Multiple POVs: Balance, Pacing, and Voice

It’s time for my yearly post where I give people who attended my Storymakers class some resources! The following is pretty much the entire class I taught on how to write from multiple perspectives.

Class description:

Many stories require multiple points of view, but writing them often feels like trying to piece together one puzzle from two (or three, or ten) different boxes. In this class, we’ll discuss how much page space to dedicate to each POV, how to keep the plot moving forward between constantly shifting perspectives, and how to give each character their own, distinct voice.

 

BEFORE YOU WRITE:

  • Why do you want to write a multi-POV story? What effect are you trying to achieve that you can’t with a story written from a single perspective? Some benefits of a multi-POV story include:
    • Versatility in how you present theme.
      • It’s easy to create character foils and set up ironic plot twists.
      • Some of the best books, IMO, are multi-POV stories where each character explores a different facet of the theme. Say you want to explore forgiveness. You can have one POV character who needs to forgive, one who needs to BE forgiven, one who withholds forgiveness, etc. Exploring how each character interacts with the theme allows for a far more complete examination of the theme as a whole than you could do in a book written from only one of those perspectives.
    • If you want to create a “grand puzzle” that gives each character a vital piece of knowledge, so they can’t see the whole picture but the readers can. This allows you to create tension from readers wondering when POVs will converge and when the characters will realize how large the problem really is and/or how they can solve it.
  • How many POVs?
    • What is the scope of the story you’re trying to tell?
      • Smaller-scale, intimate stories don’t require multiple POVs, because they’re about a person—though I suppose if you’re doing some kind of intricate building-up of that person’s character from several perspectives, you could have multiple POVs. However, that’s going to have a very different, disconnected feel as opposed to a story told about someone from only their perspective.
      • Stories about a large-scale event or conflict (war, etc.) are great for multiple POV ensemble casts because they allow you to present a more complete picture of what’s going on, what the world is like from different angles (socioeconomic statues, gender roles, etc.). The greater the scale of the conflict, the higher number of POVs you can get away with.
      • A good rule of thumb is this: your story should not feel OVERCROWDED. Each new POV character added inherently increases the complexity of your story, because they come with a whole new set of side-characters (their families, friends, enemies, etc.) and cultural/socioeconomic/etc. circumstances that you’ll have to grapple. Each character added means more details to keep track of, as well as the added complexity of keeping everyone on the same timeline—which can be more difficult that you think.
    • So you’ve created a cast of characters and you know the story will be told by a handful of them. Which characters should have a POV?
      • The most fundamental thing to ask yourself will be: who is this story about?
        • If, for example, you have a romance where only one of the characters truly has to learn and grow to be ready for love, that story is probably a single POV story told by that character. However, if you have a romance where both characters have struggles to overcome before they can find love, that story is about both of those characters and would be well-suited for two points of view.
        • In the same vein, if you have a story about a small group of rebels who need to unseat a pretender-king, but each rebel has their own goals and reasons for being there, as well as different perspectives on the world that build it out and make it feel real (maybe one is the true prince, one is a peasant-turned warrior whose parents died under the pretender’s tyrannical regime), you could choose those few of them who have the most to add or the most at stake and make them all POV characters—as well as the pretender-king. Or, as a twist, perhaps the POV character is the pretender-king’s wife, whose machinations are the true reason he’s in power. Or maybe you have a guard who works for the king and has a change of heart part-way through and becomes a rebel, too.
      • Does this character have their own story/character arc? Does this character push on the plot in a meaningful way?
        • “They’re interesting and cool” is NOT a reason to give a character a point of view.
        • In a video I watched, George RR Martin was asked how he decided which of his enormous cast of characters should have a POV. He said, “they must have their own story.” Even if it’s a short story—because some of them die after a chapter—they still have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
        • A POV character must be more than a pair of eyes. If something happens and there’s no POV character in a place to see it, don’t make a new one just so the even can be witnessed. Have the even reported by a side character who did see it or have the main characters hear it as a rumor. If the event is a big deal and the full drama of it needs to happen “on stage,” seriously consider restructuring your plot so a POV character can witness it before adding a whole new POV.
        • If you aren’t sure if a character plays a large enough part in the overall story to merit being a POV character, ask yourself: do they have their own conflict? Their own goals? Motivations? And, very importantly, do they make choices throughout the narrative that moves the plot forward?
      • Outlining a multi-POV story: some practical advice
        • Outline each character’s OWN story separately, in their own outlines
        • Once that’s done, weave the outlines together and untangle any timeline or cause-and-effect issues you see.

