The Dreaded Multiple POV Novel

| Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Today's Tune: Everybody

In my post about Head Hopping from Monday, I mentioned that I'd be writing a companion entry dedicated to the terrifying Mount Everest of multiple-POV novels. Aaaaaand off we go!


I don't think it's a huge secret that multiple-POV novels are notoriously difficult to pull off, right? I mean, if you weren't aware: they're super difficult to pull off. Just so you know. Yes, in theory, anyone can write a novel from the point of view of several characters, but that doesn't mean it's going to flow smoothly or make sense or feel right. At worst, a multi-POV story can devolve into a convoluted mess where it's impossible for readers to connect to any of the characters because it's all chaotic and BLEARGH.

First things first: deciding on your style. Are you going for a dual POV? Perhaps a romance that switches between both leads? Or are you interested in more of an ensemble set up? Will it be a small ensemble (perhaps 3-5 characters), or a very large ensemble, like in Tom Leveen's Party? Dude wrote a book with eleven narrators. ELEVEN.

Okay, you know how many characters you're following. Now you have to decide how you're going to follow them. Is your narrator omniscient and all-knowing; able to peek inside the head of any character at any time? Or are you interested in more of a close-third or first-person narration style, switching off between scenes or chapters? (Here's where that whole head hopping post may come in handy).

Next, it's important to ask yourself why you want to tell the story this way. You need to make sure that there is a real, functional purpose for telling a story from multiple points of view. How will following multiple characters best serve the story you're trying to tell? Will the story be genuinely stronger if it's told this way, or are you doing it "just because?" If you want to try multiple POV because you have this secondary character you really like and you think it'd be fun to have a chapter from their perspective, that may not be the right reason.

A few reasons for telling a story from multiple perspectives: to maintain mystery and reveal information slowly. To increase tension between characters. To tell two or more "separate" stories that will eventually intertwine. To give different viewpoints on the same event, leading up to a big reveal. Revealing information to the reader that will increase the stakes for another character who is kept in the dark. There are many more, but these may give you a general idea.

Hopefully you've made your decisions about all these elements. Now comes the hard part: making it work. How do you craft a narrative from multiple points of view without turning it into a Slap-Chopped noodle salad? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Stick to one POV per chapter. In order to avoid the dreaded head-hopping, which will horribly confuse your reader, it's a good practice to only follow one character's POV per chapter. It gives the reader a clean break before they have to jump into a new mind. If you must switch POVs in the middle of a chapter (and by "must," I mean you're doing it because it's what best serves the story and it's necessary), do so at a natural scene break. It might be a good idea to use a line break (an extra space between paragraphs) to establish time passed and/or character switch, as well. For examples of switching POV each chapter, see Shiver and Across The Universe.

When writing in first-person, it's important for each character to have a distinctive voice. This is probably one of the biggest complaints I see about multiple POV novels: the characters all sound the same. The reader can't tell them apart. What's the point of telling a story from multiple perspectives if the voices aren't different, etc. To cite Beth Revis' Across The Universe again, she does a pretty good job of giving her two MCs, Elder and Amy, distinctive voices with their own verbal tics and unique outlook. This isn't as important in third-person, since the narrator is more removed, but in first-person, a reader should quickly be able to tell they're in a different character's head. They shouldn't have to go back and look at the chapter heading to figure out whose POV they're in.

Don't overwhelm yourself. There's a difference between giving yourself a challenge and biting off more than you can chew. Don't go for the ten-character ensemble cast if you can't handle keeping track of that many different threads. Complicated does not necessarily mean better. In fact, it's usually best to keep it simple and build small, rather than juggling more balls than you can catch.

Be mindful of whose head you're in. Tying right back around to the head hopping post: remember that you can't jump from head-to-head-to-head without giving your reader fair warning/some kind of indication. That's where the chapter breaks/line breaks come in handy. You don't have to beat readers over the head with it, but the shifts should flow naturally and not be confusing.

Remember: you should be telling a story in multiple-POV because that's the way the story MUST be told. Multiple-POV can be extremely messy. It can become too repetitive and convoluted, or it can reveal too much information and kill tension. It's difficult to balance. But when it's done well, man, it can be amazing.

What are some of your favorite multiple-POV novels? Why did you love them so much? What did they do well?

22 comments:

{ Miss Cole } at: August 24, 2011 at 5:21 AM said...

I tried a multi-POV story, but one character lacked the strength to carry the plot, so I cut it to single perspective. The story works much better now!

My favourite multiple POV series of recent times is Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking. That was amazing.

{ Scott Stillwell } at: August 24, 2011 at 5:31 AM said...

