Monday, March 14, 2011

How Many Is Too Many?

Two years ago, I wrote a post about multiple points of view in a story. I still hold by what I said—basically, for each main character he’ll need his own path to change—but there are some other things that have been bouncing around in my head lately, starting with this question. Why do you need multiple points of view?
Everything in a story is there for a reason. This character. Those actions. That specific word. So, if a story is told from more than one point of view, there needs to be a good reason for that. As in, if you took one of those viewpoints away, the story would feel incomplete. There has to be something that all viewpoints add to the story that you can’t get if you only had one. It’ll add a layer of depth and richness to your story.

On that same note, though, you have to be careful. Too many viewpoints can make your story feel repetitive. Especially if you’re going to go over similar concepts with each character, getting his/her unique viewpoint on them. Yes, it’s unique and it adds something to the story that a single viewpoint can’t, but it can also feel like going around the room and asking everyone their opinion on X, Y, and Z. Each person is going to have a unique answer, and we’ll have a well-rounded idea of how people see those concepts—which, granted, is far better than asking just one person. But, in the end, you still only have an exploration of X, Y, and Z. A story’s momentum could suffer if you spend so much time exploring the same concepts in different ways.

Along those same lines, exploring similar concepts in various ways can also make your story feel a bit diluted. Zeroing in on one or two aspects of a concept can make a huge impact on your reader. Expressing several aspects can wash it out, making it seem like it doesn’t matter which aspect is presented because they all are. So, even if you have multiple points of view, your story might be more effective if you don’t give everyone’s reactions to every aspect of the story. Instead, focus on what you want your story to convey, and then choose the character that matches that.

Here’s a list of books that I thought used multiple points of view effectively:
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Skin Hunger & Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey
Jekel Loves Hyde by Beth Fantaskey
Across the Universe by Beth Revis
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Blue Plate Special by Michelle Kwasney
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
Looks by Madeleine George
Sliding on the Edge by C. Lee McKenzie


MG Higgins said...

Interesting points. I've never written a story with multiple POVs, but I can see the advantages.

Tabitha said...

Definitely. Bringing in an alternate viewpoint at key moments can have an amazing impact on the reader. I haven't done it (mostly because I don't think I have those skills yet), but I do have a story whirring in the back of my head that might require it. We'll have to see how it plays out though. :)

Anonymous said...

I tried writing multiple POVs once, but ultimately decided not to. I liked the story much better from one MC's POV. Multiple POV can be done well, but it's just not for me.

LM Preston said...

Multiple POV works a lot. Most all romance books are from multiple POVs. Not only that, it can work if done well. I love multple POVs. I've written it, it's fun, but you can't get too carried away, lol!

Vickie Motter said...

Great list! I agree with Shiver and Across the Universe. I was blown away with how well the POVs were done. When it's done well, it invaluable to the story.

Stephanie said...

I think it depends on the genre. I write women's fiction, chick lit, and contemporary romance. For women's fiction and chick lit, I almost always stay in my MC's head. But for romance.....that's completely different. It's nice to be in the hero's POV every now and again. Some authors spend more time in the guy's head than I do. I only hop into his POV occasionally and usually it's only one scene..a short one at that. I think it helps the reader to see the romance budding from both POVs.

If I do switch POV, I make sure the reader knows, without a doubt. That is very important to me. I hate when a story shifts POV and it's not clear.

I once read a story that switched POV at the beginning of every chapter. The author named the chapter with the name of whomever's POV it was. I think they used 4 different people. I liked never got confusing...and it was really great to feel what each character was feeling at different points in the story.

When you only use one POV, you can never show the reader how the other characters are...the reader never really knows them. They only know what the MC tells them about the other characters.

cleemckenzie said...

In Sliding on the Edge, I chose two povs because I wanted to show how a teen and a grandmother could experience the same things and come away with different interpretations.

I did keep those povs separated by chapters, so that structure helped me as a new writer.

Omniscient pov has always intrigued me, but I need more practice before I even think about that.

Joy N. Hensley said...

I am writing one right now with three povs asnd loving every minute of it! So much fun!

Tabitha said...

