Friday, May 17, 2013

Busted!—Nick Hornby Caught Using Prismatic POVs

In his novel A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby uses four different points of view to explore the ramifications of one shared incident. On New Year’s Eve, these characters encounter one another on the roof of the most famous suicide tower in London. Ultimately they talk one another off the ledge and into a pact that will delay the decision for six weeks, until the second most popular night for suicides—Valentine’s Day. If any of them still want to die that day, they will honor those wishes.

Despite their huge differences, the characters spend a lot of time together. Check them out:

Maureen is a conservative middle-aged woman who has had intercourse once in her life—with a fiancé who then left her—and that act produced Matty, a brain-damaged son who even as an adult cannot speak or interact with her in any way. Maureen has no life; all of her time is spent caring for her son.
And once you have a child like Matty you can’t help but feel, That’s it! That’s all my bad luck, a whole lifetime’s worth, in one bundle. But I’m not sure luck works like that. Matty wouldn’t stop me from getting breast cancer, or from being mugged. You’d think he should, but he can’t. In a way, I’m glad I never had another child, a normal one. I’d have needed more guarantees from God than He could have provided. 

Martin was an aging morning TV host when he went to jail for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old, imploding both marriage and career. He now has a part-time gig on a minor cable channel.
Not once have I been the victim of misrepresentation or distortion. If you think about it, that was one of the most humiliating aspects of the last few years. The papers have been full of s**t about me, and every word of the s**t was true. 

Jess is the young, drug-addled, emotionally volatile daughter of an education minister who coddles her because his other daughter went missing years ago. Her useless boyfriend just broke up with her.
You should try to read the stuff by people who have killed themselves! We started with Virginia Woolf, and I only read like two pages of this book about a lighthouse, but I read enough to know why she killed herself: she couldn’t make herself understood. You only have to read one sentence to see that. I sort of identify with her a bit, because I suffer from that sometimes, but her mistake was to go public with it. 

JJ is the only American. He came to England to play guitar in a band with his best friend, his beloved girlfriend in tow. When his friend broke up the band he lost his friend, the girl, and the music that was his passion. He now delivers pizzas, and is embarrassed that he doesn’t have as good a reason as the others to kill himself.
“I got like this brain thing. It’s called CCR.” Which, of course, is Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of my all-time favorite bands, and a big inspiration to me. I didn’t think any of them looked like big Creedence fans. Jess was too young, I really didn’t need to worry about Maureen, and Martin was the kind of guy who’d only have smelled a rat if I’d told him I was dying of incurable ABBA. 

Hornby uses their varying voices and perspectives in an often laugh-out-loud counterpoint, all while deepening our sense of what it is that might make someone give up living, and why, and how even a stranger who has little in common with you might make a difference.

This is not a book you will read for its riveting plot. But if you’d like to study character and voice and the way varying points of view can give a prismatic view of a premise—and how each character reveals himself by the way he views the others—this is a quick, fun read that will do the trick.

Can you think of other books where multiple characters are used less to drive plot but more to comment upon a shared event, or one another? Have you ever tried this technique?


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

13 comments :

  1. Kathryn,

    Thanks for the prompt to read this book that has been waiting for me on my shelf for ages.

    As for reading a book that uses multiple characters beyond driving the plot, I recently read City of Sorrows by Susan Nadathur. It is set in Spain, and the chapters belong to Juan Diego (a Spanish gypsy), Andres (an upper echelon Spaniard), and Rajiv (a newly arrived from India microbiologist). As the central plot moved forward, I saw the themes of love, hatred, revenge, forgiveness, prejudice, and tolerance played out from their unique perspectives.

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  2. Several years ago I read a YA novel,Ringside 1925: Views From The Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant, that was told from several points of view. She did a terrific job with voice, and after a while I did not even need the chapter identifier to know which character was speaking.

    I have never tried the precise technique of reflecting on the same incident or theme from multiple points of view, but I do switch POV in my books.

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  3. Great post, Kathryn! I always love how thoughtful and rich yours are. And this one shows the example so well of breaking multiple-first-person viewpoints. When it's done well, it's just stunning.

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  4. I enjoyed reading these different POVs. The writer has a terrific sense of humor. I'm curious, did he alternate POVs chapter to chapter or within each chapter? The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is another example of using four very different POV voices to tell a story.

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  5. I love the idea of differing POVs on the same theme, Kathryn, but I've never thought about using that technique in my own writing (until now, that is). This is a fantastic post that inspires consideration, reflection, and expansion of thinking. You're a wonderful "teacher," one that nudges the "student" to dip the bucket of his thinking deep into the well of his self-imposed limitations and expand them a bit.

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  6. This is the first time I've heard of this book. It sounds riveting. I'd read it for the characters and to see how the author pulled it off!

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  7. Hi all,

    Sorry to be so late hopping on here—am at the Pennwriters conference in Pittsburgh, PA, and the place is hopping!

    Alison, your comment cracked me up, as I bought A Long Way Down at a book sale a couple of years ago and only recently decided to read it. My guess is that this one didn't have the word-of-mouth sales that About A Boy would have had, due to the weak ending. But it's a great read for writers.

    Thanks for mentioning City of Sparrows—will have to check it out! (After purchasing it used and having it look at me from the shelf for a few years till I can get to it, lol!)

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  8. Maryann that sounds like a great example, considering it was a pivotal moment in history.

    Thanks for your kind comment, Susan.

    Dianna, he did use character names here to differentiate the scenes. Some of the most humorous passages were too long to use here, but I totally agree about his wit! Interesting: Jess was the snarliest character but also the most wounded and insightful. I loved the complexity.

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  9. Linda, thanks so much. I love using craft prompts as a way to master new techniques and come up with new material. This is the basis for the Craftwriting sessions I offer on Saturdays each winter at my home.

    I first had the idea for doing this type of multiple POV/one incident technique when my three sisters and I came home from the same party and told four completely different versions of the evening!

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  10. Ooh, Anonymous, I love this: "It creates a tension of ambivalence but allows most readers to identify with at least one character." You must be a writer. ;)

    Christopher: There was a taxi ride I believe, does that count? In NYC "taxi ride" = "car chase."

    If you pick it up Helen, I feel certain you'll enjoy it. :)

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  11. Kathryn, Just wanted to make sure you note that the book I mentioned was City of Sorrows, not sparrows. :-)

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  12. Thanks Alison, that's a big difference! Clearly I read too fast. And the protagonist in my debut is Penelope Sparrow, so I'm partial to the word. :)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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