encounter at the grocery store and what happens immediately after.

    Thank you again, Janice, for such wonderful comments! And thank you for taking the time do put together something like this for aspiring writers! You rock!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for posting this. I have a book I want to do in multiple first person too, so this was extremely helpful! How you broke down the pros and cons multiple first vs. multiple third was awesome.

    Regarding your excerpt, I think you've got some good initial conflict going, although I was less intrigued by Mariella than Hudson. Mariella's section was a little too short to pique my interest, and even though I wondered why she preferred sleep over being awake, it wasn't enough to make me think "I must find out what happens right now". I also had a hard time of getting a sense of place and time, unlike Hudson's POV, which didn't help.

    I agree with Janice that as a matter of personal taste, I usually don't like it when the first person POV talks directly to the reader. It usually just reminds me I am reading a book. Most of the time I prefer my first POV protagonists to be chatty, but not directly talk to the reader (Janice did a great job of this in her Shifter trilogy).

    However, I have read books where it didn't bother me (The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher springs as an example of it done very well, imo) so it's not a deal breaker.

    I think if you could make their POVs much more distinct it would go a long way towards solving any issues you might be having with this section. I especially like the subtle bits of tension in Hudson's POV. You do an amazing job of layering each sentence with suspense, giving me an impending sense of doom and a need to know what happened at the grocery store.

    Excellent job and thanks for showing us your work!

    ReplyDelete
  3. WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON also has alternating 1st person POV, but since both characters are named Will Grayson, it wouldn't help to label the chapters! The Wills were so incredibly different that it wasn't problematic at all to remember which character you were following.

    Maybe a good test with some beta readers would be to NOT label the chapters beyond the first two, though your finished work would have them. If your beta readers don't have an issue keeping your characters straight, then you've got it!

    Good luck, Sera!

    ReplyDelete
  4. The subject of double narrators is really timely. I've got a story on my back burner that suddenly decided it wanted a double narration, so Janice, if you do decide to do a post on the subject, I for one would be grateful.

    As for the story, I like it. I wish Mirella's section was longer, but I suspect part of the shortness was trying to get a flavor of both narrations in a small enough space to be reviewed. I'm not bothered by a direct address from the narrator, but I'm a huge Victorian Lit geek, and I love Leamony narrators, so I'm rather biased in that regard.

    As for Hudson -is his mom a ghost? Because that would be totally cool. (Sorry. Just what I thought when I read how shocked he was to see her...)

    The part where you start a paragraph with `Horace forgot...' made me think for a moment that you'd switched to third person and were now in Horace's viewpoint, so that threw me for a moment. Other than that I liked his section.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This post made me think of the book EAST by Edith Pattou, where there are FIVE 1st person perspectives.

    Made me crazy at the time, because with so many voices it took me a while to get into every head.

    However, it is retelling a huge and complex folktale, and (in a last desperate effort to keep *my* huge and complex folktale retelling from ending up under the bed) I returned and took another look.

    In *East* each voice has a distinct role in the telling, the primary story stays the primary story, and she does a good job with #3, where there is a single (story) thrust forward. There could have been a couple cases of character-as-info-dump, but once I was in the book it felt like one of those explanatory flashbacks readers are (I am) more tolerant of when I can see the direct application.

    I'll share (what I saw as) the roles of each voice, and I think that will show how each is good to have.

    Father-- the voice of history, both connected and outside the story.

    Neddy-- the MC's close brother, a storyteller and peer and so an organic way to do traditional close-third telling of the story.

    The MC and the love-interest (almost like what's being described in this post)

    The villain.

    The villain is female (no spoiler, that), and I appreciated both having another female POV and how being in her head prevented the Troll Queen from becoming some automatically flat, stock baddie. I love that she embodied that common truth that "No one really thinks of themselves as *bad*."

    Reading East showed me all the reasons I *don't* like multiple first person stories, but it also showed me where they can be useful. In the end I still liked the book, and I have the courage to (at least) try it for my own work.

    It was helpful to see how your comments explained some of my experience with that story.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post Janice.

    My current WIP is a dual narrative, so this is so timely. I agree with most of the other commenters- dual narration only works when both voices are completely different.

    Great example.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I thought the writing was good and the 'it's no life at all' excellent. It platformed the voice. Regarding the differences between the two, the feeling is Mariella is quieter, more meditative and Hudson has more energy, maybe a smart mouth further on in the book? The premise seems original and interesting...something one of those finicky agents out there might snap up! Yay and good luck Sera

    ReplyDelete
  8. Good job Sera! I like where this is going. I especially liked the Hudson voice - I immediately saw him as a teenager who's on the lame and runs into his mother.
    Mariella's voice I had a harder time getting into. It might have to do with how brief it is, it may also have to do with the fact that a character who only likes to sleep is somewhat boring and unless something shakes her out of this depression, I'd lose interest quick.

    Also - a grammatical thing (and people correct me if I'm wrong) but you are missing a word in the last sentence in Mariella's first paragraph. "The only thing I look forward to is the buildup of anticipation before it’s finally time to go to sleep.

    Otherwise I'm intrigued - especially about Hudson. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sera, most welcome! I got that sense about your world. Love those.

    Khanada, oh, WG/WG, of course. I just read that a few months ago too. Yep, that's a great example of two very different characters and voices.

    Amy, five 1st POVs? Egads, lol. Sounds crazy, but anything can work if done well. Good luck with yours!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Elizabeth - I loved the Dresden Files. Jim Butcher is amazing. If you haven't read his Furies of Calderon series yet, go buy it! And you're right about it being a struggle to get them to sound different, but I think it works when you actually get to read the whole thing... I think. :D

    Khanada - Wow! That is a great idea about the beta test! I really wish I'd thought about that before I sent it out to my readers! I'll have to use that the next time, though. Thank you!

    Chicory - Yeah, Mariella's section is definitely tiny, but it's the only one that short. She gets to have her say the rest of the book! And, no, Hudsons's mom is not a ghost, but with it ending like that I can see how that popped into your head! I'm glad you liked it!

    Amy - A lot of Jodi Picoult's work (such as My Sister's Keeper) uses multiple firsts as well, and I think she did a great job keeping them all straight. It's all in the voice and the presentation, I guess. You can make anything work if it's done right, so hopefully I'm doing it right!

    Elizabeth - Thank you! Just goes to show you that it's all subjective, I guess! Some people like to be spoken to and others don't and I can easily see both viewpoints. It might be taken out only because I don't use that trick anywhere else in the book, but I haven't decided yet. I'm glad you liked it, though, and thank you so much for thinking it'll get snapped up! I'm aiming to shop it in March, so cross your fingers for me!

    PBuff - oops! Thanks for pointing that out. I've read that section about a thousand times and I still missed that missing word. Just more proof that you don't read every word even when you're trying to. I'm glad you resonated with Hudson, or at least picked up on his personality, and I agree Mariella is a little harder to relate to, but there are reasons for that. It's also one of the reasons I pulled Hudson in as a narrator. I'm glad you like it! Thank you so much for your comments!

    Thanks again everyone!
    Sera
    sera-phyn.com

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm a couple days late to this post, but found it extremely useful. My WIP is five (gasp!) first-person povs (luckily they all live in the same house). During chapter transitions, I tried to continue the story instead of starting in a different time/place, particularly if I was in the middle of a cliffhanger. The biggest challenge (which you rightly pointed out) is making them all sound different. I'll see if it needs to be switched to third person upon revision. Thanks for the tips!

    ReplyDelete