Too many, too much

There’s a problem I’ve noticed cropping up more and more often lately, in the way some authors first develop and then over-develop their plots and subplots, allowing both them and their characters to proliferate beyond the ability of mere mortals to keep track of them all, until the whole edifice starts crumbling under its own weight. It’s most common (and most noticeable) in multiple-viewpoint stories, particularly those that have an ensemble cast dealing with complex plots and subplots.

The advantages of writing a fat, complicated, multiple-viewpoint, ensemble-cast book are many: they’re popular; they provide both writer and reader with more than enough variety to keep from getting bored; they are in many ways a truer reflection of the complexity of real life events than something more straightforward would be; the variety that an ensemble cast allows for means that more people will find someone they’re interested in and want to follow through all the adventures in the book; the multitude of viewpoints lets the writer show all sorts of cool stuff that would otherwise be behind the scenes; etc.

The trouble is that most of those advantages can very easily become disadvantages if they’re handled even a little bit clumsily – and the more viewpoint characters and subplots the writer has to juggle, the easier it is for them to let things get ever-so-slightly out of balance. Which is all it takes to annoy a sizeable subset of readers.

A few years back, a friend who was working on her first big multiple-viewpoint book got six chapters and eight viewpoints into the thing, and then stopped and took two of the viewpoints out. All of her first-readers screamed bloody murder; we liked those two people, and we thought the scenes they had were great. My friend was adamant, however – and perfectly correct in her decision. Those two people weren’t close enough to the central story she wanted to tell, and leaving them in would have thrown everything off-balance.

Or, to put it another way, whenever a character is the viewpoint character, the story is about them. It doesn’t matter if the character is the cab driver whose only importance is that he drove Our Hero from Kennedy Airport to a hotel downtown; while he’s the viewpoint, he’s the center. And he’s the center of his story, which, to him, is much more important than anything else that’s going on in the book.

This means that in a multiple-viewpoint book, each and every viewpoint character has to be chosen with great care. This is particularly true when the writer intends to have a cast of five or ten people who are all meant to be “the main character” in some way – that is, a classic ensemble cast. It can be very hard to identify exactly which characters are at the heart of the writer’s story (each of them is, of course, at the heart of his or her own…which is the fundamental problem).

A story told from a single viewpoint, whether it’s first-person, tight third-person, or the sort of limited omniscient that still only follows one character around, has built-in protection against subplot proliferation. The reader can only see and find out what the single viewpoint character sees and finds out, and there are only so many things that one person can reasonably be involved in. The kind of multiple-viewpoint book that has a strong core plot or theme also doesn’t usually tend to have problems with subplot-and-character proliferation; the strength of the main plot through-line keeps everything else from going too far astray.

The real trouble comes when the author lets him or herself be distracted by shiny minor characters and/or interesting bits of business that “might develop into something.” Because the minute that cab driver gets his own viewpoint scene, his story is the one the writer is telling. And it’s always, always fascinating and fun and interesting, because people’s stories always feel that way to themselves, and when you’re writing from the viewpoint of a character, you see their story they way they see it. And next thing you know, the caper novel about the ensemble cast trying to rob the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this whole involved subplot about the cab driver’s romance with a police detective (see, the writer says to herself, it’s relevant! There’s police involved!).

And then the cab driver’s family come into it, and there are more interesting complications there, and pretty soon the original caper novel is practically buried under the cab driver’s cousin’s drug smuggling subplot and his sister’s angsting over whether she’ll get into art school (see, the writer says desperately, Art! And they’re planning an art heist! So it’s, um, thematically relevant!) and the police detective’s difficulties with precinct politics.

I’ve learned the hard way that any time I start justifying the presence of a scene, character, viewpoint, or general Cool Bit Of Business, it almost certainly doesn’t belong in the story. If it belonged, I wouldn’t have to do any justifying. (Saying confidently “That’s setup for the problem with X that they’re going to have three chapters from now” is not justifying it; saying “But…but…but it’s relevant! Because there’s, um, important stuff in this bit!” is a dead sure sign that I’m going to need to cut, and the sooner, the better.)

When I notice myself slipping into this pattern, I find it helps to snip the scenes to a file, and promise myself that I can write that other story later. Because that’s the thing that’s so seductive – all those fun, fascinating stories that aren’t the one I’m telling right now, but that could be shoehorned in with just a little work… Promising myself that I can write a whole book about them and do a proper job of telling their stories, instead of giving them just a corner of this one, is what keeps me from falling victim to Endless Subplot Proliferation Syndrome. Most of the time.

