Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good reasons for multiple POV

JewelTones said...
Alicia, the topic of switching POVs in the same scene is a touchy one and I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference between shifting those POVs for "a good reason" in a scene vs. head hopping and and those "good reasons" are. I get into arguments about this all the time with my fellow writing friends. I tend to be a one POV per scene kind of girl, but I've been known to shift halfway through and slide into another (say from hero to heroine) for the rest of the scene. Some argue such "hopping" is their style. So how do you try to distinguish between a shift for a reason/doing it well vs. rampant shifting?

I also tend to be a single-POV type of gal, but some of my favorite writers are multiple POV writers, so I have to admit-- that can be done well. (I also have to say this-- it's discussed in my Writer's Digest book. :)

First, let's distinguish between omniscient and multiple POV. Omniscient can shift from mind to mind, but with omniscient, there is a controlling "above" narration, a mentality (not necessarily a person or the author) which knows more than the characters individually or collectively know. Most non-first-person British stories in the 19th century used omniscient point of view ("IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man nay be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of heir daughters."), perhaps because of the Victorian reverence for authority-- the omniscient point of view is all about authority.

But the multiple point of view doesn't have that controlling overall authority. The narration is always in the head of one character or another. All the information and knowledge and perceptions of the narration come from the characters-- there's nothing (in the multiple POV passages-- there is nothing wrong with omniscient passages, especially at the beginning and end of scenes... remember, the only rule is, it works if it works... just know if it works) that is "above" or "inserted" from a more knowledgeable non-character. This makes it like single-POV, that is, the narration is confined to the character immediately in viewpoint (just in single-POV, it's just in one character).

Now your question is what are good reasons for using multiple POV.
1) Let's start with the biggie: It's right for you. It's the way you think. It's your natural POV.
I can't stress that enough. You have to write from your own mind, and if you naturally write in multiple POV, why fight it? Better to just do it really well so readers and editors will get a great experience. Now that most people grow up not just reading but watching TV and film (which are usually in multiple POV, if they can be said to have POV), it's not at all "wrong" that the more visual writers, the ones more cinematic in their mentality, are likely to write in multiple. Go with it-- just do it well. And ignore all those single-POV puritans who act like you're sinning. You're having more fun. However, the natural-multiple writer is likely to become a headhopper if he/she doesn't understand POV and its power when controlled.

2) So that's the best reason, that it's your natural approach. But there are other reasons, and even naturally-single writers can occasionally use multiple to their advantage. Second good reason-- to juxtapose the understanding or perceptions of different characters. This is one of those LESS IS MORE situations, by the way. If you're constantly switching from one character to another to show, for example, that Joe loves the curry and Mary hates it, it's just going to feel incoherent and bipolar. But if you want to juxtapose something interesting and important, to show that two characters have different understandings of the current reality, multiple is a great way to go. For example, I am working on a scene where the protagonist and his best friend see a couple walking hand in hand. The protagonist has a secret crush on the lady in the couple, but the best friend assumes his interest has to do with the illegal activities of the young man. Switching from Pro (who is longing for the lady) to the the clueless best friend not only shows the difference in their understanding, but also something about their relationship-- Best Friend might not know Pro as well as they think, and Pro might not trust Best Friend all that much. I thought it might be even more interesting to have the best friend cavalierly point out that he's surprised that a cool dude like the young man is wasting his time with the lady, because she isn't very pretty. This of course is going to get some reaction from Pro, but I've given him reason not to be honest about his feelings. So I might consider switching to his POV to show his internal conflict-- he wants to slug his best friend for dissing the lady. Then again, I might stay in the best friend's POV and show him misunderstanding yet again, this time interpreting the Pro's sudden tension as evidence of fear of the illegal guy. Anyway, juxtaposition will show the difference in knowledge and in perspective in a vivid way.

3)This is related -- multiple POV allows more perspectives in crowd scenes, such as, oh, to be timely, a group of disparate people watching the inauguration. The old civil rights worker who never thought she'd live to see this day will have a different reaction than the McCain voter who thinks the country made the wrong choice and the snarky ironist who is contemptuous of all the enthusiasm around him. Now of course it has to be important and worthwhile to "sample" all these different perspectives. But if you have decided you want this, it's much more efficient to do it in multiple than to have a scene-shift with each shift in perspective, that is, show the whole event from the civil rights worker's perspective, then do another version of a scene from the next perspective, etc. That method-- single-POV multi-scene-- is bound to get repetitive. This sort of "crowd control," btw, can be used effectively in some comic scenes, to show how different characters apprehend what's going on.

