Apr 112010

I’ve just finished reading the first book in Robin Hobb’s latest addition to her Elderling Realm universe: Dragon Keeper*. Hobb uses a lot of exposition in this book (which possibly explains the complaints by readers reviewing on Amazon that this book is “slow moving”). The pace didn’t bother me, though, and I was quite interested in studying Hobb’s technique here.

Flashbacks and Bridging Gaps

The story unfolds, unevenly, over quite some time. To bridge gaps of time when little of importance occurs Hobb jumps the story forward, and then summarises the interleading period through a musing by the viewpoint character. But, interestingly, she also uses this technique to cover important plot events by jumping ahead to when the event is over and allowing the character to mull over the day in question. I’m ambivalent about this constant retrospectivity. It requires a lot of pluperfect tense (“had had”) and, as mentioned, I think this is the cause of the slowness that many readers are battling with. But I also think it lends the story a lot of depth due to the characters’ introspection. The characters have much more time in the quiet following an event to decide how they feel about what occured and to analyse their own and others’ behaviour. Since so many of the subplots are character driven, this is important to the story.


I was also interested to compare this book to the book I finished earlier (Inkspell*). Robin Hobb’s books always feel very intense to me and I wanted to try and figure out how she achieves this. In comparason, Funke’s books feel very light and breezy, even when the subject matter is quite dark and sad. Is it just the difference between adult and children’s authors, or is there some additional technique being put to use here? J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter* series achieved a middle ground in intensity, I think, so it doesn’t seem a quality that must be denied in children’s books.

A technique I did notice in Dragon Keeper that seemed to add intensity was layers and layers of repetition, particularly of the characters’ feelings and torments. Hobb doesn’t rely on just one example to show the reader that Alise was an emotionally abused wife or that Thymara felt unloved by her mother; she layers these themes over and over the way an artist would apply a glaze. Again, this techique is tricky; too much feels too repetitive, but hitting the right formula adds a heaviness to the character’s soul that feels like depth to the reader.

Multiple Viewpoints

Sorry to bring this up again. But one of my reasons for reading this book after Inkspell was to contrast these authors’ use of multiple points of view. Hobb keeps to one viewpoint per scene, but allows a number of these scene changes per chapter. I know it’s nit-picking, but I really prefer that the characters have a whole chapter to themselves even if the chapters are shorter. What difference does it make whether the switch comes at a double paragraph break or a chapter end? I don’t know; only that a chapter break feels more complete to me.

Hobb employs a viewpoint technique of showing a scene from one character’s viewpoint and then turning the camera around, as it were, and filming the response from the opposing character’s viewpoint. I’m not fond of this, or at least not a lot of it; it feels a bit contrived to me. Also, the danger here is that viewpoint characters don’t need to become suspicious of one another, or notice any clues in order to pass these on to the reader, because the reader is dished the dirt directly by the character doing the deed. This was another complaint logged by Amazon reader-reviewers: one of the main characters, in particular, is infuriatingly blinkered to two pieces of knowledge that she should, these readers felt, have picked up by now. I wonder how the story revelation might have been affected if the point of view (Sedric’s) that reveals these secrets were removed and only hinted at through subtle clues observed, but not understood (yet), by Alise.

This is an interesting element to ponder, and again I’m relating it back to my own WIP: Do I really need three viewpoint characters? Or would the story pack more punch if the character with the dark, dirty secret is only observed by another character, and not free to spill the beans directly to the reader?

Further reading on exposition and point of view:
Avoiding Exposition Pitfalls
Point of View

More on Robin Hobb’s books:
The Farseer Trilogy
The Liveship Traders Trilogy

*Book Depository has free world-wide shipping, making it a better option for non-US book buyers.

Mar 232010

I’m still reading Inkspell* (don’t laugh! I’m also reading Life of Pi* and Playful Parenting* and I only get a few minutes a day to gulp down a page or so), but I’m finding this a very interesting example of a multiple viewpoint book. It is addressing a lot of issues I was exploring in my planning.

