Avoid Confusion in Ensemble Books

I’m not entirely sure ‘ensemble book’ is a thing, but I’m going to use it anyway. It describes the kind of books I’ve been writing so far: books with many ‘main’ or ‘important’ protagonists.

There are two kinds of confusion that ensemble books can suffer from, ‘who the heck is this character’ confusion, and ‘what part of the story is this’ confusion. When there are multiple protagonists, or a ‘main’ protagonist with a number of important friends, it is very tempting to try to give them all equal ‘air time,’ but don’t do it.

The most important reason not to let every character have a ton of PoV scenes isn’t even one I listed (it is important no matter how many protagonists there are), but it trumps them both. If you don’t spend enough time with a character, readers won’t develop a relationship with the character and thus won’t become invested in the character. If readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your book. That’s bad news. Now, about those two reason I did list.

Who Is This?

‘Who the heck is this character’ confusion arises when you jump between too many points of view (PoVs) one after the other. We’re in Jenny’s head, then we’re in Rolando’s head, then we’re in Pel’s head, then we’re in Alfred’s head, then we’re in… You get the picture. If we are jumping between dozens of characters, keeping track of whose head we’re in can become frustratingly hard. That being said, it’s fine to switch PoV, just be aware of the danger of not focusing on a few PoV characters, and certainly try to keep to a single PoV within a scene, unless it is absolutely necessary not to.

If you are writing a book series, one way to address this is to select a few of the protagonists for each book and focus on them, only having the others make short guest appearances. The readers get to spend time with the others, get to know them, but aren’t distracted by having a million different PoV scenes to contend with in a single book. So, which characters get which scenes?

One way to determine who gets to be the PoV character in a scene is to decide based on location. For scenes in location A, have Jenny be the PoV character most of the time. Location B? Rolando gets most of those. That kind of thing. It helps in two ways. One, when we see Jenny, we automatically think of location A (unless we are told we are somewhere else). The converse is also true. If we let the reader know we are in location A, they can assume we are with Jenny (again, unless we clue them in that we are not). The second way it helps is that because the reader knows Jenny = location A, we can use less ‘descriptive’ text for A, and that’s good because descriptive text gets boring if there’s too much of it.

What’s Going On?

The other kind of confusion, the ‘what part of the story is this’ kind, has to do with plot lines. If there are a few subplots, those can also be difficult to keep straight in a reader’s mind, and having the PoV jump around through a ton of characters will only make it more difficult. A way to avoid this confusion is very close in spirit to the character B = location B trick. It is character B = (sub)plot B.

Let’s say one of the subplots in your story has to do with baking. Pick Jenny for it. If a scene has to do with baked goods, good ole Jenny will be the PoV character. A scene about the chemistry subplot? That’s Rolando’s PoV scene. And so on. One way to choose a specific PoV character in this scenario is based on whether you want to share baking insight with the reader that Jenny knows (if she’s good at baking), or you can choose Jenny to keep baking secrets from the reader (if she’s terrible at baking), or maybe you want the reader to share Jenny’s wonder at learning baking secrets (she knows nothing about baking but learns things by being involved with those scenes). The choice of a particular PoV character can be based on many things.

Characters, Locations, and Plots Just Want To Be Free! (Or Do They?)

Now obviously you won’t be able to use location A = character A, or plot B = character B, for every single scene. Sometimes you might have to use Rolando as the PoV in a baking scene. But that’s cool. It’s no big deal. As long as you stick to the plan most of the time, it will make it much easier for a reader to follow along.

You can also make it easier to keep track of things by combining plot and location when possible. Have most of the baking scenes take place in a particular city, part of the city, or bakery. The same thing with the chemistry scenes. Have most of those scenes take place in the same city, the same part of the city, or the same alchemist shop. This makes it even easier for the reader to know what’s going on. “Aha! We’re in the alchemist shop. I wonder what Rolando learned about the poison used in the wedding cookies. Let’s see!”

The Exception. There’s Always At Least One, Right?

Now, these are just a few reasons and ways to choose a PoV in a scene, but there is another thing to keep in mind when choosing a PoV. If you need the reader to know a particular character’s direct thoughts in a scene, or conversely, you do not want the reader to know their direct thoughts, that will be your ultimate guide on who (or who not) to choose as the PoV character for that scene.

Less Confusion, But Not By Adding Boring Words.

You want to avoid confusing the reader, but you don’t want to do so by adding a ton of clarifying text. Using these tricks can help with that. Because the fewer words you have to waste tying down whose head you are in, where you are, or what subplot you are in, the more words you can devote to exciting things. And that’s important in more than ensemble books.

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