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April 2017

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Alternatives to multiple POV

Tabitha over at Writer Musings blogged about multiple POVs the other day, in a post called "How Many is Too Many?" (excerpt: "There has to be something that all viewpoints add to the story that you can’t get if you only had one.")

I commented on the post, and she quoted me in the follow-up post that links POV to issues of character and plot. Which, by the way, is brilliant, and I don't think I've seen multiple POV discussed from that angle before.

But I've decided to expand a bit more on my original comment, in which I said that the use of multiple POV seems to be increasing, and perhaps writers could rely on it a bit less. For the record, I also said this:

Which isn't to say that it can't work, or that it hasn't been done well. I liked the technique in Paul Zindel's classic, THE PIGMAN. And Brent Hartinger's SPLIT SCREEN is one of my favorite examples: there are only a couple of "overlap" scenes, and the dual narration serves as two halves of a puzzle: together they tell the reader more than either part alone.

So, although I think it can be done well and is often necessary, I want to talk about when it might be a good idea to fight the impulse. Now that there are so many examples of multiple POV out there, a writer's first instinct may be to use this technique when she wishes to show what a character other than the first main character is feeling or thinking--to jump out of one character's head and into another. Tabitha suggests asking what purpose the multiple POV serves. I would suggest that if the only answer is, "We need to know what Character Y thinks/feels," there are other ways to approach the story.

Part of the fun of reading is putting the puzzle together ourselves: picking up clues, interpreting the action of the story. Characters give all sorts of cues to their thoughts and feelings: In what they do, and how they do it. In what they say, and what they don't say. If the character just up and tells us what's on his mind, it can spoil some of that fun. An interesting challenge for the writer is conveying the inner life of a character without bringing us directly inside that character's head: through gesture, timing, tone, dialogue, action, reaction.


Multiple POV sometimes can reveal to much and leave nothing to the readers imagination. Although there are stories that is needed and the reader can also imagine.
That suggests a good rule--don't tell the readers what they can figure out for themselves.
Multiple POVs have always been popular in fantasy. Perhaps because in epic fantasy there are often several journeys going on at once. Which would pretty much go back to the theory about plot driven vs character driven.

I wrote one story in two POVs and then rewrote it in a single POV. It was challenging and the manuscript was much better because of the change (for all the reasons you mentioned).

However one of my current manuscipts is in two POVs and wouldn't function without both--and guess what, it's plot driven :)
I think if the characters are separated and are having adventures on their own, multiple POV is probably essential. Otherwise, one has to resort to having the characters tell each other what they've been up to all the time, which isn't as good as seeing it ourselves.

But I love that you were able to turn two POVs into one in one of your projects!
I write ALMOST exclusively in multiple POV. I usually start out with two characters, but I always add one or two in the second draft. It has just needed the extra POV/s.
It sounds as if this way of storytelling comes naturally to you!
Hmm...I'm all over the place, I think. Magic Under Glass, 1 POV, plot-driven, Between the Sea and Sky, 1 POV, character driven, Alfred and Olivia, 2 POVs, character driven, Magic Under Stone was about 80% Nimira's POV and the rest another POV, and it's about equally plot and character driven, I'd say, and the one I'm working on now is plot driven with 3 POVs.

I've been playing with second and third POVs sparingly, though, working my way into it, so I think I'm pretty aware of the potential pitfalls...
Ah, versatility!
This is random, but I wanted to tell you that I bought the paperback of TSY. It's sooooooooo beautiful!!!! <3
I appreciate that kind of randomness. :-) Thank you!
First let me say I think a good writer can make anything work!

But I sense that readers expect a pattern to a series. Either it's the same narrator all the time, or maybe it's a different narrator for every book, or every book is multiple POV. If all the books are multiple POV except one, it violates a reader's expectations. Then again, I suppose it could still work, depending on how it's done.
I just finished Jenny Han's WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE SUMMER, the last in the SUMMER trilogy, and in it, she uses two points of view--Belly's and Conrad's. What I like about the way that she incorporated Conrad's point of view is that it moves the story forward and tells an aspect that we wouldn't have known unless we were privy to his viewpoint (while also letting us in on his feelings about what is happening). In the second book in the trilogy, I think only Belly's POV and that of Conrad's brother, Jeremiah, were used, which left a sense of mystery--sometimes I wondered why Conrad acted the way he did, but there was no direct answer as to why. I found those answers in the final book of the trilogy. That, for me, made for a satisfying multiple POV experience.
It sounds as if her decision to stay out of Conrad's head in the second book was a wise one?
I'm reading The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins right now, and it's arguably the first book to use multiple POV to tell a story. There's no head-hopping inside of scenes - the characters have long pieces (sometimes chapters, sections, or even just a few paragraphs) each, giving only the information they think is pertinent to the story, and the reader is left to come to her own conclusions about the validity of the information she's presented with and to put it into a whole. The technique in there is definitely worth taking a gander at if you're so inclined. :)