I agree that novels in this style can be incredible if written well, and putrid if written not-so-well. Still, some of my favorite books have had third person omniscient narrators:

Dune - In my opinion, this is the greatest science fiction novel ever written. Herbert hops effortlessly in and out of characters heads, and it just seems to work. Of course, there are sections where the book is extremely dialogue-heavy, so maybe that's how he makes it flow so well.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - The narrator is obviously Douglas Adams himself, and he was a hilarious storyteller and public speaker, so the third person omniscient works again. He used the power to throw in a constant stream of asides that always seemed to add to the story rather than distract from it. Still, if you don't get British humor, then you probably wouldn't get past page 42 anyway.

I'm sure I could think of a few others, but I'll yield the floor. Interesting post!

{ Holly Dodson } at: August 24, 2011 at 6:30 AM said...

Great post, Steph, and quite timely for me. I'm just starting work on a project with an omniscient narrator. *gulp* I know it's going to be hard to pull it off, but I also can't tell the story any other way. :)

{ Emily Tesh } at: August 24, 2011 at 7:11 AM said...

All these rules can be broken, though. I have in mind Diana Wynne Jones' Derkholm books, which slip between POV characters within chapters so elegantly that you hardly realise it's happening. Pratchett does the same thing, often for comic effect. You don't have to wait for chapter breaks or even paragraph breaks to change viewpoint. It's probably a good idea to get to the end of the sentence, at least, but I'm sure someone can come up with an example of a writer getting away with an in-sentence switch too.

{ Jen } at: August 24, 2011 at 7:39 AM said...

I've never gone through with this myself, because every time I've attempted it one character has just outshone the others in terms of voice, and I've always thought: "There's my narrator, there."

{ Lori M. Lee } at: August 24, 2011 at 8:17 AM said...

Great post. I'm definitely going to refer this post to my friend who's struggling with multiple povs right now. I don't have any strong feelings one way or another on multiple povs, just so long as, as you said, they're distinctive and there's no headhopping.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: August 24, 2011 at 8:18 AM said...

@Miss Cole - That's always tough, when one character just isn't pulling their "weight," so to speak. I'm glad you figured out a solution, though!

@Scott - Dune's a fantastic example :)

@Holly - Ooooh, good luck! Omniscient still intimidates the hell out of me O_O

@Emily - Well, we can make that argument for any writing rule in existence. Somewhere out there, someone's broken every rule, and done it well. If an author really knows what they're doing, they can of course do anything they like. I intended this as more of an outline for newer writers attempting multi-POV for the first time, so as not to get overwhelmed. In the end, you can do anything so long as you do it well :)

@Jen - That always seems to happen to me, too ;)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: August 24, 2011 at 8:32 AM said...

@Lori - I feel the same way. If you can make it work, so long as I don't have to flip back because I can't tell whose POV I'm in and there are any jolt-me-out-of-the-text head hops, then I'm pretty cool with whatever you decide to do. Because if a writer can avoid at least those two things, they probably know what they're doing.

{ anonymeet } at: August 24, 2011 at 10:06 AM said...

Cool post!

For me, multiple POV stories work best in two cases:
1. When the characters are so distinctive that seeing the same event through two different sets of eyes drastically changes or impacts how the reader experiences it. For example, in Simone Elkeles's Perfect Chemistry, main characters Alex and Britany are so different (culturally, socio-ceconomically, etc) that it was interesting to see the same incidents reflected in both their POVs. It was also a useful way to show how the two are similar, despite their differences (they were both often putting on a show for others).

2. When it's integral to the story progression to only reveal certain information at certain times. If you have multiple POVs and you don't want your reader to know that X character was actually at the murder scene until later, you could withhold that information while you are in the head of Y character if character Y wouldn't know that information. I can't think of an example of this right now, though . . .

{ lindy } at: August 24, 2011 at 11:24 AM said...

This is great advice for those using multiple POVs. It seems like such a huge undertaking! Keeping it all straight, maintaining the correct voice for each character. Wow! I'm sure the day will eventually come when I decide to take the leap and use more than one POV. I'll have to book mark this--thanks, Steph!

{ kirstenlopresti } at: August 24, 2011 at 12:07 PM said...

The books I can think of off hand that use multiple POV well are The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and The Last Girls by Lee Smith.

I like your advice. Multiple POV can be tricky and these are great suggestions.

{ The Golden Eagle } at: August 24, 2011 at 12:46 PM said...

Fellow Campaigner stopping by! :) Following you now.

The first novel I finished was multiple POV, but it probably would have worked a lot better if I'd read this post first!

One of my favorites (that I can think of off the top of my head) would be I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Lots of different characters, but they were all distinct.

