4th January 2008: Ratcheting and POV

There’s a thing that mechanical gears do, where each one has a little set of teeth, and each little tooth has to grip on one on the other gear to move the thing forward, and when they’re going they mesh, but when they’re going slowly you can see each tooth move the next tooth on, and that’s called ratcheting.

When I use the term about writing, I mean that when you write POVs in order, alternating, it’s just like that. There are other ways of moving stories on, goodness knows there are other ways of gearing too. But when you’re using a ratchet you can’t stop and have two chapters from the same POV, and you can’t take out a scene because someone doesn’t like it without replacing it with something else. The rhythm will stutter. If chapter 15 doubles so it will need to be two chapters, then you need something else to go into chapter 16 from the other thread. If you’re keeping your POVs equal in time, the way I did in the “Small Change” books (I have another alternate series title for them now, incidentally, “The Tragickal Downfall of Peter Anthony Carmichael”) and your newly doubled chapter 15 takes place on Saturday, then your new chapter 16 has to happen on Saturday too.

Now this can be a pain in the neck.

But it has given me more than it has taken away. It gave me the best bit of plot in Prize in the Game. It gave me the tension in Ha’Penny, where what makes it interesting is what each POV knows and doesn’t know that you know, as you get towards the climax.

As you can see, it would be impossible to write out of order, because the serendipities and issues that come up with this, require getting it right in order.

I’ve now done this in four novels, I’ve also written one in true omni and one in bizzaro omni, and two in first. What I’ve never done is “bestseller omni” which is what’s normal in a lot of fantasy, where you have lots of POVs and threads but they’re used as is convenient to the writer… and come to think, I’ve never done a single tight third, either, not for a whole book.

Now bestseller omni is clearly what people like, because things that sell a zillion copies tend to be written in it. But I don’t like it, as a reader, it is my least preferred POV, because it encourages any faint tendency to sprawl, to give every angle on everything, and even when it isn’t intended as padding, some of it comes out like padding. And of course, when you have a zillion characters, some of them are more interesting than others (unless the author happens to be a genius like George RR Martin) and I’m chafing reading the duller ones and want to get back to the more significant ones, and that makes a book less fun to read.

I usually know, when I’m writing, every angle on everything, but the POVs I’m using filter what of that gets through to the reader, and while this is occasionally phenomenally frustrating, generally I think this is a good thing. For instance, something that came up recently with Marcus writing the RPG. The dragon flag is never mentioned in Tooth and Claw, but I happen to know it’s a mountain. It’s never mentioned because it doesn’t need to be, it isn’t relevant to that story. It would have been padding.

People sometimes ask how many POVs you need. You need as many POVs as your story absolutely requires, and no more. If that’s one, great. If that’s ninety-five, gosh, what a demanding story.

In Diane Duane’s Door Into… books, storytellers begin a story with “This is the story of whatever, and this is the way I tell it.” I find this formula really useful when I’m thinking about the shape of a story. What story is this, and how do I tell it? I usually don’t know at that point what is going to happen in the story, or only vaguely, but I need to know what story it is. “This is the story of Sulien ap Gwien, and how she made the Peace, and I tell it all in her own retrospective words.” “This is the story of how good people do bad things, and I tell it in the alternative POVs of a headlong ditzy girl and a well-meaning Scotland Yard inspector.” The POVs I’m using are an integral part of that.

Which is what I’m working on right now with Our Sea.

Posted in Unfinished book stuff, Writing