A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories. The November / December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine often publishes multiple POV short stories. Keep in mind that these are written by authors at the top of their game. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?
Manitoba Postmortem, by S. L. Franklin, not only uses three point of view characters, it also is not told in strict chronological order. Yet I never felt lost. Semi-retired private investigator R. J. Carr opens the story as he and his wife arrive at a police station in Grand Fork, Manitoba. The reader is dropped into the middle of the action, interviewing a Canadian Mountie about a death they have been hired to investigate. A highly esteemed church and community member has apparently committed suicide.
Next we are presented Ginny Carr's version of events with the clear demarcation of a scene break and the character's name in bold print. Ginny goes back in time, explaining why she encouraged R. J. to take a case. She presents information that will be vital to solving the mystery.
Next up is Teresa Kostner, daughter of the deceased man. Surprisingly, she tells her side of the story without revealing critical facts, and in a manner that did not make me feel cheated. The reader is clued in at the end of her section with the statement, "But I hadn't told too many lies."
We hop back to R. J.. The clues are coming together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle finally forming a picture. R. J. pushes the boundaries of the investigation, and becomes trapped in a sticky situation. The final point of view change is back to Ginny. She completes the story. Three point of view characters, with five distinct changes. Each part of the story was told by the different characters for a reason. The reader received vital clues and insights that only that character knew at the time.
Robert Lopresti's A Bad Day for Algebra Tests uses multiple points of view in a wild and humorous bank robbery caper. I never felt lost or confused, even though this short story is told through a less than brilliant bank robber, a police officer plagued by bad luck and on the verge of getting fired, a love sick bank manager, two tellers, and a boy upset that a snow day postpones the algebra test for which he studied so hard. Six point of view characters in a not particularly long story is ambitious.
Lopresti is a master short story author. Each character's voice is distinct, and the transitions between them is seamless. What makes it a truly great read is that each character has his or her own motivation. I felt I received six stories in one. The complicated plot lands right where the author intended, and the reader never expected.
Multiple points of view can be used effectively by skilled writers. Franklin and Lopresti both succeeded because the transitions between POV characters were distinct and purposeful. Each character contributed a different version of events that was necessary to understanding the tale.
1/3/2019 10:17:18 am
Quite an interesting analysis, Catherine. What you say makes sense, but beginners maybe should not try this at home. (Wink-wink) Thanks, Catherine. I enjoy reading your reviews.
1/3/2019 10:26:29 am
Charlene, my goal in 2019 is to do fewer, more in-depth reviews. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Both stories were amazing. I agree, don't attempt multiple points of view until you have thoroughly learned how to craft good short stories!
1/3/2019 09:20:46 pm
Thanks for the analysis here. I have the issue at home, but haven't read either story yet—and certainly need to. I appreciate ambitious structures in short fiction and love the idea of layering different points of view—and think you're spot-on with your metaphor about it being like a jigsaw puzzle, really nicely stated. Thanks so much for doing this. Always appreciate your reviews and commentary on short stories (even if I don't always chime in).
1/11/2019 08:43:53 am
Wow, thanks for the kind words, and thoughtful analysis! I usually read your reviews but I missed this one until Art pointed it out at SleuthSayers. Each of my "Bad Day" stories has been multiple POV, and each one has been longer and more complicated than the last. I'm glad you felt it held together. Compliments from peers always mean the most.
1/11/2019 08:51:38 am
I always enjoy your stories. Keep them coming!
1/11/2019 09:11:29 am
Hi, again — Just wanted to follow up on Rob's comment to say that I referred to your post here in a blog post at SleuthSayers. Thanks again for helping prompt my own thoughts on all this! Here's the link if you want to check it out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2019/01/stick-to-path-wander-little-on-short.html
1/11/2019 09:32:05 am
Art, I shared your thoughtful article on Facebook. Thanks for mentioning me! Yes, I do think beginning writers need to learn the rules before they can break the rules.
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