Point of View Shifts in Writing: Proceed with Caution

Should the story come from one character’s point of view, or more than one? When handled well, this technique can be extremely effective, fluid. When handled poorly, it can end in disaster. Creative writing instructor and author Traci Borum explains.
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“Which character tells the story?” That’s a crucial character question writers must ask themselves in the planning stages of any novel. It’s usually followed by, “Should the story come from one character’s point of view or more than one?” A tricky question, because incorporating multiple points of view can be a bit like juggling plates. Each character is tossed into the air for a brief time, highlighted, then another one takes its place. When handled well, this technique can be extremely effective, fluid. When handled poorly, it can end in disaster (plates crashing to the ground).

(Third-Person Limited: Analyzing Fiction's Most Flexible Point of View)

However, if two important factors are considered, the results can be successful.

Point of View Shifts in Writing: Proceed with Caution

1) The “Transition” Factor

If not handled deftly, hopping back and forth between characters’ POVs (especially in the same scene!) can become jarring. I once read a novel that offered one character’s POV for the first several chapters. As a reader, I settled in to know this character’s thoughts, became accustomed to the way her mind worked. Then—the phone rang. The character picked up the receiver and was given some tragic news. And when she hung up, WHAM! The reader was suddenly thrust into the other character’s mind (from the other end of the line). Huh?

There was absolutely no transition, no hint that the POV was about to shift in a major way. In fact, it was so jarring that I had to re-read the paragraph a couple of times for clarification. Even worse, I kept wondering how the other character—the one I'd spent so much time with—was reacting at that very moment. I wanted to jump back into the main character’s POV again. I'd invested all these hours with her, and I didn't care about this new character, this complete stranger. I felt frustrated, cheated. So cheated, in fact, that I quit reading altogether. I knew if the author used that confusing technique once, she would likely use it again.

On the other hand, Elin Hilderbrand’s novel is a strong example of how multiple POVs can enhance a story. In The Island, Ms. Hilderbrand first allows readers to see one character's point of view. Then, when we know that character well, the POV shifts to a different character. But—it's done so effortlessly that it feels natural. To avoid any confusion, the author gives a full break in-text, then offers the name of the upcoming character as a chapter heading. The reader is fully prepared for the shift before it occurs.

Point of View Shifts in Writing: Proceed with Caution

2) The “Intimacy” Factor

If a reader spends only brief fragments of time with several different characters (rather than long periods of time with only one character), it stands to reason that the reader ends up knowing several characters slightly, rather than intimately.

I’ll use television as an example. Two of my favorite TV shows from the ’80s used an “ensemble” feel as a vehicle for storytelling. One was the extremely popular ER, and the other was the not-as-popular Thirtysomething.

For me, ER wasn’t as successful as Thirtysomething in terms of acquainting the audience intimately with the main characters. Although ER episodes did manage to present substantive character development, they did so in quick bursts (usually scattered between medical cases containing characters we would never see again). Granted, the fast pace and content of ER didn’t lend itself to as much in-depth characterization as other shows. But it still left me wanting more.

In contrast, Thirtysomething incorporated a technique that became highly effective. Instead of having all ensemble characters make brief appearances in every episode—much like ER did—the writers typically devoted an entire episode to one or two characters only. And during those fifty minutes, the audience became well-acquainted with them, simply by spending more time in their presence. We got to see Eliot at work struggling in his job, then later at home, struggling in his marriage. Or Melissa, dealing with singlehood as well as her flailing career. The viewers’ focus wasn’t divided by other characters (or distracting storylines) during that particular episode. So, we were able to know those core characters intimately. Consequently, whenever the ensemble would congregate together in one scene, we knew each character so well that the dynamics between them crackled with energy and tension.

(Writing Multiple Timelines and Points of View)

*****

In the end, when deciding to use multiple POVs, take your story into account. Would the plot and characters be better served by using multiple POVs or a single one? Then, study the technique. Read novels that handle multiple POVs and learn from them (both where the technique succeeds and also where it fails. There’s much to be gained from observing what doesn’t work).

Whatever your decision, being aware of the successes and pitfalls of using multiple POVs can expand your writing choices. And that’s never a bad thing!

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