4) Multiple POV can be useful in controlling larger settings or multiple settings. Actually, I tend to think that when you shift from one setting to another, you're probably starting a new scene, but going with multiple POV will allow for more expeditious narration of events happening at the same time in different places. This is almost impossible to do effectively in single POV (we generally have to bypass the multiple-event challenge with some single-POV trick), but it can produce tense scenes and a lot of action. Perspective can shift whenever action starts to lag.

5) POV-shifts can delay gratification to create suspense. This is not about shifting to a new POV in order to give a trivial, momentarily spurt of gratification, but actually shifting AWAY from one character so you can hide something (like a reaction or a thought) that later will be revealed in a different way. That is, POV-shifting can be a form of information control, keeping something from the reader without cheating (as it might be sort of cheating to stay in the character's POV and not report some thought or reaction).

Those are just a few good reasons. But really, the truth is, you don't generally choose your POV-- it's a reflection of your own approach to writing and the kind of stories you choose to write. That is, it's all connected. If you're naturally interested in stories with a lot of action and multiple settings, you're probably just not likely to be a single-POV writer. I'd also suggest that the worldview that inspires writers to tend naturally to POV will differ. Single-POV writers are more likely to think that what's important is how reality is perceived and experienced inside a character, while (I think) multiple-POV writers are more suspicious, perhaps, that reality is an absolute-- rather believing that only by getting a collage of different versions can the reader begin to understand what's really going on.

Now... headhopping can't be dignified with an assumption of its worldview. It offers no worldview beyond chaos. Headhopping isn't about control, suspense, reader experience, character exploration. It's all about instant gratification for the WRITER, and just on those grounds, it should be rejected by good writers. (Good writers should be far, far more concerned with the READER.)

However, multiple POV by definition isn't headhopping. It's the controlled and purposeful presentation of more than one viewpoint on an event. Each shift should give the reader some benefit from the transfer into a new mind. And while I'm not saying you should always be conscious and analytical about everything you do as a writer, I do think that after you write a passage, you should probably be able to elucidate why you made each shift-- in retrospect, what the purpose of this shift is. (And if you can't make a case for it, I'd suggest reconsidering the shift.) That is, go with your inspiration, ride the wave, write the wave-- but when you revise, get analytical. Maximize the power of shifting by minimizing the occasions-- Less is more. Shift because you need to in order to create an effect, not just because it feels good.

So multiple POV gives me more options for scene presentation, but of course also more responsibility to know what effect I want to have on the reader and how best to attain that.



Julie Harrington said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! That's a fabulous explaination and helped me tremendously. :) #5 is one of my favorite reasons for shifting POV, by the way. I love being able to hide things or toss a red herring in there by having someone mislead via reaction/intepretation or to keep the reader from knowing what a certain character knows until I'm ready for that. I find that lots of fun, but also playing fair with the reader. Nothing worse than "cheating" imo.

I don't mind a multiple POV story. I think it lends a lot, actually, so the problem (in discussion of writing at any rate) usually comes in when the line between multiple POV and headhopping comes into play.

I really liked the distinction made between the two and think that clears up everything for me (and hopefully anybody else who gets snagged in the quagmire of that debate).

Headhopping isn't about control, suspense, reader experience, character exploration. It's all about instant gratification for the WRITER, and just on those grounds, it should be rejected by good writers.


It's [multiple POV]the controlled and purposeful presentation of more than one viewpoint on an event. Each shift should give the reader some benefit from the transfer into a new mind.

And I think that's where my sticking point sticks. The purposeful presentation. I think we all catch ourselves accidentally wording something in a way that it could be taken as a POV switch. Heck, I know I'm not perfect. I've done it, but it's pretty easy to fix and avoid too. I think the real problem comes in when writers don't understand *why* it's considered a switch or don't get what a switch "is"... and then the debate is on.

So essentially what prevents POV from ecoming headhopping is intent, purpose, and control.

"Instant gratification for the writer." I like that description for headhopping. Thank you so much!


Anonymous said...

POV is always an interesting discussion and this is another good one. I use multiple POV with switches between scenes rather than within. I find that the contrast of character motivation is exposed easier in this way, while still moving the story forward.

I also used quick switching with short scenes of only a few short paras when a group of characters in different locations and with different relationships to the main character who is the center of the action at that point -- in the batter's box about to hit the winning run of a championship baseball game -- to stretch it out, to show the differences of their interest [father, friends, girlfriend's mother, team sponsor, etc.] and to heighten the tension. Have no idea if I did it well, but that was the intent.

But I've gone off switching Pov within a scene after working through The Fountainhead, written back in the 30s. The story is densely descriptive, without adding the bouncing around that Rand has done as well. Good story that could have been better written, in my opinion.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think headhopping was pretty popular in that time, probably partly a reaction to the narrow focus of the modernist novels. Single-third and first-person assume that the individual psyche is of paramount importance (to the novel, not necessarily to the world), and so novels that examine society and social interactions probably need a more open approach.

