Novel Structure and Multi-POVs

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

Awhile back I started to create reading lists for myself as a fun way to start each season. Often I strive to select books across genres, some for the sake of being a children’s and YA (aspiring) author, others to keep up the ruse of being a good post-grad “intellectual” and other for the sheer pleasure of just reading something I want to read. It’s good to be well-rounded in your reading habits, and I stand by the belief that in order to become good writers, it is necessary to read—comic books included.

Unbeknownst to myself, three of the books I selected for my fall/winter reading lists were all written with multiple POVs. I must note the coincidence of the timing. Over the past few months, I’ve been going back and forth over how to write my own Multi-POV novel, specifically how to structure and weave the plot through each narrative. And there sitting on my nightstand were three beautiful examples.

Let’s start with the stats:

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell; 2 POVs; Broken into chapters; alternating narrative between the protagonists.

NW by Zadie Smith;  3ish ((*I might argue that the sections featuring Natalie/Keisha are different POV’s even though they are the same physical individual, because the reader sees London through different eyes depending on whether we are seeing the city via Natalie or Keisha.)) POVs; Organized into five sections with each section dedicated to a single character; the last three to Natalie/Keisha.

Riot by Shashi Tharoor; 13 POVs; Devoid of chapters, a series of newspaper clippings, journal entries, letters, interviews and confessions in no chronological order, ala. Rashomon style.

Although Eleanor and Park’s structure was straight forward chronologically, one thing that was well executed was Rowell’s tactic of shifting POV in the middle of the chapter. Many great Multi-POV novels I’ve read stick with changing POV at the chapter or section break—The Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey comes to mind. It was reassuring to see the shift done by Rowell mid-chapter. It was something I’ve been playing with in my own novel, and was curious how others have successfully gone about it.

Aside from flirting with mid-chapter POV changes, I’ve been writing my novel alternating between the POV of each character with a new chapter–traditional-like . The organizational structure of NW, however, left a great impression on me. Without getting into too much detail, I’d like to make note of a few things. (SPOILER ALERT: Proceed with Caution) As noted in the graph, the novel is organized into five sections. The first section, told through the POV of Leah, flows in short poetic chapters, which are periodically interrupted by a seemingly out a place chapter: #37. This breaks the reader away from the immediacy of the present tense of her story and thrusts you into the past—or a perceived past. Juxtaposed to Felix’s mapped romp through the city of London in the second section (the number 37 making a cameo here as well—but only in reference to the number) and Leah’s brush with the past, the reader is delivered the third section— a selection of vignettes chronicling the transformation of Keisha into the persona of Natalie numbered from 1-185, minus 37. I felt the effect was brilliant. We see the city and the events that connect each of the characters revealed on a plane of time that isn’t necessarily linear. This is another idea I’ve been exploring in my own novel and one that Tharoor plays with in Riot.

While Rowell and Smith stuck with a more “blocked” structure, Tharoor’s novel Riot is written in a way that you could begin reading from any place you like, skipping at random from journal entry to letter, etc. and it would still tell a full story. I am curious to see how the novel would read if I chose to read the vignettes by date rather than how Tharoor revealed them. Riot is an encyclopedia of events, a chess board version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This idea was even noted by the character, Lakshman, an aspiring writer who wanted to write a novel in the format of an encyclopedia. Through this organizational structure, Tharoor treated each passage as a conversation with the reader, the various speaker’s versions of events fighting for your trust. Again, this made me think a lot about what I am trying to accomplish with my novel  and the challenge of showing events, some that happen simultaneously, through the eyes of different characters. I am now contemplating whether something similar might work for my story.

While NW and Riot, are not Mid-grade/ YA fare, they are fantastic examples of brilliantly organized multi-POV novels and could easily be well executed for a young reader—The Tale of Despereaux was organized similarly to NW. As I spend the next few weeks really thinking about how I want to structure, or restructure, my novel, I will surely find myself turning back to these books for reference.

One response to “Novel Structure and Multi-POVs

  1. Pingback: Multi-POV, With a Side of Headache? Yes, Please. | write owls

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