  • The need (or not) for symmetry: trying to arrange equal “airtime” for all the viewpoint characters. This is what a planner’s heart wants to aim for, but organically it flows better if symmetry is not forced.
  • Using a different point of view at each chapter change (or not). In Inkspell some chapters continue with the same viewpoint character for three or four chapters, which I like as it allows a little more time to get to know some of the characters.
  • How long can a character be left in limbo before the reader starts to wonder what happened, or, gasp, forgets about that particular character? One character in Inkspell is badly wounded and we don’t return to this story strand for 43 pages. I found the gap a bit long; I thought one of the later check-in chapters could’ve been brought in earlier without affecting the timeline.
  • Character dominance. Where several characters are viewpoint characters in their respective chapters, who takes precedence for point of view when these characters meet in a chapter? A few times in Inkspell the dominance is chosen for one chapter with the following chapter told from the point of view of the other character. There is no omniscience or mixing of viewpoints.
  • The viewpoint character is quite clearly established within the first line or two of each chapter in most cases.

I think with just three viewpoint characters I will have a much easier time getting a little bit of that symmetry I’m after while retaining the sense of flow.

*Book Depository is a better option for non-US book buyers.

Mar 052010

Since I made the decision to turn my trilogy into a stand alone novel I’ve been trying to choose between the options of interweaving the three related stories or running them separately as Parts 1, 2, and 3.

My heart likes the former. It will make for a fuller, rounder story, and it will take more writing skill. My head likes the latter option. It’s easier and means all I need to do is shorten book one and tag books two and three on the end.

The other issue my head has with interweaving the three stories is that I don’t get to write swathes of the book from one point of view at a time. This is something I really love about my draft of the first third of the book; there is only one viewpoint throughout and it makes for a very personal and intense ride. I’m reluctant to lose that. But my original trilogy idea involved three characters each with his or her own book told entirely from a single viewpoint. Now the three story strands are tied together with a theme that makes them far stronger and with that comes three different viewpoints.

So, subconsciously, I went looking for examples of stories told from multiple viewpoints. First I was reminded of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy, which I found rich with the layers of characters each thinking theirs was the life that was important and worth fighting for. But I also remember the frustration of having to leave a character at a crucial moment in order to ride with the next character. I felt taken against my will until I settled again into the story. But Liveship used many characters’ viewpoints; with only three I will be able to treat my readers to a number of chapters in one viewpoint at a time.

That was in the back of my mind yesterday when I picked up Inkspell* by Cornelia Funke; a much simpler book and one that has the same reader age range as my story. It was much easier to see my dilemma tackled in a book like this, and handled satisfactorily. Inkspell’s viewpoint characters have as many chapters as necessary to follow a plot strand until there is a logical segue to the next character. There is no rigidity to locking the characters into a single chapter at a time because the next chapter must switch point of view. It’s fluid, and I think that comes from the way it was written: Funke says that she free wrote this book so quickly she could barely type fast enough to keep up with the story.

Another trilogy told from alternate viewpoints is Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy*. Although there are only two viewpoint characters in the first book, and three in the second and third, the viewpoint character’s name appears in the header of every page of the chapters he or she owns so the reader always knows whose story is being told. So this is another way of presenting it. However, what I did find slightly off putting is that the author relies on this to alert the reader so that he doesn’t have to start the chapter with the viewpoint character’s name. But the header doesn’t appear on the first page of a chapter so occasionally it requires turning the page to check which character we’re on in order to imagine the scene properly. I think I would rather just use the character’s name in the first line.

So my plan of attack is to continue writing the rest of this story from whichever point of view is required, preferably several chapters per character though. Then when I have a rough first draft completed I will redo my synopsis and fit in parts of the second book (which I’d already started before deciding to consolidate), and then work out where I need to write scenes from the point of view of the second and third characters to slot into the first part. And sand and varnish.

I think it’s doable.

*Book Depository is a better option for non-US book buyers.