A few thoughts on multi-POV starts

There are two things that are true.

One is I have a term “Pathofdaggersitis” that I’ve coined for books that remind me of Path of Daggers with its multiple PoVs and corresponding lack of anything much to drag one into the narrative. It’s a hyperbolic term born of frustration, much as I was with Path of Daggers.

The other is a deep abiding love of Pratchett and Gemmell, both of whom would throw PoVs at the reader like they had to use them all in the first fifty page or lose them.

They seem contradictory, but it equals out to thinking books that introduce a lot of PoVs very quickly either really hit the mark or miss it entirely. Very little in between. This post will be exploring a bit of why the idea can be so marmite for me at least.

The most recent book I read that had me wishing for a more compact start was The Bone Shard Daughter (although Gwynne’s Malice and The Dragon’s Path also spring to mind quickly as examples). And the most recent book I read that had me happy with its sprawling start was The Legend of Deathwalker. What, if anything, did they do different?

One thing that I think might be part of it is how related the PoVs are and to look, not at PoVs, but strands. Does this hold up? In BSD, there are four strands to begin with; Imperial Island, Deerhead Island, the Rebellion Island, and the Island with people with no memories. In LoD, there are three strands, but all of them are in one physical location: Gulgothir. The characters are all meet each other early. While this isn’t true of every multi-PoV start I like, it’s fairly common in them. Multiple PoVs looking at the same problem are different to multiple PoVs looking at related problems are different; it’s not a surprise if I or others have different reactions to one than to the other.

A big part of that, I think, is that when we can see how their problems are related, the characters end up sharing hooks and build reader interest together. There is an obvious point that each PoV is like a new start, that needs to hook in its own right. The shared problem mitigates that. Distant, not obviously related problems increase the new start feeling. All readers are impatient in some way, looking for a promise of good things to come. If they are looking for that promise in terms of plot, shared problems deliver a lot quicker.

If they are looking for that promise in terms of emotional investment, shared problems mean shared scenes, shared page time. One of my problems with BSD was how we visited some arcs and then just ignored them for long periods of time, making it hard for me to gain any sense of narrative momentum. In LoD, Talisman doesn’t have that many scenes from his PoV to begin with, but there’s a number of scenes in which other PoVs interact with him and as such we build a sense of character quickly.

I’m not sure this is the entirety of why some work for me and some don’t. There are some multiple strand books I like (I think). I mean, I wished for a more compact start with The Red Knight, but I still read and enjoyed it, and it wasn’t until later the proliferation of PoVs overwhelmed me. The difference compared to BSD? It’s hard to say but I think there might be something to say for tonal and motivational match up. In BSD, Phalue and Ranami’s troubles as a couple due to differing social class felt very different to Lin’s and Jovis’ fantastical action narratives. I know I’m not alone in not really liking their arc (among those I’ve talked to, I’m in a distinct majority) and I think that might be part of it. Obviously there’s nothing preventing PoVs with major tonal differences from working but it is a risk. I think of Adrian Selby’s Snakewood, which was very ambitious in terms of PoV and voice, and I saw a goodly number of reviews saying it hadn’t worked for them. It didn’t work for me either. I loved the book for its ambition, but as someone looking to sink into the flow of a narrative, it didn’t quite connect.

As I reach the end, it all feels very obvious. Multiple PoVs can feel like multiple books wrapped into one and there’s a reason most people don’t start three books in a half-hour period. I do actually do that sometimes and it never ends well. The more obviously part of the same book the multiple PoVs are – sharing scenes, sharing locations, sharing tone – the less risk there of it feeling like that. But, well, sometimes I’m stupid and feel the need to take the slow way to what’s going on.

In any case, I hope you enjoyed this little ramble.

Have a good rest of the day!

12 thoughts on “A few thoughts on multi-POV starts

  1. I think I agree with you in the sense that I prefer multiple POVs that look at the same problem, so I found strange that you mention Gwynne’s “Malice” as a ‘bad’ example. I can’t really remember the beginning, but I do remember, throughout that series, that I loved when for example we were seeing an argument between A and B through POV A and a few pages later we were suddenly reading about it through POV B. Maybe it’s because the story was taking place in 2 different locations, and you’re referring to that?

    One example of really BAD multiple POV usage that made me super annoyed was Trudi Canavan’s “Thief’s magic”: that first book was, say 500 pages, and we have the first 250 pages focused in one character’s story and the last 250 on another character: different setting, different world, and no connection between the 2 AT ALL! Ever! I was so angry when I got to the end that I never continued that series, even though someone told me that the 2 characters met in book 2 (or was it book 3?….)

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  2. Malice was just an example of a book that I thought needed to have less PoVs at the start; I forgot it being compact in terms of the story. Which I guess just goes to show it’s not a concrete rule!

    And that does sound pretty darn annoying. Was it part of a multi-series arc or anything?

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    1. “Was it part of a multi-series arc or anything?”
      Not really, it was just starting. Leaving a long distance/lots of pages between changing POV is annoying enough, but when it actually feels like 2 separate books is even worse.

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  3. Very interesting post! I wasn’t a fan of the Phalue POV either, and it also felt very jarring to me. I tend to take multiple pov’s on a book to book basis. I have noticed, though, that I don’t like multiple povs in books that have really short chapters. I don’t care for two or three page chapters in general, but it really bothers me when I’m trying to get to know multiple points of view.

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    1. Ah yes. I know that feeling. Mask of Mirrors kinda does that, and I’ve been bouncing off that too. The stops mean I just can’t get invested.

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  4. I know what you mean about Snakewood. I read it last month actually and it took me a while to sink into it. I did manage it eventually and really enjoyed it once I did, but it took a while and the beginning felt a bit janky as a result. Just thinking out loud a bit and pulling from what I said in my review, I’m not sure that was Selby’s fault, so much as what to expect going in. I think culturally we have certain expectations about how a story is ‘supposed’ to flow (and that’s not necessarily a negative thing, just an observation) so when something doesn’t conform it can feel jarring. I was able to get into the story once I’d spent some time in the book and got used to the style and the voice, which suggests, for me at least, it was more about adjusting my own mindset rather than the writing being at fault.

    I don’t know how to disentangle expectations from potential awkward writing and there’ll always be personal taste from individual to individual to muddy the waters even further, but expectations about story style and structure is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Good post, you always give me something to ponder on 🙂

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    1. A lot of this is definitely about what we expect to find – culturally, our first influences, what we’ve heard about the book – and so on. Although I would argue for a lot of fantasy fans, we expect a certain awkwardness. Too much of our canon, and too much of our likely first exposures to the genre, involve books with slow, or complicated, or multi-strand starts. There probably are parts of the fandom who get their start on fast uncomplicated starts, or have ideas engrained from Crime/Thriller (Romance?) that fiction should be simpler, but what Bone Shard Daughter does is not a huge step along the road from what Game of Thrones did.

      Snakewood is, admittedly, a couple steps further – I don’t think most of us expect such wildly varied PoV voices in fantasy. Throw in time jumps, an onion peel approach to settings and plot… as you say, it asked a lot of adjustment from most mindsets, more than most books, and predictably enough didn’t get it from all. Maybe on close inspection there’s some elements where a different approach would have got more connections with the same idea – I mean, debut book, bound to be – but well, there we are.

      And I guess another thing on expectations is we build expectations from what the author does, right? Sure, they’re shaped by our own, but the author’s choices are kinda like “Take the first three lefts on your expectation logic tree”. I think when the expectations you’re getting from author choices are different to what’s happening, that’s a good time to talk awkward writing (although also a good time to talk expectations).

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