#5OnFri: Five Tips for Mastering Multiple Points of View

by Bess Cozby
published in Writing

Writing from multiple points of view can be a fantastic way to tell a story, but it can also be a difficult one. Managing multiple story arcs, information and reader experience is tricky enough with just one character! But having different perspectives can also make for a richer reading experience. It’s not right for every story, but when it is right, it can be magic.

Ultimately, the decision to open up beyond just the point of view of the main character is one only the author can make. Here’s a few tips if you’re considering writing from multiple points of view.

1) Map out Each Character’s Plot

Ideally, every major character in a story will have at least a small arc. We love to see characters change and grow, and that applies to the antagonist, the love interest and the supporting characters as well. This is doubly important when writing from multiple points of view. Even though one character will likely emerge as the protagonist, each point of view should have its own full story arc. Otherwise, why are we hearing from this character?

When mapping out the story, it can be helpful to do a full story outline for each POV character. While this takes a lot longer than just mapping out the scenes they narrate, it ultimately will save trouble down the road. If you have a clear sense of each character’s arc individually, it will be easier to weave them all together, and see the places where a scene may be missing or unnecessary.

There are many ways to do this—personally, I like to use notecards, one for each of the fifteen beats described in Save the Cat. However, there are several story structure guides out there. Find the one that works for you!

2) Map Out The Reader’s Experience

One fun aspect of reading multiple points of view is that, as the reader, you may know more than the character on the page at certain points in the story. For example, in Game of Thrones, a young boy, Bran, learns a terrible secret, but is injured and unable to remember it. His father spends most of the book figuring it out—and realizing the devastating consequences it will have for the entire kingdom.

Because reader is already aware of the secret, it’s not really a twist, or an ‘aha!’ moment when the father does realize the truth. However, while the reader already knows the secret, she doesn’t know what the father will do with the information, or what other characters will do to him if they find out he knows it. The reader isn’t in the dark, but she’s still on the edge of her seat.

The reader’s experience in a novel with multiple points of view is, in some senses, its own plot, and one the writer ought to keep track of. As you’re mapping out your scenes and  deciding who will narrate what, keep a timeline of what the reader knows as well. It will save you trouble down the road!

3) Differentiate Between Voices

One of the big risks in novels told from multiple points of view is that the voices of the characters sound too similar. This one may seem obvious, but each character ought to sound unique. After all–each character is unique!

Whether you’re writing in third person or first, a character’s personality and experiences will shape how he or she sees the world. For example, at a banquet, an artist is going to notice things that, say, an architect isn’t. A lady in waiting is going to have a very different experience of a knighting ceremony than a young boy who wants to be a knight. Dig deep into your characters and ask yourself what makes their own perspective unique, and what is the best way to communicate that?

A good rule of thumb: imagine that the chapter titles are not your characters’ names (as is often the case in multiple POV novels). Ask yourself: can the reader tell from the first paragraph, even the first line, who is narrating this chapter? If it’s not obvious quickly, try to dig a bit deeper!

4) Ask Yourself: Is this Point of View Necessary?

Truman Capote said: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” As writers, it is essential for us to be able to edit our own work, and this means cutting things out much more than adding them in. Multiple points of view make a story more complicated, and can distract from the main story. If one isn’t necessary, the best solution is probably to cut it out entirely.

Determining whether or not a point of view is essential can be tricky–especially for a writer that is super close to the work. One process that can help to determine if a point of view is necessary is to cut it out, and see if the story holds up. Or ask yourself if the events that happen in one characters’ point of view must come from his or her perspective. Not every character that has a major arc needs to tell the story himself. Ask yourself: why do we need to see this set of scenes from this point of view? If it’s not necessary, consider trimming, and giving those scenes to another character.

5) Use Multiple Points of View as a Writing Exercise

Whether or not you end up using every point of view your write in, jumping inside a character’s head and seeing how he or she views the scenes and characters in the book can be a valuable exercise. Every character is the hero of his or her own story–even if they aren’t the hero of the particular story you’re writing. Getting a deeper understanding of what makes them tick can be useful for fleshing out your story’s world.

One of the most valuable characters to understand is your story’s antagonist. Try writing from his or her perspective, seeing the hero through the lens of someone who may not particularly like said hero. It’s not only useful–it can be really fun! And lead to a much deeper and richer story overall.

What are some tricks you use to make your multiple point of view story work?


IMG_4628Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at bess@diymfa.com, or visit her website at www.besscozby.com.

  • You would think that writing in multiple POV wouldn’t be as difficult as it is, but it needs to be done the right way. Your tips here are perfect. I definitely run into trouble with characters sounding the same and one of the things that works for me is to pick a few scenes and write them from the POV of a few different characters. It helps me differentiate between each of the characters see things and also helps me get more insider their heads.

    A couple of things to look out for, make sure their is no head-hopping (stick to one POV for each scene) and in short fiction (say, < 5000) I wouldn't recommend multiple POVs at all, unless it's really vital to the story.

    Great post and I hope you're having an awesome 2017 so far!

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