(WARNING: I have no idea if this will be interesting or useful to anyone, but it is a look inside the process of a working novelist. Proceed with caution.)
It all started out so simply. I wanted to tell the story of Ghost Ronin from the sidekick’s perspective, a la Watson & Holmes. The problem is that while our protagonist and narrator are together in the first chapter, they don’t share a scene again until act three. For most of the book, the protagonist (Mike) is acting alone, and the narrator (Chris) is nowhere to be seen. So the end result is that we have one chapter of first person narration, then nine chapters of what appears to be third person, then back to first person again for the final five chapters of the book. The nine chapters in the middle are technically still first person narration, still Chris telling Mike’s story, but it doesn’t sound that way because there’s no action for Chris in those chapters. The idea is that since the entire book is told in past tense, Chris is relaying all this to the reader at some point downstream in the timeline from the events of the entire book and can tell us what Mike was doing without him because Mike clued him in to what he did first.
So here’s the question. Has anyone done this? And who’s to say the entire book has to be done in one point of view anyway?
Most books are, of course, because it’s the safe way to go. Any time we as writers diverge from that we’re taking risks. But sometimes it works out pretty well. One of my favorite examples is Stephen King’s Christine. The first act is told from the first person narration of Denny, the best friend of Christine’s new owner. Denny breaks his leg and is out of commission for the second act, where the story is told in third person narration, and we get to see what Christine does when no one is looking. Then Denny comes back into the picture for the third act to try to save his friend from the possessed, demonic car and the last act is again in Denny’s first person narration. It works well, and I think that’s why this has always been one of my favorite King novels. But again, do you have to be Stephen King to pull this off? (I might argue that while not his first novel–that would be Carrie—Christine was comparatively early in King’s career and that he wasn’t then the 800-pound literary gorilla he is now.)
There are several ways I can go here. One way is to make Chris more of an active narrator, commenting and inserting his own opinions into the narrative while he tells Mike’s story. This keeps Chris in front of the reader while keeping it Mike’s story. It also makes the narrative peppier, something I’ve tended to avoid in third person narrative. I’ve historically tended more towards the Asimov, invisible narrator side than the Neal Stephenson Snow Crash in your face narrator. Could be an interesting challenge.
Another suggestion I’ve gotten is to jump straight from chapter one to their reunion in chapter 11, and tell the preceding nine chapters in flashback as Mike brings Chris up to speed. I don’t like this idea because I think it sucks all the momentum out of the story. Basically we end up with two Army buddies sitting in a living room telling war stories for the majority of the book. Not that you can’t make a compelling book that way, but that’s not what this story is about.
My sometimes writing partner Josh Curry (@tibbarerew on Twitter if you want to harass him) had a similar, but much more complicated idea. (This surprises no one.) He also suggested I jump straight from the end of chapter one to the beginning of chapter eleven, maybe throw in a few graphs about Chris coming home from Afghanistan, struggling with PTSD, and then reintroduce Mike and keep going with the story, dropping in the previous nine chapters I skipped in bits and bites of flashback as our heroes go about their plan. This seems to me to actually be doable, but I balk at it for two reasons. One, it would be really hard. And two, it would mean completely restructuring the book. Right now the book is set up as a playlist because I’ve established Chris as a grafted-to-his-iPod music junkie, starting off each chapter with the lyrics of that track in the playlist. Each track ideally captures the mood or events of that chapter in Chris’s mind. Josh’s idea completely jumbles that whole structure.
In the end, I realized two things. One, the Robots are right. The first person narrative is an affectation that not only isn’t necessary to the story, but in many ways obstructs it. In my readthrough, I noticed several scenes that I really shouldn’t lose, but that I can’t explain within my narrative structure since neither Mike nor Chris were actually there to witness the scene. In order to do this story justice, I have to tell it from the third person. I can still keep the playlist structure, especially if I start the book with a quote from Chris, something along the lines of, “Life is a playlist. You just have to pick the right songs.”
The other thing I realized is that in order to do this properly, I’m going to have to scrap the 20,000 words I’ve already got and start over. I know where I’m going with the story and how I’m going to get there, but very little in the draft I already have is usable. And if I’m going to start over, I’m going to need time to focus. Time I don’t have with NaNoWriMo coming up. Better to spend October ramping up for Sins of the Mothers and recording podcasts.