We’re all familiar with novels that are told through multiple points of view. The challenge for the writer is not only moving between the points of view but also figuring out where to start each one. Unless you’re writing about an event (a terrorist attack, a wedding, a blizzard) experienced simultaneously by all of your characters, there’s a good chance that a great place to begin one character’s story (April 3, let’s say) is a great place to begin every character’s story. And yet that’s what multiple POV novels require. The same is true of multiple POV stories, except that the challenge is, in some ways, even greater.
A great place to study how to begin different narrative arcs in a multiple POV story or novel is Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness.” It’s included in the newest issue of Arcadia, where you can read it here.
How the Story Works
The story follows three characters on a particularly dramatic day in their lives. Each character encounters a conflict, but the conflicts don’t follow similar arcs. For example, we don’t learn the actual nature of Leslie’s conflict until fairly late in the story, whereas we learn about the other conflicts pretty quickly. This is important to keep in mind. Just because a story or novel contains different points of views doesn’t mean that each one must start with a bang and follow a quick-rising dramatic arc.
So, how does Wernersbach set up her conflicts?
One begins with internal conflict, the sort that a character’s mind chews on over and over:
And why should it be unforgivable, Leslie’s happiness? Her sister was never happy with Lewis anyway. Joanne complained about his ear wax and the hair on his back that he asked her to shave and the tremendous farts he felt entitled to release in bed; complaints which Leslie understands, sure, now that she’s been with Lewis for ten years—but when you love a person there are certain things you overlook until even the hard-to-look-at things become endearing.
At this point, we’re not sure what Leslie’s story is about, but we’ve glimpsed her internal turmoil: the issue that she keeps working over in her head.
Another character’s arc begins with a direct conflict with another person that creates an internal conflict within a character:
Across town, on the third floor of a six-floor building in a sprawling office park, Lewis sits at his desk struggling to articulate his dissatisfaction to a sales rep over a recent shipment. The product arrived late and was damaged. Customer service blamed UPS but the receiving department talked at length with their UPS guy, a man with the jocular personality and off-color jokes of someone who never stays in one place too long, and apparently all shipments coming out of GenTech warehouses are showing up in boxes that look like they’ve been through World War II. This is unacceptable, he types, and deletes the phrase and begins again.
In this case, the conflict is Ye Old Man Versus Man: Lewis against customer service. But the fact that he deletes the phrase suggests that he isn’t sure how to proceed, which sets off the internal conflict.
The last character’s arc begins with an internal conflict that takes place in a public place, and the drama comes from the way the public responds to this internal, private issue:
Joanne walks into a grocery store with a shopping list.
Six pounds of cabbage and three stalks of lacinato kale. One white onion. Four cucumbers—no, five—because cucumbers are a free food. Ditto celery. You burn their calories just by chewing. The smoothie recipe said kale or spinach and she goes for the kale because it feels exotic and also more serious. She’s forging new territory here. A diet that is not a diet, that is a whole new way of life. A holistic approach, the doctor advised. Not a litany of restrictions but a hymn of possibilities. Kale! Cucumbers! Cabbage! Celery! She lays each vegetable on the conveyor belt. The cashier looks at her and thinks the same thing every cashier thinks when Joanne stocks up for a new diet: Good for you.
We’re not yet sure where Joanne’s story is headed, but we can feel the tension between what she’s trying to do and the way it’s perceived by others.
None of these ways of kicking off a character arc is better than the others. They’re merely different—and that’s the point. When character arcs begin to follow the same pattern, the reader is likely to get bored and skim ahead, and, generally, skimming is the first step to walking away from a story. Keeping the reader engaged means mixing up your strategies, as Wernersbach does in “Happiness.”
The Writing Exercise
Let’s try different strategies for setting up character arcs, using “Happiness” by Julie Wernersbach as a model:
- Begin with an issue that a character can’t stop thinking about. In “Happiness,” Leslie can’t stop thinking about her happiness and how it relates to her husband and sister. She is rationalizing it, justifying her as-yet-unknown actions to herself. Rationalization and justification are almost always great places to begin a story because they suggest that a character isn’t comfortable with her behavior. So, what does your character feel the need to justify or rationalize? When does your character become defensive and say/think things like “Sure, but…?”
- Begin with a conflict with another person that causes self-doubt. The truth is, we don’t intrinsically care about the package from UPS—unless that package contains a bomb or a body part. What’s important is the effect the package has on Lewis. If it matters to Lewis, then it matters to us. It matters even more when Lewis isn’t sure how to proceed. We naturally wonder, “What will he do?” So, introduce a conflict (as large as a bomb or as small as a dented package) that makes your character deliberate—that causes your character to decide on an action and then revise that decision.
- Begin by introducing a distance between a character’s internal conflict and the way it’s perceived by others. Joanne has decided to change her diet, to eat healthier. It’s something that people decide to do and succeed and fail at every day. That success or failure is not what makes the conflict interesting. Instead, it’s the way that conflict is viewed by others—because those other people’s opinions matter to Joanne. She is aware of them, and they shape her own sense of her conflict. So, don’t let your character confront a conflict in isolation. Try putting the character in some public place (a store, a home, a dinner table, a school, work) and see what reaction her internal struggle gets from the people around her. How does that shape her sense of the stakes?
The goal is to keep readers on their toes by introducing character arcs in different ways.