{ Mindy McGinnis } at: August 25, 2011 at 7:48 AM said...

Great points - I think another great example is George R.R. Martin's Ice and Fire series. I don't even know how many POV's he has, but it's a TON, and each character has a distinct voice that the chapter resonates with.

A good YA example is Sara Zarr's up and coming HOW TO SAVE A LIFE (which I was lucky enough to get an ARC of). POV's alternate b/w two teen female narrators, which I think would be especially tricky. But of course she does it well :)

{ David Powers King } at: August 25, 2011 at 9:02 AM said...

Hello, fellow campaigner! I'm not in your group, but I still wanted to take a look at your blog. Awesome place you have here!

I love multiple POV novels! Mistborn and general work by S.D.Perry are among my favorites.

{ Shari } at: August 25, 2011 at 12:55 PM said...

I haven't tried it yet. Great points to remember, though. Nice to meet a fellow YA Campaigner!

{ meganstirler } at: August 25, 2011 at 7:04 PM said...

"The Song of Troy" by Colleen McCullough had, like, five different 1st person POVs and it drove me crazy until the characters and their plot arcs started to come together towards the end. She did a good job of keeping each character distinct, but mostly because their roles in the story were distinct - it's hard to mistake Helen of Troy speaking for Odysseus! It was a good story but it was really hard to slog through.

{ Matt Larkin } at: August 27, 2011 at 9:47 AM said...

As Mindy says, Song of Ice and Fire does multiple POVs masterfully, and the story would never work without them.

I found I wound up adding a third viewpoint to one WIP when I just couldn't convey all the information necessary to the story without it. It didn't make sense for the female or male leads to present at certain events I wanted the reader to be aware of.

{ kurt petrey } at: May 28, 2013 at 12:19 PM said...

I'm currently battling with the notion of telling a story in first person or third person limited. If I told it in first person I would have to tell two distinct separate plot lines that merge towards the end of the story. I would love to try first person point of view with two different POV's. From your article and the comments I guess I just need to keep the story going smoothly by only switching POV's when transitioning between chapters. In my story the two plot lines are geographically separated and merge only towards the very end of the story.

{ E.L. Wagner } at: October 27, 2013 at 11:21 PM said...

I'm rather puzzled by this assertion that 1. multi pov novels are typically a convoluted mess, and that 2. they're difficult to pull off. Maybe it's because I read a lot of fantasy and SF, where novels with more than one pov character (usually in limited third with switches at chapter or scene breaks, but sometimes even multi first person) are common as dirt. Romance novels often switch back and forth between the male and female pov characters. I even read a novel recently (Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, which won a Nebula award) where the main character is in first person present tense, and the other pov characters are limited third past tense.

I'd guess that if you've done most of your reading in genres where this approach is rare, it might be harder to do? In the end, you need to include the characters and points of views needed to tell your story effectively. My novel has three pov characters, and I can't imagine doing what I'm trying to do with only one pov. None of my critters have had an issue with the pov shifts or suggested I turn it into a single pov story. It hasn't occurred to me that doing this is hard or unusual.

{ Themo H Peel } at: April 7, 2014 at 6:07 AM said...

My favourite POV novels are the Percy Jackson series (YA writer here). It's wonderful how they build up the number of characters over time. The question is, do you write each POV at once and put them together or write the story flitting back and forth?

{ Justin Sloan } at: July 22, 2014 at 6:52 AM said...

Great post, thank you! Regarding Themo H Peel's question, I've done it both ways - writing alternate POV chapters as I go, and finishing one complete story and then tackling the next. I can't say one is better than the other - they both work. Maybe one fits better to your writing style, so I'd say give each a try. The one downside of doing one complete story first is you may start to feel that is your main POV and then not be as interested in the other - but maybe that is better and you find you have a single POV novel on your hands. Or you may want to start with the character you are less eager to write and see where that takes you.

Best,

Justin
www.JustinMSloan.com

{ maddigan13 } at: July 31, 2014 at 2:51 PM said...

The only novel I have ever read twice because I loved it so much was a 2-person POV called "The Boy Next Door" by Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees. It's perfect in every way :)

Currently I'm writing a 6-character POV that follows 6 characters in long distance relationships whose stories will eventually intertwine. I think it works. Each character has their own chapters and it operates in a 1-2-3, 1-2-3 fashion until mid-novel and then picks up from the point of view of the lover of each of the characters who have been speaking thus far. This let me really delve into each of my characters and their stories. Also, certain scenes I needed to take place from certain characters' points of view and this seemed like the best way to do that.

I would like to work harder on making sure my characters each have a distinctive voice though. Thanks for the tips!

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