Writing Notes #1: Multi-Party Narratives

This is the beginning of what will hopefully be a series of posts on the craft of writing: thoughts that have occurred to me while watching TV, reading, or just sitting quietly in the hungry hours of the morning, wishing for sleep.

[Note: this contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Invasion, on AppleTV.]

One of the big choices a novelist faces when writing is the question of perspective: whose eyes do your readers see the story through? Who do they follow as the plot progresses? What limitations does that put on your readers—what do they learn and when?

A single-party first-person narrative locks your reader into one character’s head: they see through one character’s eyes, know what they know, and—just as importantly—are limited by what the character doesn’t know. A single-party, third-person narrative follows one character around from outside their head, and typically tells the reader what that character does and doesn’t know, but might also involve telling the reader a little more than that character knows (yay dramatic irony!).

Then there are the multi-party variants: first-person or third-person, but switching between the perspectives of various characters. I love these kinds of stories, where a talented storyteller can, in essence, weave multiple narratives together, starting in different places and with different situations, eventually leading the reader to a single point.

But there’s a catch: multi-party narratives take a lot more setup. For every character in a narrative, you need to have your reader meet them, learn what’s at stake for them, and start to tell their story in a way that captures the reader’s attention (so they want to know what comes next). If you’re only following one character—if you’re using a single-party narrative—that’s relatively simple. But if, on the other hand, you’re going with multi-party…well there are pitfalls.

The reason I bring this up is that I’m trying to watch a new TV show called Invasion. It’s billed as sci-fi and it’s about aliens—presumably invading—and…that’s all I can tell you. Even though I’ve already watched almost two hours of television.

In the first two episodes, breaking every five or so minutes to check out what the other characters are doing, we:

  • Meet an old, retiring sheriff from middle America. He’s tracking down a stolen truck and generally dealing with being sad about retiring. He and his deputy get called to look for a truck that’s gone missing, along with the guys who probably stole it, but finds a weird crater in a cornfield instead, and there’s crows and grasshoppers and ominous music. He goes to a retirement party he hates, walks out, goes back to the cornfield, and gets either knocked unconscious or killed by an alien tentacle.
  • Meet a Japanese astronaut. She’s having an affair with a brilliant woman in ground control, but they can’t talk about it because people are homophobic and generally shitty. The astronaut is going to space for over a year and it’s very sad, but then she dies in space and it’s even more sad, and so her ground-control lover gets drunk.
  • Meet a New York woman with two kids and a lousy, cheating husband. She gave up on being a doctor to be a housewife for this useless sack. The kids all get nosebleeds at school one day, except her son, and they’re sent home. Then as she’s confronting her husband about his infidelity, something happens. Maybe something falls from the sky? Things are on fire, houses have fallen over. That’s all we know. They get in the car and drive off.
  • Meet a schoolboy in the UK. He’s bullied, I think because he has epilepsy? The girl he likes stands up to his bully on a bus and everyone cheers. Then he has a seizure on the bus. Then things fall from the sky and the bus looks about to go off a cliff?
  • Meet a US soldier in I think Afghanistan? He’s not having a good time trying to do long-distance with his wife? girlfriend? significant other, anyway. He and his team get called out to investigate another team that’s gone missing, and then sand goes up instead of down and there’s a giant alien starfish and they shoot at it and that’s the end of the second episode.

So to be clear: it’s been two hours of commercial-free television—basically a full-length feature film—and we have… met all the characters. At least I hope that’s all the characters, because it’s been two hours and I still don’t know any of their names. And that’s dangerous, especially for a weekly serialized broadcast in a media-saturated landscape. Honestly, what’s saving this show for me right now is that I waited until there were five episodes to watch before starting. If I’d had to wait a week between them, I wouldn’t have made it to the second episode, let alone be considering a third.

The thing is, when you’re writing multi-party narratives, you need to pay attention to what you’re asking for from your readers. If you’ve read Displacement, you know I’m a sucker for leaping over to a mysterious character’s point of view, or flipping back and forth between characters we’ve already met as their narratives diverge—but as I write, I always try to balance the amount of patience I’m asking for from my readers with the amount of payoff they get for waiting.

In the case of Invasion, all I can say is that it’s going to need one heck of a payoff for all the waiting. Here’s hoping.

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