 

BALANCE: How much should each character narrate, and when should they do it?

  • How much page space to dedicate to each POV character?
    • Who is pushing on the plot the most? The character who is carrying the most dramatic weight/doing the most lifting in the plot deserves the most page space.
      • These characters should also have the richest internal conflicts and be the most well-fleshed out.
      • Main characters naturally end up with the most page space. If they don’t, you may want to rethink who your story is about, and/or who your most interesting and engaging characters are.
    • Structure: how to rotate through multiple POVs?
      • Rigid structure: characters appear in a certain order
        • This can be done, but I believe it requires detailed outlining and very fine balance of story.
        • I’ve found when I try to write this way, I end up with filler because it’s someone’s “turn” even though they aren’t the ones carrying the dramatic weight of the story in that moment.
      • As-needed
        • I’ve found it’s best to let the story “tell” me who should “speak” next by following the natural tension in the plot and character arcs. If you’re set on having a rigid POV structure, it might be best to relax during the first draft and let things come as they will.
        • You can always rearrange in rewrites.
      • Who should be the POV character in a given scene?
        • Who’s carrying the dramatic weight of that scene? Who is it about?
          • Not who is doing the most action, but who is carrying the dramatic weight. If you have two characters talking and a third who’s silent but about to have a paradigm-shifting realization due to the content of the conversation they’re overhearing, the scene should be from the POV of that third character.
        • Have the character do the thing you need them to do in that moment of storytelling—no more, no less—and move on.
        • Sometimes, you’ll write a scene from one POV and it won’t feel right. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting. If one character doesn’t work, try writing the scene from the perspective of another who is present.
          • However, DO NOT REWRITE THE SAME EVENTS MULTIPLE TIMES IN DIFFERENT POVS. IT WILL COMPLETELY STAGNATE THE FORWARD MOMENTUM OF YOUR STORY.
          • Though if this is the entire structure/point of your story, you can probably pull it off. But just as a random moment in an otherwise chronologically told story, my opinion is don’t do it.

PACING: How to keep the plot moving forward between shifting perspectives.

  • One of the drawbacks of multi-POV stories is that their complexity can lead to lack of clarity. The last thing you want is for your readers to feel lost or confused. Lost readers cannot feel forward momentum in a story. Here are a few ways to keep your story moving smoothly forward:
    • Use chapter breaks when switching voices. If you can’t use chapter breaks, use labeled scene breaks. DO NOT SWITCH BACK AND FORTH WITHIN SCENES, THAT’S HEAD-HOPPING.
    • Keep your timelines absolutely clear. If at all possible (make it possible), somewhere in the first paragraph or two each new POV, establish where and when you are relative to the end of the last point of view so the reader is always oriented within the timeline and geographical space of your story.
  • Make sure that your chain of cause and effect is clear, and that—even though you have different characters narrating—each scene builds on the one that came before. You can do this in a few ways.
    • Logic (we know about the trap the bad guy has set up, now let’s switch to the good guys to see if they fall into it)
    • Theme (we just saw the arrogant character fail and learn something, now let’s switch to the character with low self-esteem succeeding as a foil/reversal)
    • Direct cause and effect (the good guys fell into the trap, now let’s switch to the neutral 3rd party and see how they react when the good guys fail to show).
  • Keep scene and sequel in mind
    • Don’t fall into the trap of having all the scenes in one POV and all the sequels in another, this will make one character’s POV feel inherently more exciting than the others’. Make sure you’re exploring each character in a variety of situations (action, reaction, reflection, etc.)
  • Be clear in your own mind about what each character knows and does not know, as what they do or don’t know affects the way they make decisions, which in turn affects the plot and how it progresses.
    • Great tension can come from readers knowing more than characters do. However, great frustration can come from this, as well. While your characters should only know what they know, make sure they aren’t too dumb to draw obvious conclusions.

 

VOICE: Developing a distinct voice for each character.

