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Ask Dr. Kat: Can Two Characters Tell the Exact Same Story and it Not Be Boring?

I named this post a bit ironically--"Ask Dr. Kat," because today I want to address a question from one of my former students, Angela Garza Douglas (follow her on twitter--@amd6841!).  She has a great question, and I think it's worth answering here, because I'm not sure there's one simple answer.  She writes:

 I am reading a book and one chapter is in first person POV from one character and describes a scene and everything that happens including dialogue... then the next chapter is in another character's POV (the other character from that same scene) and describes the same scene from the same point in time the other chapter started.... I am totally put off by this... have you ever read this successfully??? I mean, even the dialogue between the two characters is repeated...
My answer:

Yikes--even the dialogue is repeated???  Without reading the book myself, I'd have to say it sounds painful. One of the first rules of narrative (if there can be rules these days) is that there should be an arc to the story, ideally moving across the entire novel, but also within each chapter.  As readers, we like to keep moving forward, and the writer will risk losing us if too much material is repeated.

That said, when I first conceived my novel, I ran into this sort of thing, because sometimes the different POV characters notice vastly different things in the same scene or interpret the same things differently.  Sometimes I want to reveal the "truth" of the scene, from one character's eyes, as opposed to the way the other character conceives of it--particularly since the mental health of one of my narrators is in question.  One of my struggles has been to show the different nuances of an act while still keeping the story moving, and the way I chose to handle it was to have the characters come together to tell the same story, but to give each one a different part of the whole.  I don't know if it will work.  I hope so.  But in my first draft, one of the problems was this sort of repetition, which I had to deal with in revision.  Now I am careful to start a new scene from the next character's perspective, except in rare instances where I do end up changing POVs within a chapter (risky!).

But Angela asked if I've ever read this successfully.  One book in particular comes to mind, The Collector by John Fowles.  For those unfamiliar with its story, its told from the point of view of a serial killer who "collects" women, and then from the perspective of one of his latest victims.  It's a riveting storyline and the points of view are well done, but there's a big difference between it and the book Angela read.  In The Collector, Fowles narrates the whole story from the killer's point of view first and then the whole story again from the victim's.  And they're not the same story--obviously.  By first putting us in the killer's point of view the entire time and then switching, we see in effect two completely different stories, and yet they inform each other, and the final effect is chilling.

It sounds like the problem with the book the student read is that there wasn't enough difference between the scenes, and maybe not enough reason to repeat scenes or parts of scenes from the different character perspectives.  But without seeing the book, it's hard to know.  I have a hunch, though, that Angela is onto something, and more importantly, it makes me excited to hear this kind of question, because it means she is reading like a writer and thinking about the kinds of narrative choices that are being made, and what the ramifications of those choices are.

 I'm sure there are other obvious examples that I'm just not thinking of, but it definitely sounds like a risk.  Whether it's a risk worth taking or not probably depends on the material and the skill of the author.  I'd certainly caution a new writer against this, but the downside of making up these sorts of "rules" is that they can be limiting.

What do you think?  Have you seen the same scene told from different character POVs successfully?   When can it work?  When is the risk worth taking?


Great post! I think it's possible, but only if both have very different recollections. Perhaps the author could build tension by leaving the reader to wonder which is the unreliable narrator. That would be cool in the right hands.
Julie said…
This scenario reminded of Pulp Fiction where the same scene was shown from at least four different POVs. The dialogue and actions all repeated with subtle differences. It was quirky and interesting and instead of being annoyed with the repetition, we were actively listening for those differences when the scene was revisited.

Unfortunately, we're not all Quentin Tarantino.
Great example, Jule!

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