Kelly - it's tricky. Which is why I haven't done it yet. :) So far, I haven't had a need to tell a story in muliple POVs, but I'll have to cross that bridge eventually. Otherwise there's a story that will have to stay in the back of my head forever. :)

LM - I completely agree. When done well, and multiple POV story can be amazing. The trick is doing it well. :)

Vickie - I thought the POVs on those books were done extremely well. We needed both of their perspectives to get a full understanding of the story. Without one, there would have been this gigantic hole and the story wouldn't have been nearly as compelling.

Tabitha said...

Stephanie - I agree that it can depend on the genre. It can also depend on the story. If another viewpoint will add a layer of richness to the story, then it needs it! :) But I completely agree about making the change clear. I don't like it when the POV changes and there isn't a clue to let me know. I always have to go back and re-read so I can 'hear' the proper voice in my head. :)

Lee - Ack!! I need to add your book to the list because your POVs were so unique and interesting. Yours was the first YA book I read where one of the MCs wasn't a teen. Awesome!

Joy - so glad to hear you're having fun with it! I hope I can eventually feel that way. Right now the whole idea feels too daunting for me to tackle! :)

Catherine Stine said...

Good list. Multiple POVs are sometimes necessary when they convey important information that you wouldn't be able to otherwise, or where you need more than one "camera" on a situation.
The Watcher by James Howe is one of those books. It's my favorite multiple POV book.

Michelle Flick said...

Thanks for the list... my latest WIP may include multiple points of view and I am really nervous that their voices are going to mesh and seem like one instead of two completely separate characters! Thanks!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I think multiple narrators is a device that has become much more common in recent years. And, to be honest, I'd like to see writers rely on it a little less. It is entirely possible to show a character's point of view without jumping into his head and giving his first-person narration--I'd encourage more writers to try it, as a challenge. You can show a character's feelings and attitudes through dialogue, action, gesture, expression.

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.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I've never tried alternate POV's. I agree with Shiver and Across the Universe (I've just started it). And I'd add The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan which has 3 POV characters.

Tabitha said...

Catherine - I haven't read that book. I'll have to check it out! :)

Mflick1 - it's a tricky thing to tackle, and bleeding voices is definitely a downside. So, if it's not working, try focusing on one character and see how that goes. Later on you may discover that you need another viewpoint, and you might have a better idea of how to make it work.

Jenn - I completely agree. I think, for the most part, most stories don't *need* to be told in multiple points of view. There are a few books I've read recently where I wished I'd had only one viewpoint, and one where I felt cheated because of the multiple viewpoints. I think many writers jump into other characters so they can get to know them, which is great. But that doesn't mean those viewpoints belong in the finished work. Like you, I'd prefer to see those non-main characters through body language, gestures, dialog, actions, etc. It's much harder to do, but you usually end up with a much better story.

But stories that need to be told in multiple points of view, like the ones you mentioned, are different. The hard part is looking at your story with enough objectivity to figure out what it needs. :)

Natalie - I *still* haven't read Riordan's books. I need to just sit down and read them already!!! Too many books and not enough time...

Akoss said...

I found myself nodding while reading this. The only time I used multiple povs for a story was because of my plot line. It couldn't work from one pov.

Misha Gerrick said...

I write from multiple pov's, but try to reveal things between certain people only.

What makes it a pain is the fact that I have to either figure out a way to show that every person (even separated) learns the same thing.

Or I have to keep track of what every one of them knows.

But I have a very good reason for each POV I change. I agree that just using it "because" isn't the best way.


Nancy Thompson said...

I could not have told my story without 3 POV though one is very limited. Of 48 chapters, only one has a slight overlap. The other 2 POV, which start out so opposed, crash into one another & share the same experience from what seems like opposite perspectives, but they merge together nicely in the end.

The 2 distinct POV allow me to put all the emotion of both the perpetrator & his innocent victim, switching back & forth every few chapters. And although the story is propelled by two voices, I never jump back in time. That would bog down the momentum considerably. I found it very effective. And I just used their names as chapter headings, making it clear who was speaking.

While writing, I always worried that using multiple POV was a cop out, but I know I made the right decision for my story.

S (Book Purring) said...

Does Shiver contain Linger too? I thought it was one to many, I ended up enjoying the book overall tho. Across the Universe, well it was done well, but at the end it was one sentence Elder then back to Amy for two sentences such waste of paper!