First, to note: this post will be discussing Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, so potential spoilers for the book and possibly the movie.
I was first introduced to this book through the movie trailer, and it looked like something I might enjoy watching. But, as you may know, I’m a busy lady, and I never actually made it to the movie theaters. As you can probably imagine, I was super excited when I found out it was at the book store, so I got it with some Christmas money and rushed home with it.
The trailer probably gave me higher expectations for the storyline than I would have otherwise had based solely off the cover information, so that may have been what ruined the story for me, but I just found it was more juvenile a story than what the movie seemed to suggest. It’s also worth pointing out that it was first published in 2001, which means that a lot of the tropes we’re familiar with from more recent publishing are not present in the narrative. It, no doubt, plays some role in how Reeve writes his story, but I’d like to talk about it regardless.
What struck me about Mortal Engines is point of view. Now, admittedly, you’re more likely to find any YA book (maybe even middle grade, though I’m a little less familiar with tropes in that demographic) in 1st person PoV in 2019, especially when the novel in question is science fiction. It was, I think, one of the first genres to really use 1st person PoV besides realistic fiction, but I will say that I don’t have any statistics besides personal experience to back those numbers up. Fantasy books, certainly, were still prevalently 3d person when I was still in school (which would have been a little after 2001). My point is, it was weird for me to read a book like that in 3d person narrative, but it wasn’t weird like they published the book upside down or something.
I think we’re tempted as writers to add as many point of view characters as possible to tell the whole story. It makes a certain amount of sense; one thing that annoys me when I’m reading is when a character somehow knows something they have no way of knowing, but such instances usually occur when the author needs to convey some piece of information but has no characters who should know about the subject on hand to actually share. This is probably at least partially why third person PoV was so popular. It’s a lot less jarring, I think, to switch points of view when all points of view are in third person.
There is nothing wrong with changing points of view when it comes to pertinent information that the reader needs to have access to before any of the main characters. Sometimes that’s just a thing that needs to happen. The key point is making sure that the shift only happens when plot-relevant information needs to be shared and the main point of view character does not have access to that information at the time it needs sharing.
One thing that Mortal Engines got wrong was the way that the PoV shift was written. There were two main PoV characters: Tom and Katherine. The fact that the bulk of the action in the book has no sway on the climax of the narrative isn’t exactly relevant to my point, but still worth mentioning for those who are considering reading it. I digress. The main PoV chapters are written in past tense, third person limited omniscient. As far as I can recall, the entire book is written in third person limited omniscient. But in the scenes where the narrator is not Tom or Katherine, the PoV suddenly shifts to present tense while still taking place in the same time as what’s being narrated in the past tense.
Changing points of view during a chapter isn’t wise if you can avoid not doing it. With the book written in third person limited omniscient, Reeve was able to make it work because he also indicated when there was a scene break, and it was usually pretty easy to infer who was doing the narrating from there. However, it didn’t always work, and it especially did not work when the tense suddenly changed for a scene or two during a chapter that is otherwise written in a different tense. Generally, (ideally,) different points of view are separated by chapters. Chapter breaks already indicate a shift, and depending on the format of the book, can offer authors the chance to note who’s narrating that chapter. Try to put “Character X” at the beginning of a new scene to show the narration is changing, and it’ll look pretty weird.
My best advice: change the type of narration. This is mostly for first person PoV, because as I said before, third person is much easier to simply do a narrator change because you’re not actually in the narrator’s head. If you’re already in third person PoV for your main characters, it’s also easier to slip in information that the reader can identify as important even if the narrator themselves don’t make the connection. Third person is easiest to shift to another narrator when the location or time or whatever is clearly different (thus indicating that it’s a different person). If you’re in first person, you can shift to third person for the minor PoV.
One last bit of advice, if you’ll have it: the best PoV character is one who will narrate more than one chapter. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes there’s no need to have a character narrate more than once. But, usually, if they’re important enough to have a chapter to themselves, they’ll need more than just one chapter.
Now! My reading list for the rest of February is as follows: I’ve been reading Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. It’s been on my TBR list ever since I finished Tess of the Road, but I just hadn’t had a chance to get it until recently. Once I’m done with that, I’m going to read Leigh Bardugo’s newest book, King of Scars and see if it is as good as Six of Crows, or if it’ll be a bit of a flop for me like Shadow and Bone. Then, last but not least, I’ve seen Children of Blood and Bone out and about, but wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Well, I bought it on a whim the other day, so we’ll see if it surprises me. I’ll let you know what I think.