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10 Responses to Too many, too much

  1. This is so true! Although my writing so far has been single-perspective (one in third, one in first), I have this problem in just thinking about my stories. They’re not really intended to be a series, but they (so far) do take place in the same narrative universe, albeit so far removed geographically they don’t overlap much yet. I’m planning for my next novel to be a multiple-viewpoint one, and this is exactly the problem I’m having even in imagining it, largely because I find it difficult to form a strong central plot. Thank you for the distinction between the writer’s story and the character’s — that’s most helpful, and will (hopefully) help me pick my central characters with great care.

  2. Mary says:

    Too many characters, and if you only root for some of them, it can be a real nuisance to wade through the dull stuff to find them — and there’s the real danger that if the reader skips, nothing makes sense.

  3. Jane says:

    Oh, ouch! I’m currently wrestling with a four-POV novel, and so much of what you say is painfully relevant. I *think* it really has to have all these different POVs to be the book I want to write, and show the information that my protagonist really can’t reasonably see–and yet! Four’s an awful lot.

    Sometimes I envy the 19th century novelists who could simply stop and fill in background for their readers–and the readers couldn’t just go away and check Twitter instead.

    At least I did realize early on that the villains were simply going to have to do most of their scheming offstage. Had to cut some cool scenes, but I hardened my heart.

    Did you always have this sense of when you really needed a scene/POV and when you were making up a justification? If you developed it, then is it just a matter of practice, practice, practice?

  4. LRK says:

    @Mary – I’ll take that over an 800 page novel where I cannot stand the first person narrator… (and yes, I went and read the next book as well… I’m really, really obstinate… ) Anything and everything that could possibly be interesting is “poisoned” by the POV…

  5. Alex Fayle says:

    I don’t like too many multiple viewpoints either. In a TV show it’s not as bad but in books, it’s insupportable…

  6. green_knight says:

    Timely, as so often.

    My current WIP is a multi-viewpoint novel because I have never written one of them. I’m learning all kinds of things about them, and the main insight was that the story is bigger than the characters’ stories.

    In a single POV story, the internal arc is important, and if you’re me, what glues the whole thing together. This one is a mystery; and I’ve got three POV characters who all have some involvement with the victims (works for 4th victim’s father, finds 2nd victim/colleage of 3rd victim, friend of 1st victim respectively) , but I find that when I start to delve too deeply into their _personal_ stories, I need to pull back and return to the plot.
    This means that some of the personal development that otherwise I’d be developing on the page – how the monk takes his apprentice – now takes place between scenes – in one scene, he’s thinking about it, in the next, some time later, he’s done thinking and acts.

    (After #5, someone calls in an investigator who’ll unravel the various mysteries and finds out whodunnit. Can’t wait, because I haven’t a clue.)

    I’ll, err, think about how to braid the various strands together later. When there’s more story and I know in which order the scenes will have to take place.

  7. Cara says:

    I went and dug up an old WIP lately that contains the dreaded ‘head-hopping.’ But on a second read through I realized that it needs to be a multiple viewpoint novel, because, as green_knight put so sensibly, the story is bigger than the internal journey. It’s a story about a society falling apart.

    I was having a huge problem with the middle of the story, because the action and mystery of the story is sort of minimal. Char X shows up and discovers that a rebellion is brewing. The rebellion happens. People die.

    When I started thinking about it as a multiple viewpoint story, I realized that the real core of the tale is about how the choices people make, even the ones that seem sensible and rational at the time, can lead to huge unexpected disasters. What the story lacked was those choices: the middle part, where every well meant mistakes sends the world spinning more and more out of control.

    Then I went and wrote 10 pages of backstory for a minor character who has no direct influence on the plot. Oh well. It’s really good backstory. I’m sure I can shoehorn it in somehow. :D

  8. Tiana Smith says:

    I see this more in fantasy novels than in any other genre. I’ve never tried a multiple POV myself, but I respect those who can pull it off nicely. It’s true what you said though – if you have to justify it, then it probably isn’t working. This is true with all things in writing though, not just multiple POVs.

  9. I have this issue with prologues (I write first person, one main usually). I love to use prologues to give another person other than the main character’s POV. Unfortunately, this isn’t always relevant. Even if they’re great scenes, I’m learning to leave them out and keep them in case they work somewhere else.

  10. Dan Goodman says:

    I think every writer does too much of SOMETHING. Genealogy, political advocacy, detailed description of how to use a chamberpot (I’m not making that up,) dialog….

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