The Voices in Your Head: Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong

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Falling animals

By Sheila Armstrong

Can you juggle? If you’re like me, you will have tried as a child. You’ll have been amazed by a juggler you saw on TV, a bargain-bin entertainer that visited your school, or even just your eccentric uncle after a few pints. You would have picked your objects carefully, weighed them in your hands, and launched them into the air, expecting them to magnetically fly from point to point: up, across, down and back up. If you’re like me, you’ll have hit yourself in the face within about ten seconds, given up, and never bothered to continue.

Writing a book from multiple perspectives means you have to learn to juggle. When I began writing my novel, Falling Animals, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted each chapter to be from a different point of view. I can’t say exactly how I knew, just that it felt like the best way to tell the story. It’s possible that I fell into this form because I had only written short stories before, and sustaining a single vantage point across a whole novel felt too intimidating. On good days, I tell myself it was a conscious creative decision. On dark days, I tell myself it’s because I’m an idiot who bit off about ten banquets more than she could chew.

Whatever the reason, I began with a few balls – one point of view to introduce the story, a second for the inciting incident, a third, a fourth – and, for a while, everything stayed airborne. I added more balls, and more, faster and faster, until I got up to twenty, twenty-five voices – and it all fell apart. The balls tumbled down and I hit myself in the face more times than I can count.

I gave up.

I started again.

I gave up again.

I started again, again.

I threw out balls until I had the exact number I could manage. Then, I stared at each ball, dissected it, deepened it. I made sure they were all the same shape, lined them up in different ways. Finally, I realised that it was the space in between the balls that mattered; the arc of gravity, of the story. On the final draft, I launched those balls back into the air, and they flew – maybe not perfectly, or gracefully, but they flew.

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If you are writing a novel from multiple points of view, the first thing I would tell you is: Don’t. But I didn’t listen to that advice, so I’d imagine you won’t either.

First, you should make sure that it’s actually what your story needs. Will multiple POVs give you more insight or more depth than just one, or are you just retelling the same story, filling in the gaps, leaving no space for your reader? Think of your narrative as a wheel. Each POV is a segment – they should touch, but not overlap. Say there are two people in a room, and they are both lying. You could tell the story first from one POV, then the other, so they overlap. But to me, that wouldn’t be as interesting as sitting with one character as they try to decipher the other’s speech while disguising their own lies.

Second, make sure it suits your writing style. Maybe you’re excellent at getting close to a character’s thoughts, sitting on their shoulders, seeing through their eyes. If that’s the case, you’d need a convincing reason to move away from that, to change horses midstream. The way I like to write – from a bird’s eye angle, dipping in and flitting away – lends itself to multiple narrators.

Third, make sure it suits your universe. By that I mean the universe of the novel – although if you are writing science fiction, multiple POVs will probably work very well. If your story takes place in a world that is unfamiliar to the reader, or over a long period of time, this approach will provide useful worldbuilding information. My novel centres around a mystery, and mysteries by nature are made up of clues that trickle in from different sources. Parts of it also move back in time and across the world, so it felt natural for those sections to be told through a different voice.  

Fourth, each of your POVs has to be a real person. They can’t simply be a camera lens directed at your story, a tool to provide clunky information. If the only way you can get a character’s troubled childhood across is to jump into the shoes of their primary school teacher, who is then never mentioned again, that may be a problem. Each character you use should supply information, or underline a theme – but they must also be a supporting stitch in the patchwork.

Finally, make sure this approach suits what your story is about. This isn’t what happens in your story; rather it is what it means on a deeper level. This sounds extremely nebulous, and I’m trying to convince myself as I write. My novel starts off when a nameless man is found dead on a beach. If I told the story from his point of view, it would be an entirely different kind of book. The man’s life is not what my book is about. I wanted instead to build up a sense of community, of the lives of those around him, of a group of people affected by one event: a chorus of voices.

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Writing a story like this is hard. I don’t know if it is creatively more difficult than using another structure, but it is certainly cognitively challenging to keep all these balls in the air. You have to cross check information, make sure backstories are consistent, shore each individual relationship up. Small changes can cause a chain reaction as cause and effect ripple across chapters.

Truthfully, it is only after finishing Falling Animals that I can make sense of what I have done. Another writer would do it a completely different way. I think you have to learn to juggle yourself, through trial and error, through hitting yourself in the face, through understanding the heft and weight of your characters. But when you finally find the arc of your story, those balls will fly.

About Falling Animals:
Falling animals

The disquieting story of an unidentified man as told by those who crossed paths with him on the last day of his life, Sheila Armstrong’s debut novel is haunting, lyrical and darkly suspenseful

On an isolated beach set against a lonely, windswept coastline, a pale figure sits serenely against a sand dune staring out to sea. His hands are folded neatly in his lap, his ankles are crossed and there is a faint smile on his otherwise lifeless face.

Months later, after a fruitless investigation, the nameless stranger is buried in an unmarked grave. But the mystery of his life and death lingers on, drawing the nearby villagers into its wake. From strandings to shipwrecks, it is not the first time that strangeness has washed up on their shores.

Told through a chorus of voices, Falling Animals follows the crosshatching threads of lives both true and imagined, real and surreal, past and present. Slowly, over great time and distance, the story of one man, alone on a beach, begins to unravel. Elegiac and atmospheric, dark and disquieting, Sheila Armstrong’s debut novel marks her arrival as one of the most uniquely gifted writers at work in literary fiction today.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sheila Armstrong is a writer from the northwest of Ireland. She spent ten years in publishing and now works as a freelance editor. Her first collection of short stories, How To Gut A Fish, was published in 2022 and her debut novel, Falling Animals, in 2023.

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