I never did get the appeal of Fountainhead on any level, actually. But then, I was born a liberal, I think. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, I had to grow into becoming a socialist! I grew up in Indiana where conservative and individualism were prised. I remember liking that book but more Atlas Shrugged, which is more about weak government as I recall, whereas Fountainhead is more about bizarre views of the value of humans, especially able ones. It's full of people with weak characters.

I just looked her up on wikipedia and saw that she was Russian born, so her anti-communism is understandable, if extreme. I was surprised to see her identified as a writer only. I would have taken her to be a disenchanted economist or a rabid politician who decided to try their hand at writing. But your point about the writers of the time is probably right, and probably why today I have trouble reading them.

Anonymous said...

But really, the truth is, you don't generally choose your POV-- it's a reflection of your own approach to writing and the kind of stories you choose to write. That is, it's all connected.

This part hit home for me. I've had a terrible time staying with one viewpoint while writing in third. The stories are such that third doesn't even seem to emcompass them.

When I started my WIP, I was having a terrible time deciding on viewpoint. I traditionally write in third, but the category is commonly in first. So I was going back and forth. I took a viewpoint workshop where we tried omniscient. My story suddenly came together in a way it hadn't before; omniscient was what it needed.

Since then, though, I've had writers greet the viewpoint with disapproval (not because I'm doing it badly but because they're not comfortable with it). They've even told me I should switch back and don't seem to get the concept that I didn't just decide I was going to do a story in omniscient. The story wanted it.

Edittorrent said...

Garridan, exactly-- different stories need different POV approaches. I do think we tend to want to write certain stories, and so we might specialize in a particular approach because that's what we're attracted to and because that's what works for the sort of story we are attracted to.

There's a good reason why omniscient is so predominant in the Victorian era, the time of the great social novels. Omniscient is very effective in corraling big casts and in presenting a comprehensive worldview. Stick to your guns. Omniscient is far from dead-- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is a recent "big book" done in omniscient. And the Lemony Snicket books (amazing children's books) are done in an omniscient as controlling as Trollope's-- more!

Ian can tell you more-- he writes sf-- but I have noticed that omniscient is common in sf, and in horror and suspense too. Mysteries that aren't in first-person are often in omniscient.
I think you've figured out what works for you and this story, and that is more than most of us do! So you've chosen the right approach, or maybe it's chosen you. :)


Anonymous said...

I have passed by more than once, since a friend recommended this site, and not left comments. I was compelled to thank you for laying out the case for multiple POVs and Omni. As a writer who naturally wrote in that style from the outset, and actually was derailed for a while from a style I got compliments on from better writers, I appreciate your words of wisdom and encouragement.

I chose to believe misguided single POV lovers who insisted I was head-hopping, until a published author showed me the light. After that, I did extensive reading up on published works and texts regarding POV, and now I try to give back by helping other new writers I meet find their own way, without being derailed by misguided comments that do more harm than good.

Sometimes those same writers, having been put upon for so long, doubted my information. One specifically asked me if your site had ever verified that. Now I can certainly direct them to you. Thank you for your concise clearly explained position.

Edittorrent said...

RS, we should compile a list of books where multiple is done well, and have that ready to thrust at those who assume anything but single POV is headhopping!

I'd say most of Susan Elizabeth Phillips's books use multiple POV and sometimes omniscient.

David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars is mostly a contemporary omniscient, but uses multiple too.


@GeekWillow said...

I'm new to this blog, but I really enjoyed this post.

My natural voice is to write in first person, but I respect authors who are able to write in other POVs. I wish that I was able to construct a story in my head with multiple perspectives throughout, but it just never comes out right when I try. I think that I enjoy exploiting my main character's ability to misinterpret situations too much.

Head-hopping to me is when the author changes perspective too quickly and in such a way that the reader has trouble distinguishing whose head they're in. Multiple POV is simple that- the story is told from the perspective of multiple characters.

Again, great post!

Edittorrent said...

Willow, first person has its own interesting aspects! But at least you're never tempted to head hop in first person.

First person to me seems actually closely linked to single-third, in the sense that we're confining ourselves to one perspective on the scene. The inner reality is highlighted then?

Pinar Tarhan said...


I guess I am a bit late for commenting but I just found the post- and I really needed it.

I am trying to write a novel - and while it is a romantic/drama, I just can't go with the most popular choice of first person pov or the third-person limited pov where the writer is almost only concerned with the female protagonist.

I have two main characters. Both are equally intense and passionate. Not just about each other, but about what they believe in. I need the reader to hear from both of them.

I just feel more comfortable using multiple POVs after reading this. So thanks:)