And I agree that always knowing what a character is thinking and feeling spoils the fun, but I'd posit that it's just as easy to fall into that trap with first person as it is in 3rd.
"And I agree that always knowing what a character is thinking and feeling spoils the fun, but I'd posit that it's just as easy to fall into that trap with first person as it is in 3rd."

That may be why I have a fondness for 1st-person narrators who are a bit evasive and a bit unreliable!
I think that's what I'm loving most about Woman in White - they're all unreliable! =)
Ooh, this is interesting, and couldn't come at a better time for me. I'm working on a story right now that has two POVs, and I'm using the two because the story tracks the characters before they meet each other, as they meet, and how they change each other. So far it seems to be working, and I rather enjoy crafting the subtle overlap between POV shifts.

I would suggest that if the only answer is, "We need to know what Character Y thinks/feels," there are other ways to approach the story.

I totally agree with this. Plus, too many POVs can make a story clunky and long-winded when it doesn't need to be.
I like when the two POVs seem to show us two different worlds, rather than the same world twice. (Even when it really IS the same world. If that makes any sense!)
"Part of the fun of reading is putting the puzzle together ourselves"

Exactly!!! Many beginning writers feel the need to pass on more information than the reader needs, and it slows down the pacing. I'm all about sorting through the info right along with the main character. I don't like it when I figure things out first, because I get frustrated when I have to sit around waiting for him/her to catch up.
Yes, and I think the same impulse is behind such pitfalls as massive info-dumps and starting the story too far before the action.* After a while, we learn to trust the reader, and to suggest rather than spill.

*In identifying these pitfalls, I don't claim to be above them myself. :-)
I usually prefer books with a single POV, but I think two POV's works really well in YA romance. Like Simone Elkeles books are amazing. I'm working on my second manuscript right now and it took me a long time to decide on using two POV's. I think teen girls reading a romance would love to know what the guy is thinking. But I'm trying to make sure that each chapter advances the plot and I don't have any overlap.
Thanks for the interesting post!
"But I'm trying to make sure that each chapter advances the plot and I don't have any overlap."

Yes--a good test is if you delete a chapter, does the book still make sense, suggesting the chapter is less necessary? Or does it leave a noticeable hole?
You have this uncanny knack of posting about issues I'm currently wrangling with re. my own writing! My Fledgling Novel is currently in 2 vps, but I'm still uncertain whether this is the right approach for it. Historically, I've always tended toward just the one vp, either first, or close third (with a couple of exceptions). I'm playing with the 2 contrasting vps in this one at the moment to see how it goes. Your thoughts, and Tabitha's have come at the perfect moment - thanks so much!
Glad to be helpful! :-)
I don't know how I missed this. I just read the links and the follow-up to this post. I personally don't like a lot of POV's. In fact, I just asked people a few weeks ago how many do they tend to do. I was floored by the number of people who use more than four. It just seems like a lot of balls to have in the air. And most of the time it feels like cheating to me when there's several (4+)POV's. It's as if the writer got backed into a corner with their plot, so they're throwing in a POV to dig themselves out.
Bret Easton Ellis's THE RULES OF ATTRACTION worked really well with multiple narrators. He had a ton of narrators--some of whom appeared only once. It's the kind of thing that sounds like it shouldn't work, but did.

I know what you mean, though, about how it can be too much. I don't think writers should rely on switching POV every time they want to show us something about a new character. There are other ways to do it.
You did not just make a book suggestion. Nope. I do not see a book title in your comment. Nope. I'm looking the other way. Yes, there are people who do multiple POV's well (i.e., Melissa Marr) I don't think I would be able to carry it off.