  • This can be a huge challenge—perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing writers of multi-POV books, but it goes without saying that readers should not have to flip back to the beginning of the chapter to figure out who’s speaking.
    • When you’re only writing in one perspective, it’s easy to use your natural voice and style, because there’s nothing to compare it to. However, as soon as you have multiple POVs, readers will naturally compare them with each other. I’ve DNF’d more than one book because characters sounded exactly the same.
      • The closer the perspective, the more pressure there is on the author to create a unique voice. A book with a 3rd person omniscient narrator is technically writing from one POV (the narrator’s) and therefore doesn’t need to differentiate.
      • Limited 3rd should show some difference, and close 3rd should show great difference and uniqueness.
      • 1st person—it should ALWAYS feel like there are two distinct people speaking, thinking, etc.
    • Not only is this good writing practice in general, as characters with distinct voices tend to be more fleshed out, but it will help readers keep characters straight in their mind.
  • Read books written in multiple POVs to see a variety of ways they can be done well.
  • Using different perspectives (first or third person) or tenses is one way to differentiate POVs. It’s a strong stylistic choice, and not one I like very much. However, it is an option for those of you who enjoy it.
  • Things to focus on when creating your characters’ voices:
    • Dialect – where were they raised, and how does that affect how they speak?
    • Idiolect – what are some of this person’s particular idiosyncrasies as far as the words they speak, phrases they use, and how they form sentences?
    • Vocabulary – usually reflects intelligence and/or level of education. If a character uses a larger or smaller vocabulary than they should, this can be very telling
    • Gender – typically, gender has a huge impact on how we speak. Women tend to focus on emotions and keeping the balance of power in conversation equal, which means they use a lot of qualifying words and apologies, whereas men seek conversational power and use a lot of declarative sentences without using softening qualifiers.
    • Life experience – where is this person from, what do they like, and what do they do? Imagery and metaphor are often drawn from these, and they can also shape world-view. For example, geography can determine political leanings or what’s considered polite. — NOTE: How this affects voice could be the topic of its own course of study. I suggest you do tons of research and pondering. I just don’t have the space or time to address it here.
    • Remember—every human being inhabits a slightly (or vastly) different world than every other, and that shapes us. Allow your characters take on different shapes based on their world.
  • A couple more tips
    • I’m an auditory person, it helps if I can actually “hear” the voice in my head. Sometimes I’ll pick an existing character from TV or a movie who has a similar voice to the one I’m going for and experiment by trying to write in their voice.
    • We all have a handful of writing quirks we lean on (one of mine is repeating the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next for emphasis, another is listing things in threes). Spread them out between characters.
    • I found a YouTube video with a link to a very helpful source. The video is called “Writing in Multiple Perspectives (Developing Voice).”  She talks in a little more detail about the particulars of creating distinct voice, but even more helpful, in the description there’s a link to a paper which has a list of different aspects of voice to help you develop a distinct one for each character. I’d encourage you to grab one. If you don’t understand the terms used, it’s pretty easy to google the definitions.

REVISION

  • There’s one final thing I want to throw in here before we wrap up, and that’s just a few tips on how to revise a book written in multiple POVs.
    • Color coding is your friend. If you feel like the POV chapters in your story are out of balance, consider listing each scene on a different colored notecard and putting them up on a wall or something. You can see how often each character is getting a POV scene and if the balance needs to be tweaked somehow.
      • Scrivener (a novel-writing software) can help with this, but I find its corkboard feature insufficient for this purpose. I like full-color cards I can move around easily and write all over (also in different colors).
    • Something else I’ve done is print my manuscript and color code the edges of the pages depending on whose scene it was, which gave me a much better visual representation of the page space each person was getting. However, that was expensive and time-consuming, so you may want to only do it as a last resort.
    • Another thing I’ve found very helpful is to sort the manuscript by POV and do an editing pass specifically to make sure that they’re consistent and that the voice is solid.
    • I also do an edit specifically for timeline, to make sure that everything is matching up how it should.

 

So that’s it! Thanks for coming to my class if you were there, and if you’ve stumbled on this post after the fact, I hope it was helpful!

 

About Caitlyn McFarland

Mom of three girls, writer of fantasy novels.
This entry was posted in Books, Path to Publication, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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