Writing longer fiction

There isn’t much advice out there on writing a story that extends over multiple volumes. BFF (big fat fantasy) varies enormously; there’s Anne McCaffrey’s relatively short books (70 000-90 000 words) that together form the epic narrative of Pern, and then there are writers like Melanie Rawn, Robin Hobb and Sara Douglass whose series clock in at over a million words. George Martin and Robert Jordan, well…let’s not go there.

The most obvious reason for this is that apart from length and genre, most of these stories have little in common. From timescale to character numbers, from focus to physical landscape, they really are only ‘similar’ to someone not familiar with the genre. However, there are some points of similarity that are of value to the writer who feels that they are drowning under the weight of environment, events and characters.

Multiple points of view

The majority of epics have multiple point-of-view characters. I think often this is simple practicality. It is hard work as a writer to make every scene work from the same POV; you often have to leave interesting bits out, and make use of reported events which, unless handled expertly, are of little interest to the reader. Epics spanning continents also usually involve more than one race or culture, and unless you want to provide an outsider’s view of all but one of your carefully constructed peoples, you need multiple POVs.

By unspoken agreement, once you move into multiple POV, by definition you are using third person. I have read multiple first person viewpoint novels, but only where events are very circumscribed or the overlapping POVs are the whole point of the book – the unreliability of individual accounts in An Instance of the Fingerpost being an excellent example. In epic fantasy you are already juggling far more than the average novelist. I’m sure it’s possible to get really clever with the narration, but I tend to steer clear of areas that have a high probability of failure.

How many points of view can a reader cope with? This is a subject on which readers very definitely diverge from editors and agents. The recommendation I have been given is no more than four, yet this is a rule that is routinely broken. George Martin has, at last count, twenty seven POV characters, and readers don’t seem to be getting confused. I believe, that as long as POV characters are introduced carefully, ideally no more than one or two at a time, readers actually enjoy the new light shed on the story. A beta reader was delighted when, towards the end of the first book, a new, female POV character arrived, ‘seeing’ the major characters for the first time. She enjoyed the sudden shift in perspective, the couple of pages where she had to guess at who was being described before introductions were made and everything fell back into place.

Some writers diverge from the main thrust of the story to make detours into brief perspectives of minor characters. The most obvious example is Louis de Bernieres, whose potted character histories did not detract at all from his South American trilogy. More recently, in Blood Ties, Pamela Freeman has tried the same thing. I think the reader reception of this is a very individual thing. Those raised on a steady diet of genre fiction may find it annoying, while those more used to the stylised form of literary fiction may be pleased because they have learned not to always demand a steady narrative drive.

The best advice I have come across is that you can have as many POV characters as you want, but each of them must have a character arc. If they are not changed by the events they experience, then they are not involved enough to be a good narrative vehicle. And I do quite enjoy the challenge of going back to a scene and working out how I can get a different character involved so that they can take over the POV. It is allied to, though still different from, switching a scene from first to third person POV. First to third is what I use when third person is coming across as very ‘filmic’. I have a tendency to write a couple of pages of dialogue, often entirely free of even the smallest beats, and then fill in the scene around it. When I fail at this, it comes across as white room syndrome – even though there most definitely is a setting. Moving the scene to first person forces me to think about that elusive I, and pin down exactly what their emotions and perceptions are as the scene progresses. Then a careful line edit transfers it into third person, followed by a review a few weeks later when I discover a couple of howlers where the POV has slipped. Curiously, I no longer have any trouble with POV slips when working on the first draft; it’s when I switch things around that mistakes creep in. I imagine that’s because I am in part still in the old viewpoint – a very good argument for a fresh pair of eyes.

Next: Timescales

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