I want to apologize ahead of time if this post ends up sounding like a rant. I don’t mean it to but I do want to ask for your opinion on the subject. Here’s my question to you: when was the last time you read a book that was written in the past 10 years that didn’t involve a constant change of point of view (POV) or a shift in the timeline? Is it just me or is every novel being written today structured this way? And why, oh why? Would you ever tell a personal story to someone that way?
As a fast reader, I find nothing more distracting that having to shift point of views every few chapters, or even worse, every chapter. The story may be told in the third person, but first you’ll see it from the mother’s point of view, then the father’s, then the children’s, and so on. Yes, Jodi Picoult, I’m talking about you! Every book that I read from her was written that way and it got old pretty fast. But it’s not just Jodi Picoult. Actually it seems to be almost everyone. As much as I liked The Night Circus by Erin Morgensten, the timeline shift got old by the end. The shifting point of views in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn didn’t trick me. 30 pages into the book, I had figured out the “big twist” and the story was only disappointing after that. The ONLY point of view shift I found that was used brilliantly was in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, because it actually made the story’s twists reveal themselves very neatly. By the way, if you haven’t read this book, you should put it on your to-read list. It’s very, very good.
I’m now reading Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet by Jamie Ford, and as much as I’m enjoying the story, it constantly shifts between the present and the past. Yes, the story is about remembering something that happened in the past, but why can’t the writer start with the present, go back to the past to tell the whole story, and then come back to the present? Is it really that hard?
So what keeps me interested in reading? A good story that doesn’t rely on the constant POV or timeline shift. A nicely threaded story with a continuous timeline tends to keep me on the edge more. Finishing each chapter with a little suspense will make me want to start the next chapter rather than put it down. I have no problem with a story that starts in the past to establish a past event, then shifts back to the present and stays there. The Green Mile by Stephen King is a great example of that. It contains tons of cliffhangers, as only a few writers seem to have mastered, and keep you turning the pages, even though the book is over 500 pages long.
Of course, there are other ways to keep my interest as a reader. An unusual narrator will also do the trick for me. Both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Lying Games series by Sara Shepard use a character that has been murdered as the narrator. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak uses Death itself as the narrator for the whole story. That was so unusual to me, and I personally found the idea brilliant, especially because of the violent and depressing World War II setting.
I only have one explanation for this trend of shifting point of views and playing with timelines: technology and the many distractions it brings. In today’s world, we’re used to talking on the phone while watching TV and browsing the web, texting while driving and listening to the car radio, talking with someone face to face while checking our voicemail or email. So here’s my theory: today’s writers think we’re so “good” at multi-tasking that the only way to keep our interest is to use this constant shifting, otherwise we may get bored.
All I can say is, I hope this is just a trend, and just like other trends, it shall pass and good storytelling will come back. Storytelling that doesn’t rely on this constant shifting to keep us interested but actually tells the events in a captivating way. If so many writers have been able to do so until recently, why can’t newer writers do it too?
I guess I’ll stop my rant here. Now I’d love to hear your opinion on the subject. Do you like shifts in points of view and time in novels? Do you think they add to the story or distract? Do you prefer a first person or third person point of view? What’s your favorite type of storytelling of all?