Multiple Narrative Points of View, Part the Second

In the previous post, I discussed why one might choose a multiple point of view narrative over a single point of view.

This part of the discussion covers two questions: how to approach multiple POVs and how to manage them. The first is an esthetic discussion of how one could present multiple POVs. The second is mechanical: how to keep track of all those POVs over a long narrative.

Let’s get started.

How to approach multiple POVs?

There are a bunch of approaches. The ones I’ve seen the most are:

  • Alternating scenes or alternating scene sections: This is where scenes are attributed to specific characters and the scenes are spread across structural components. Multiple scenes from different points of view in the same chapter.
  • Specifically designed sections: All scenes from a particular point of view are collected into a structural component of the work. This can be chapters or parts.
  • Mixed: this approach mixes the point of view in a given scene. This approach can be quite effective but is not terribly common these days as an intentional technique. More often, it’s just a sign of bad writing.

The alternating scene approach is the most common that I’ve seen.

There’s a lot of variations in technique. For example, Danse Mécanique, was in three parts. Part 1 was a close narrative, first person, of one individual. Part 2 was third person, alternating chapters from two different characters. Part 3 was another close narrative, first person, of one individual. All of the points of view were different resulting in four point of view characters.

In Welcome to Witchlandia, I had two point of view characters, first person, David and Katelin. In part 1, I used the alternating scene technique. (Though I used them as chapters. It made the structure cleaner.) In part 2, I stayed on Katelin’s point of view. In part 3, I shifted exclusively to David. In the epilogue, I returned to Katelin.

In House of Birds, I used alternating chapters for Part 1 for two different point of view characters. The chapters were organized around point of view. Then, in Part 2, I organized things differently. I used alternating scenes within the chapters and organized the chapters themselves by time. In Part 3, I stuck to a single point of view for the entire section.

The approaches in all three examples were dictated by what the book was about. In Danse Mécanique, the book was about an AI and its effect on humans. A single point of view wouldn’t have required the main character to continually comment on the changes seen from the AI—it wouldn’t have allowed direct demonstration of those changes. Welcome to Witchlandia was, at its heart, about failed love. Part 1 showed its creation. Part 2 began after the failure. Thus, Part 1 showed both characters. Part 2 followed the effect of that failure on Katelin followed by showing the effect on David. And, yes, it’s also about paranormal human flight.

House of Birds had a similar issue to Danse Mécanique in that it was talking about the effect of non-human beings on humans. That and the terraforming of Venus. Part 1 showed the initial effects. Part 2 showed the adaptation to Venus—hence the shift to organizing by time. Part 3 involved dealing with the finished product.

All of these approaches—and more—are valid techniques and have to be in service of what the work is about.

How to manage multiple POVs?

This is now a discussion of tools.

Multiple character points of view are hard. What’s the balance? Did character A get too much air time? Character B too little. Should the character B’s events being shown be from character A’s pov?

Managing pov characters is a superset of managing characters themselves. There are a plethora of tools for that out there and I won’t go into it. What I’m going to discuss are approaches, techniques, and tools I use to specifically manage multiple pov narratives.

I’ve tried various tools such as scrivener but without much help. I have used the following successfully.

Spreadsheets

Microsoft excel is my friend. I have spreadsheets showing dates and events. What character is the point of view in a given scene.

The book that is currently kicking my ass is an alternating scene approach. I have the following spreadsheets:

  • A character list with a brief description of each and a column showing which is and is not a pov character
  • A map of the parts by point of view characters, showing which scene each one shows up in.
  • A full date map of the book, showing events at specific dates and who is involved
  • A full date for the entire series.

And others that don’t involve characters.

Word

Microsoft word has an excellent feature in the (for Gates known reasons) find pane that shows the header styles: H1, H2, etc. What I’ve done is put the character point of view and the date in the separator of the scene as an h3. This means it shows up in the find pane as if it were part of the table of contents. I can write with it right there. It shows up something like:

  • Chapter x
  •    <1: character A, date>
  •    <2: character B, date>

This gives me a character driven outline of the scenes. When I have a lot of pov characters, I can use this to go scene to scene from character A’s point of view to make sure I’ve covered everything.

However, it only helps for those scenes from that character’s point of view. It doesn’t help when one pov character is imparting information or interacting with another pov character. In the above example, character A might say something important to character B that character B must react to in the following scene.

What I would like is a process that takes a word file and parses it for all character interactions and graph it out for me. Maybe I’ll write one some day.

In lieu of that, I have created what I call interaction diagrams.

Interaction Diagrams

I’m sure other people have something similar. The drawing proceeds from top to bottom indicating progression in time. Various figures show events. Specific icons show specific characters. An arrow is drawing from one character in an event to another character in the same or different event indicating influence, with a notation showing what kind of event.

This is done by hand. I haven’t found a software drawing tool good enough to replace a whiteboard. I tried visio for a while but found it limiting. Any suggestions?

Authors

4 thoughts on “Multiple Narrative Points of View, Part the Second”

  1. Hi, Steven, and thanks for this discussion. I am old-fashioned, and still use those large paper desk calendars for a visual tool with my novels. (Helps if you have 30 or fewer chapters.) Each “day” block is a chapter, and I put one line within it for a very brief summary of each scene, including whose POV. You can see the overall structure and where a character might have dropped out and need an entry. Also good for plot arc visualization.
    And I have to say that I mostly hate it when POV flips around from one person to another within a scene. Very distracting, and feels lazy to me. There are very few exceptions that work, in my book.

  2. If you use multiple first person points of view, make sure their voices are distinctive enough that readers don’t have to double-check the chapter header to tell who it is.

  3. I agree. To me, changing pov means a scene change. Short and simple.
    However, this is a relatively new paradigm. Third person narratives where the pov changes mid-scene (sometimes mid-paragraph) were fairly common throughout the first 1/2 or so of the 20th century and quite common in the 19th century.
    Note, however, that the people we read 150 years (Dickens, Twain, Kipling, etc.) later tend not to do that. They did do something that’s a bit out of style now. The narrator can step in and present something not known to the protagonists. An example of this is the fight scene in Tom Sawyer when the two boys are yelling that they’re big brothers will thrash the other when Twain steps in and notes “Both brothers were imaginary.”
    I tend to think of this as a shifting focus of the third person eye. Close focus sees everything from the pov of the character. Far focus allows the narrator to bring in things not known to the protagonist.
    In one of Niven’s books, he injects the sentence. ” used a word your publisher will cut.”

  4. You explained about the H3 header, “Character A, date” and the problem that if you go through the manuscript following all “character A” headers checking for consistency and completeness, you miss the important information imparted to character A in a “character B, date” scene.

    I wondered, why not expand your header in such instances, to “character B, date, talks to character A”.
    Just when the talk contains essential information!

    Then when you look at your index or search your headers for character A, the crucial information/handing over of the MacGuffin from B to A will still show up in the list.
    You can always take out the extra shorthand-text from the headers in the (nearly) final editing pass, if you’re leaving the H3 headers in.
    Or make them white font on white background, but then if someone switches background and font colors they could reappear when you don’t want them.

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