Remember the improve comedy TV show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’? Well, Colin, Ryan, Wayne and Drew popped into my head recently as I moved from one POV in my MS to another during the editing process.
|Picture Courtesy of ShareTV.com|
We’ve seen, read and experienced POV shifts in novels, but when it comes to actually writing those shifts, we sometimes find ourselves a little worried about whether or not those shifts of POV are working. Personally, my MS shifts between first-person POV – told from my protagonist’s POV for about 85% of the story – to third-person POV – as a way to both help move the plot forward (since there are some fairly major steps taken by characters other than the MC) and help the reader along in understanding the ‘supporting cast’ of the story. I know, I know….shifting from first to third must be ‘handled with care’ and while it’s great in theory, it doesn’t necessarily work. But that’ll be for my beta readers to decide. Any takers? J If I need to re-write everything in third, then that’s what I’ll do. *Side note: the last novel I read that shifts from first to third – very sparingly – and handled it beautifully was ‘A Discovery of Witches’ by Deborah Harkness. I highly recommend this book to everyone I meet.
So what is ‘handling with care’ when it comes to POV shifts?
- White space and astericks are your best friend!Chapter or scene breaks are my personal go-to device when it comes to moving the focus from the MC to another character. Normally when we see POV shifts, we’re also experiencing scene changes (There are rare situations where two POV’s are told for the same scene, but let’s just stick with the basics today), so naturally a scene or chapter break is going to be used. White space and/or asterisks are your best friend when breaking and/or shifting! I hate reading and enjoying a scene when out of nowhere, without warning, the next sentence starts another scene entirely from a different character’s POV and you’re left standing in the middle of a dark hall thinking “Um….what just happened here??”. Having white space or asterisks lets the reader know you’re about to take a right turn at the next corner…gives them a map, so to speak.
- Let the story/characters decide ‘Whose Line’. In my case, I have a first-person protagonist, so any scene that entails both her and multiple characters is going to be told from her POV. But if you’re writing in third and you’ve come to a point where two or more of your characters have found themselves together in a scene, let the story and/or characters decide who’s going to narrate. Maybe the MC should? Maybe the most opinionated of the crew should? Let them decide and follow your gut on this one. The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work like it should so you search for another character/angle to tell the scene from then re-write. We’re writers….this is what we do best! :0)
- Find the unique voice in each POV you’re writing. Let me ask you a question: How would you feel if all of your friends, colleagues, family, or critique partners had the same voice as you?? You’d get a little bored with your day to day conversations wouldn’t you? So will the reader. If every character they’re following sees the world the same, reacts the same, feels the same, etc. then you will have lost your reader. Sometimes you’ll lose them before they really get a chance to dive into the heart of your story. Use your friends, family and colleagues as inspiration. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they see the world or how they might react and/or feel about a particular action or problem. Just keep in mind that you’ll be doing that for research so any heated debates and/or arguments you subsequently enter into cannot be blamed on me. :0)
- The protagonist rules all! Create a chain of command when it comes to your storytellers. Start with your protagonist as the ‘Colonel’. As such, 80-90% of the story is going to be told by them. With the rest of your characters, a.k.a. the ‘Soldiers’, be selective in deciding who’s going to be the best at storytelling and moving the story along. Then decide on what % of page time they can actually have. Too many storytellers are extremely annoying, especially when the story is supposed to be about one character’s journey, yet it’s being told by too many other people with too many opinions. One of the ways I’ve seen this done successfully is by Jodi Piccoult, as her stories are told by many first-person narrators and I personally believe she is one of the exceptions to this rule. Just as Soldiers should report to their Colonel and the Colonel report to the General, supporting characters should follow the lead and allow your MC to take charge in reporting the story to the reader. Only when needed – and sparingly – should a Soldier report directly to the General.
- There is strength in small numbers. When starting to write a story with multiple POV, it’s important to decide how many different POV’s your willing to allow. The higher the number, the higher the difficulty in keeping up with their individual voices, quirks, opinions, and actions. And not just for you, but your readers. Keep unnecessary voices out of your story…especially if their voice doesn’t help move the plot along. Even if they have an opinion relevant to your story, find another way to incorporate it — a simple conversation with another character whose POV is being told will suffice.
These tips for handling multiple POV’s with care are only the tip of the iceberg. There are gobs and gobs of information out there on this topic alone. These are some of the personal tips that I’ve put together based on my own writing experience.
What about you? Do you enjoy reading and/or writing multiple POV’s? If so, what do you find most attractive about this style of writing? Do you have any tips on writing multiple POV’s you’d like to share? Have you read any books lately that have shifted POV’s so seamlessly that the story was enjoyable?