I’ve been thinking about how and why I write in multiple tight third person POV, doing a lot of metaanalysis as I (FINALLY) wrap up the last few scenes in Cathedral. What I’m in the middle of right now is a ranging, nighttime, winter gunfight amongst the warehouses and factories and alleys of 1933 Auraria and LoDo, either side of Cherry Creek between Colfax and Arapahoe. It’s 2 against 1. All three of them are meticulous and cautious and everyone has very limited ammunition, so it’s not a super fast-paced set of scenes – there’s a lot of “take one shot, keep cover, watch and listen and think” and mutual head games. There’s also a lot of history between the protagonist and antagonist, and the protag’s buddy who is caught up in this by accident has almost no history with either of them. The POV flips between the protag and his buddy; the antagonist never has a POV scene.
It’s one of the most technically challenging, and also one of the most enjoyable, sets of scenes I’ve ever written.
In tight POV, what’s on the page is only what the POV character knows, sees, thinks, and feels.What Character A knows and Character B does not is not available to draw on in Character B’s scenes.
Of course, the reader knows everything that has been revealed up to this point in the narrative, and that’s where some of the dramatic tension comes from. Tight POV can be very cinematic in that way – “no, don’t go in that room, you don’t know what’s in there!” you shout at the page, to no effect, because the poor sod of a character does not, in fact, know.
It’s complex and difficult. Single-POV approaches can limit the author’s options for exposition and hamper the flow of narrative; the movement of the plot can almost grind to a standstill until the POV character gets some damned information. And in multiple-POV approaches, sometimes the same information has to be revealed a couple of times to get different characters up to speed. That’s challenging to do well, but it also offers narrative opportunities to do interesting things.
For myself, I have a slutty approach – I’ll let anyone have a shot at POV, and in most of my novels, there are two or three major POV characters and a few that get only one, or two, scenes, and a few in between, with half a dozen scenes. MANY MULTIPLE POV combined with tight perspective can approach omniscient narrator, but is not: headhopping is a danger to watch for. (There’s a reason headhopping is not considered lazy writing in romance in the way it is in other genres, and why POV often flips in the middle of a sex scene or a fight scene. Tight POV puts the reader very close to the character, and centering on the locus of emotional intensity means moving from one POV to another. at instants of particular intensity.) I don’t generally have too much trouble falling into that trap because I’m always hyperaware that the narrator-of-the-moment is a particular character, with a particular voice, set of experiences, values, an opinions, and way of looking at the world. This is, of course, fabulously useful for character development.
One time I wrote one scene from one character’s POV, and then two books later I wrote the same scene from a different character’s POV in a flashback, and the way in which the two are different is entirely about the different experience those two people bring to that pivotal moment and how they remember it later.
Writing in this mode is rich with descriptive potential; the literal point of view, the hyperspatiality, the moving of bodies through space and time and the embodied experience of this particular character in this moment is so important and so interesting. In writing this gunfight scene, I’ve relied tremendously on maps and old photographs to mentally reconstruct the view and mood of the area as it existed eighty-five years ago.
The old City Hall at 14th and Larimer, recently vacated when the new City-County Building across Civic Center was finished, demolished in 1936 but at this time just looming and haunting.
The long, straight ghost road of frozen Cherry Creek south and just north of Colfax, where it is effectively a canal, in the moonlight.
The car yard and car barn of the Denver Tramway Corporation, which today is a theatre school. (Yes, really. Because Denver. The history of Denver’s historic building reuse is long, weird, and fascinating – DTC’s old electrical generation facility is now an REI store.)
The difference in how the light and dark of the nighttime city is perceived by someone who has spent most of his adult life in cities, and someone who has spent all of his life in the San Luis Valley, which today is still one of the least light-polluted parts of the continental United States.
How stone and brick and enclosed spaces muffle sound, and iron and cold air amplify it, and how you can sometimes hear something from half a mile away that you couldn’t hear from the other side of the same building, and how that heightens the sheer fucking creepiness of the situation.
Of course 90% of this is never explicated on the page – or, rather, never makes it into the cohesive draft, because there’s a lot of play, a lot of going back and forth, writing the scene and rewriting and tweaking and sometimes throwing it out and starting from scratch, balancing what’s important for maintaining the feel of the moment and what’s important for furthering the overall plot movement. I’m finding it incredibly important to keep in my mind at all times the final resolution of this fight, in order to move the characters inexorably toward that moment. There’s a sense of destiny, of inevitability, in it. Which is also deeply creepy.
But it cannot be, it must not be contrived.
So I’m creeping, creeping forward at 500 grueling words a day, but at 74,000 words, I’m really, really close to done. Finally. I wrote Sanctuary‘s first draft in five weeks; I started this draft nineteen months ago yesterday. Of course I’ve been working on other projects too, and a lot of the other projects have informed this one (and vice versa). I couldn’t write these last scenes until half of Cathedral‘s sequel was written, because the relationships in that book are so informed by what happens on this very bad night, and there’s so much foreshadowing and setup for Citadel in the Cathedral endgame. And it’s challenged me and stretched me in amazing ways, in craft, in research, in writing the other and writing my own experience. It’s been such a joy, but I’m really quite ready to wrap it up.
(Cathedral is scheduled for release in July 2018.)