• On Annoying Trends in Linearity and POV

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Dos & Don'ts     Comments 33 comments
    Apr
    13

    Discussion questions: As a reader, do you enjoy fiction with non-linear narratives and/or multiple points of view? And/or novels that switch between first- and third-person perspective? Why or why not? As a writer, how do you choose your approach regarding linearity and perspective? Have you ever written non-linear fiction, or a story or novel that employs multiple points of view? What do you see as the benefits and the potential pitfalls? Let us know in the comments.

     

    Recently I read a Denis Johnson novella called The Name of the WorldAfter I finished, I googled reviews of the book, which is something I often like to do, either after I’ve formed my own opinions or in cases where I’m struggling to figure out what a writer was trying to do.

    I came across a post titled “A Few Books Denis Johnson Wanted You to Read,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a cool list; go check it out. I’ve read a few of the titles, and the ones I haven’t sound intriguing.

    In the post, I came across a line that threw me. The writer, Robert Martin, while offering Johnson’s thoughts on The Sisters Brothers, an excellent book, writes about a time he and Johnson and a third party were chatting about literature. Martin writes, “Mr. Johnson and I were discussing the recent and, to us, annoying trend in literature that employs multiple points of view and non-linear narratives.”

    I’m not aware of non-linearity and/or multiple POV being a particularly recent trend, or a trend at all, though I don’t find it difficult to swallow. MFA programs birth such uniformity that I think many program writers tend to play with perspective and linearity to cover up their lack of having anything fresh or meaningful to say.

    But I was caught off guard by the idea of readers being annoyed by a particular mode of storytelling.

     

    Part of what made me bristle, naturally, is the fact that I’m writing a non-linear, multiple POV novel. (To cover up my lack of having anything fresh or meaningful to say?) And so, reading that passage made me think that Denis Johnson would probably have hated my book and found me incompetent for relying on what I imagine he considered gimmickry.

    So I started thinking about why I was writing my book this way. What was the purpose of starting in 2016, moving to 1987, moving further back to 1982, then back to 2016, etc? I hadn’t really devoted much, if any, thought to this before; it’s how I first envisioned the thing, and I just rolled with it from there, rather than questioning whether it was the right approach.

    After awhile I realized that my purpose was little more than narrative trickery. Which is not a valid reason to do anything.

    I started fooling around with opening in 1982 and simply moving chronologically. Turns out that, yeah, it makes far more sense. For my book, that is. I’m still using multiple POVs (PsOV?), because that’s also what makes more sense for my book. If the non-linear approach had a useful purpose, I would’ve stuck with it.

    Just like when we discussed drinking while writing, my opinion is: hey, whatever works.

     

    What did this teach me? I haven’t changed my opinion on non-linear narratives and multiple POVs; I think it’s fine, if done well, and if done with a purpose. If those kinds of books annoy Robert Martin and annoyed Denis Johnson, that’s cool. We all have things that annoy us as readers.

    But I did realize that, whether linear or non, whether multiple POVs or one, whether first-person or third, we should explore and come to understand our reasons for choosing the approach we take. Ideally before we waste a lot of time on a path that we decide is the wrong one.

    So, my thanks to Robert Martin for helping me pump the brakes before I wasted lots more time. For the first time since I started this book, I’m confident I’m on the right path.

     

    As a reader, do you prefer linear or non-linear, multiple POV or one, first-person or third? 

    As a writer, how do you choose your approach with linearity and POV/perspective?

    Let us know below!

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

     

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    Barbara Mealer

    Because I think in a linear fashion, I write that way. When I’m reading a book, other than time travel books, and an occasional flashback, don’t jump from one era to another or I’ll put the book down and not complete it. Like you said, it will give you temporal whiplash as you attempt to keep up with the jumps in time and make sense as to why you are going from one era to the next all the time. I don’t believe I’m that unusual of a reader. One the other hand, if there is a compelling reason for… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    A Time for Love in Paris by Kim Hotzon. It’s an indie book which involves time travel. Elise, the main character slips through time between the 1800’s Paris and present day Paris via a book she bought in a second hand shop called “A Walking Tour of Paris.” I’ve also read several others which bounce around in time, but this one I especially liked as it kept your interest and you could relate to the MC as she struggles to figure out life in the 1800s.

    Maquel A. Jacob

    I have character who died before the story ever started. Her actions are the cause of every Ill fated catastrophe her race and many others fall into. I throw scenes in her POV from when she was alive to show how devious she was and how it impacted all three planets. Never had any of my readers complain. In fact, they actually love it when she shows up.

    david lemke

    Be careful what you ask for. When a former acquisitions editor for Simon & Shuster’s told me my first draft was an afterbirth (but all first drafts are” and suggested I take a writing class, I took her advice and took three semesters with Writer’s Studio. They focus on exploring and learning style, point of view and the qualities of the personal narrator. This will take more then one post.

    david lemke

    Her words, not mine. Apparently very very bad, grammar, spelling, everything else…
    The interesting thing is that I’d had a coach because I’d taken a novel writing class from Writer’s digest and every week he was singing my praises. After listening to him, I thought I was good. I don’t recommend Writer’s Digest classes.

    david lemke

    For Writer’s Digest, I actually had to snail-mail my work to him and wait for a written reply. I met Marcela Landres at the UWM Milwaukee writer’s conference where she critiqued my then very crappy draft. She recommended Writer’s Studio. In NY, WS does in-person workshops, but they also do online, which is what I did. I recommend their classes and am still grateful to Marcela for her advice.

