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A Pack of Liars: Karen McManus on Multiple Narrators

Posted on 8th June 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'It’s like The Breakfast Club, but with murder.'

We know how the classic high-school drama plays out: a good girl high-flyer, a jock, a prom-queen princess, a bad-boy and a rookie outsider with a talent for uncovering secrets meet in detention. But this isn’t The Breakfast Club. Told from multiple points of view, Karen McManus's One of Us is Lying cracks open the veneer of teenage stereotypes to reveal a complex psychological thriller that examines how far someone will go to protect a secret. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, McManus considers the challenges and rewards of a story where every character has their say.

When I first got the idea for One of Us is Lying, I floated it past my writing friends (as one does) and the reaction went something like this:

Me: It’s like The Breakfast Club, but with murder.
Them: OMG YES.
Me: Five students go into detention but only four walk out.
Them: KEEP GOING.
Me: And I’m going to write it from the POV of the four surviving students.
Them: *silence*
Me: That’s a good idea right?
Them: Um…

I’d never attempted multi-POV before, and they knew what I didn’t: it’s hard. 

A lot can go wrong when you’re writing multi-POV. Some characters might be less compelling than others, or have a less satisfying arc. The voices might not be distinct enough. Your writing runs the risk of becoming redundant if you try to explain the same situation from multiple perspectives. And all that head-jumping could be jarring or distracting for readers.

The golden rule when writing multi-POVs is this: don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. In the case of One of Us is Lying, I felt like I couldn’t tell the story any other way. Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate all had reasons for being in that room with Simon, and for wanting the secrets he was about to spill on his gossip app to stay hidden. I needed the perspective of all four characters to support the narrative structure. 

My goal was to create one major plot line that drove the story forward and allowed (or in many cases, forced) the characters to interact with one another, along with separate subplots supporting their individual journeys. By the end of the book, I wanted each of them—for better or for worse—to be doing things that would have seemed impossible in the first chapter.

To make each character distinct, I tried to give them all pet expressions and thought/speech patterns that were specific to them. For example, when Nate believes someone is taking on an impossible task, he says, "Good luck with that." But Bronwyn says, "I doubt they'll have any luck." Subtle differences, rooted in how they view the world and interact with others. I also had separate playlists for each character, and used those to get inside their heads while writing.

Multi-POV has its challenges, but it also has benefits, especially when you’re writing suspense. It helps build tension between characters, and lets the reader see them from different perspectives. And it gives you a natural “out” from giving away too much, too soon. One character can be edging toward revealing a key element that’s keeping the reader guessing and then BAM—you switch perspective, and the mystery is maintained.

There was a reason behind every scene being told from a particular POV. Sometimes I wanted a situation to reveal more about that character. Other times, their unique take on a piece of evidence was required to move the story forward. And occasionally, I needed their personality to bring out the humor or the pathos in a scene. 

Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate each had their individual secrets, dreams, strengths, and flaws. My goal was to gradually turn their individual stories into one cohesive whole with a believable, satisfying conclusion. Reader mileage will vary, of course, as to how well I succeeded! But I loved telling the story this way, and I won’t shy away from dual or multi-POV in future books. 

One of Us is Lying is available now in paperback

£7.99
Paperback
10+ in stock
Available
Karen McManus’s runaway-success debut throws open the doors of Bayview High and dwells deep into the secrets and lies that shape the lives of its teens. Pacey, brilliant and extremely devious, One of Us Is Lying is the perfect high school thriller brimming with tensions, twists and unforgettable characters.
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