Rebekah would like to know about writing multiple points of view, so I’m going to tackle that topic in this week’s blog post.
Which is to say, I’ll touch on point of view, briefly, in part, because point of view, POV, is a massive topic. It’s also one of the most difficult things to do well, because it requires control. Your POV should never be accidental. You need to select the right POV for the story you are telling.
If you’re planning to write a multiple POV story, stop. Ask yourself: does this story require multiple POVs? If so, why?
If you can’t honestly say that your story needs multiple POVs, don’t write them.
Before I discuss reasons to use multiple POVs, I want to point out that we are a culture of film-lovers. Television-watching is surely the biggest pastime in this country. In film, whether television or movies, the camera follows any character anywhere and we, as viewers, have become accustomed to knowing who’s doing what at any time in any place. Film is all about multiple POV, and often the camera acts as an omniscient narrator, showing us things the hero would never know. We as viewers are used to being clued in to far more than our protagonist.
This is an effective form of storytelling in film, where you lack the voice of the author-narrator, or narrative exposition. What could be conveyed on the page through scene or summary must and can only be conveyed in pictures through the camera (unless they use a narrator voice-over). Viewed like this, we could claim that film must compensate for the lack of a narrator.
When writers learn how to tell stories from their experience watching films, there is the danger of using a technique that was developed by and for film, because it is familiar, not because it is the best choice for the story.
At best, multiple POVs are a carefully controlled means of bringing different perspectives to bear on a scenario.
At worst, multiple POVs are head hopping.
Head hopping results in redundancies, a lack of tension, and barely distinguishable characters.
Suppose you are thoroughly convinced your story requires multiple POVs, and you have sworn that you will not head hop. Now what?
1. How many POVs is enough?
The story will determine the number. Not you. The story.
Each POV must bring a unique perspective to bear on the scenario.
That means POVs are not used for convenience. Not because you want to show something happening behind the hero’s back. Not because you think the only way the reader will get the antagonist’s motivation is by getting in his head.
How many unique POVs are required to tell this story?
Sometimes the answer is simple. In A Stone’s Throw, I have three POVs, because it is a story about a love triangle.
2. Each POV character must be unique.
This means a reader should know who is on the page without being told. It’s a good idea to tell them anyway, but if your characters are blending together, if you aren’t sure who’s doing the thinking or talking or acting, then they aren’t distinct from each other. Lose a POV or two.
POV isn’t just about putting the reader in front of some action your hero isn’t witnessing, it’s about the individual perspective of the character. The reader lives the story through the POV character(s). That POV is precious. It is the vehicle carrying your story. The only reason we get to know a character, relate to him, love him, are fascinated by him, etc. is because we are experiencing the world through him.
If you are using unjustified POVs, you’re diluting the power of your main character by taking the reader away from him, and—because your main character is the reader’s vehicle through the story—you are effectively dulling the thrills on your ride.
Besides, character development is hard. You should know your POV character as well as you know yourself. Do you really want to do that for multiple characters? If the story requires it, yes. If not, multiple POVs are make-work.
3. Your POV must contribute to dramatic tension, not diminish it.
Whether the scene is subtle or explosive, it must have dramatic tension. Dramatic tension gets the reader wondering, anticipating, and turning the page. My favorite example of subtle dramatic tension that applies here comes from Harry Potter.
Remember when Hermione had the time turner and was taking extra classes? Throughout the book, we don’t know about the time turner. We only know that Hermione keeps turning up as though out of thin air. Ron and Harry keep asking each other, “Where did she come from?”
Because Rowling stuck to the singular POV, we didn’t know what was going on with Hermione and her strange appearances until Harry did. That means, for most of the book, it was a mystery. Mystery, my friends, is dramatic tension. We wonder what the deal is with Hermione. We anticipate it being revealed sooner or later. We keep turning the pages to find out. In this case, it’s a subtle tension, a small mystery, but the pay off is huge, because the time turner figures big in the climax.
If Rowling had chosen to use multiple POVs, Hermione and Ron surely would have been POV characters. We would have known all about the time turner along with Hermione. And there goes the dramatic tension. No mystery, no anticipation, no page turning.
Which brings me to my next point…
4. Revelation. Revelation. Revelation.
The reveal is precious. Never give it away. It will make your book. Its lack will…you know.
If Hermione had shown us the time turner in Act 1, it would have been a neat little trick. And then in Act 3, when it was needed, we probably would have seen it coming. Why don’t they just go back in time and fix that?
Revelation is your currency. Bank it. Guard it. Spend it wisely.
Rowling established a huge problem for Harry—Sirius Black’s capture and Buckbeak’s execution. Hermione had the solution, but none of us saw it coming because that thing she’d been doing, Rowling kept it a mystery. We did not know about it until Harry did, because Harry is the only POV character.
Extra POV characters can spill the beans and spoil the opportunity for creating a wonderful reveal. The reveal is that moment that is a revelation for the reader.
Are any of your POVs revealing too much? If so, axe them!
What are good reasons for using multiple POVs?
- You are writing parallel stories that occur in disparate locations. M.G. Herron has two POVs in The Auriga Project (multiple third), one per planet. The POV characters begin and end the story together, but for most of the book, they are apart and the action in each location runs parallel to the other. Two settings, two plotlines, two POVs.
- Having more than one POV actually increases the tension. In the film The Fugitive, we follow both Harrison Ford’s and Tommy Lee Jones’s characters. They represent the cat and the mouse, and we get to see both of them in action as they work to outmaneuver each other.
- When each character’s perspective enriches the reader’s experience of the story, as in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (multiple first). This book is a wonderful example of how a character’s age, experience, and perspective will alter the depiction of events.
So, you’ve done some soul searching.
Your story requires multiple POVs. Each POV character is fully developed and unique. Each POV contributes to the dramatic tension. All of your POVs contribute revelations to the story arc.
In that case, you are not head hopping.
Your POVs are earned.
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