    david lemke

    I did the one writer’s conference in Milwaukee and two in Madison. The Milwaukee one where I received that invaluable critique and advice. The first one in Madison got me some useful critiques. the second was a waste; I for a fee, I got a one on one with an agent interested in my genre. The agent canceled and I was rescheduled with an agent who couldn’t care less about my genre Before the one on one I got to work with a “Professional to hone my “elevator talk” for my novel. However, what he came up with had nothing… Read more »

    Susan

    I was trying to figure out the same thing….maybe it’s because, like, the afterbirth is something the baby no longer needs and sheds–so something in the novel was still clinging to it that didn’t have to be there?

    Lori Thatcher

    I really enjoyed this discussion–oh, the pangs of my struggle with this subject and with critique partners who question why I prefer to jump back and forth instead of writing with linearity.
    Plus – I laughed out loud at your questioning of “POVs.”
    Yes, shouldn’t it be (PsOV?)

    Robin

    Thank you for this post. It prompted me to think critically about my own project, which is linear but told from multiple “PsOV.” As of right now, I think it is still the best way to tell a story about how the choices of one character impacts another one they will never meet. But the criticism of this “gimmicky” approach is a reminder to keep the core story strong. Challenge accepted!

    david lemke

    (Part 2) While I write linear, my stories don’t have to be. I sometime find that if I get the ax out, chop the story up, and rearrange the pieces, I can create different and strange perspectives. One story, I began with a celebratory end, a big win! But when next you read the beginning and middle, it clear the what appeared to be victory was a devastating defeat. My novel, “Intrusion,” begins and ends thirty years in the future while much of the novel takes place in the past with one flash back to when the hero is a… Read more »

    david lemke

    Consider a baseball story. The narrator starts high above the stadium, you catch the crowd roar, you see the players focusing first on the batter, how he looks, his tension his scattered thoughts straying to his girlfriend fight, trying to focus on his job, (get a hit), stepping back to the catcher who know how to pitch this batter. A couple in the outfield nose bleed seats necking, then the pitcher, distracted by cat calls and his sore shoulder and the bases loaded failures…etc. the crack of the bat interrupts the couple not paying any attention to the game now… Read more »

    Hans De Léo

    As a reader, I find non-linearity to be mostly annoying. Case in point is when a story opens with some dramatic scene where the protagonist’s life appears to be about to end. Then the story goes back to the beginning and we have to read all about how he or she got there. It’s an effective tool for hooking the reader, but one I hate because I find myself wanting the story to move along and get to the point. In other words, way to much of the story becomes “fluff”. However, there are exceptions. Flashbacks and time travel are… Read more »

    david lemke

    Changing POV within a paragraph is dangerous, like changing horses in the middle of the stream. If changing within a chapter you merely need to be careful. Changing by chapter is simple.

    Hans De Léo

    In answer to your question about non-linearity, I can’t think of a novel per se, but there are a few Star Trek episodes. Okay, so they’re not novels, but they still tell a story. The original series, The Menagerie parts I and II come to mind. The reason the non-linearity worked is because it was clear when you were in the past and in the present. I would expect the same would apply to novel writing. As far as changing POV, I use scene breaks and then immediately establish the POV and setting (even if it hasn’t changed). I still… Read more »

    Finn Briscoe

    Hey, I’m a reformed alcoholic so I never drink while writing, though I used to (without great results) but if that works for you, do it. I feel the same way about linearity and POV. Most fiction editors will flag head-hopping POV’s, but I like to jump in and out of different characters’ skins. If the reader can’t follow, the writing’s not good. You have to be a little redundant with dialogue and other tagging to make sure it’s clear who’s who, but I don’t have a problem with changing POVs several times in a short story. Linearity is an… Read more »

    Raymundo

    Hi Dave. Certainly, there’s nothing bad or wrong about a non-linear narrative. It’s just that, like vampire-lover and paranormal-student stories, it has been way overdone–especially in TV series. The device has been used effectively in stories I really like: All the Light We Cannot See, and Station Twelve, but, in my opinion, even those stories could have been just as well (or better) told with a chronological narrative. For the most part, I suspect the current trend of this is just the usual doing-to-death of something that has worked before. While depicting a dramatic consequence and then showing the events… Read more »

    Susan

    Hi Again David. Great question, and I don’t have a ready answer in a general sense. I once wrote a story where a young woman was discovering her roots, and I used events in the past to show the character traits or unfinished business that had carried through to the present. I had action in three different generations, but I would connect them by an event or an object–e.g., the present day person would open the music box that belonged to Great Grandma and then I would switch to Great Grandma receiving the box as an anniversary gift, and then… Read more »

    Susan

    Hi David, Just to be entirely factual this is my cousin-in-law but I call everyone cousin if they’re in my cousin’s family. Anyhow, the book is Where My Body Ends and The World Begins, by Tony Romano. He also did When the World Was Young and another one about Italian immigrants in Chicago. The ‘Body’ book is published by an indy publisher, Allium Press of Chicago. It is fiction but based on true events–a very tragic fire in a Catholic school in Chicago. I remembered, actually, he did a third interesting thing with POV. When the guy is immersed in… Read more »




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