#33: Balancing Commercial and Artistic Demands

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you know if the story you’re telling honestly needs more than one POV?

I’m working on a sequel under contract and deadline to a fantasy novel. I wrote the first novel with one POV, in first person. Now for the sequel, I have a different protagonist (she was in the first book, as a character with antagonistic goals to her beloved brother, who was the protagonist of the first book) and there’s just some things about the world and the situation that she doesn’t know.

But another character from the first book has direct experience with the parts that my planned protagonist doesn’t, and her journey is really interesting. The characters are… rivals who become allies. They’re on opposite sides politically, and come together in the end to save everything.

But I’ve heard that if you write the first book as 1 character in 1st, you have to stick to that narrative model because that’s what readers expect, and switching to 2 characters in 3rd or 2 characters in 1st is a bad idea. But every time I look at what’s happening with my planned protagonist’s rival, it’s just so interesting.

I’ve only ever written romances when it comes to stories with two POV characters. How do I know when I need more than one POV in a story where romance between the characters is not happening?

—oenanthe (they/them)

Dear oenanthe,

You’ve already answered your own question: you as a writer are telling yourself that you need more than one POV to tell the story you want to tell. That matters far more than some vague gossip someplace about what readers can or can’t tolerate. But I don’t think that’s actually the question you have. Going by the rest of your letter, the question underneath your question is: “Am I allowed as a commercial writer to do the thing I want to do as an artist?”

You can absolutely change up structure and add POV characters from one book to the next. Daniel José Older did it in his Bone Street Rumba series; George R.R. Martin is notorious for doing it in A Song of Ice and Fire. In the sense of there being precedent of readers easily rolling with that kind of change, you are 100% allowed to do it; don’t hesitate.

You can also absolutely have dual POV characters in books that aren’t romances. You have a non-romantic relationship at the heart of your story, but it’s still a relationship, and there are still two people who need to overcome obstacles so they can collaborate to their eventual mutual advantage. So I don’t see a genre or structure problem there.

But you mention that you’re under contract, so the person who really has say over this is your editor (and, by extension, your publisher). Have you talked to them? You need them to back you up on this, and the right time to have that conversation is before you get too far into working on the book. Drop them a note enthusiastically explaining what you want to do and why, and asking them to help you make it work. Something along these lines:

Hi Editor,

I’m hard at work on book two and I think I may need to diverge from the outline we first discussed. I’m finding interesting parallels between Sister’s story and Rival’s story. Each of them knows things that the other one doesn’t. Their approaches are very different, but they also take similar paths to their eventual collaboration. I’d like to play that up by alternating between them as POV characters, making it their mutual story rather than Sister’s story with Rival as a supporting character.

My biggest concern with the original outline is that there’s so much Sister doesn’t know about what she’s getting herself into, and I didn’t know how to make sure readers understand the context that Sister lacks. If I introduce Rival’s POV, readers will learn everything they need to know, but they’ll still get to enjoy the tension between what Sister thinks is going on and what’s really going on. Plus Rival is just a fun, interesting character and I think my readers will enjoy her a lot. I really think this is the best way to tell both Sister’s story and Rival’s, and to keep readers engaged.

Obviously there are some technical challenges to sort out—first-person POV for one character? Both characters? Strictly alternating chapters or a more flexible structure?—and I’d love to know your thoughts on that. I’m attaching a rough outline that we can use as a starting point for discussion, and a short scene that I wrote from Rival’s POV so you can see how it contrasts with Sister’s.

The more I think about doing the book this way, the more excited I get! I can’t wait to iron out the details with you so I can start writing. As long as we can agree on the basics by [date], I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting our agreed-upon deadline.

Thanks,

oenanthe

I can definitely reassure you that you are not the first author to diverge significantly from an outline, and any experienced editor will be thrilled to hear that from you early in the process rather than having you drop a manuscript on them that’s the opposite of what they expected. (At worst, turning in a manuscript that’s significantly different from what you agreed to write could be considered a breach of contract and get you sued for repayment of your advance. Don’t do that.) Talk to your editor now and get their buy-in so that you can write the book you want to write, with the editorial support you need.

If the editor really pushes back and insists on one POV and one POV only, you will have to come to some sort of compromise. But trust your artistic instincts and advocate hard for the book getting to be the book it wants to be.

If you have an agent, it’s probably a good idea to run this past them as well. Whether you do that before or after you talk with your editor depends on your relationships with both. Just remember that they’re both there to help you succeed, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking to them for support.

The complaint I most often have about second books in series is that the author feels less excited by the story. The best thing you can do for your second book is to write it the way that excites you, and keep that same sense of energy that powered the first book. Authorial enthusiasm is a big part of what hooks readers. I hope your editor recognizes that and gives you free rein to follow your heart.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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