Posted Sat, 04/07/12
In the post Writing Doo-Dads from last month, I touched on my feelings about POV (point of view) in writing whereby a story unfolds told from the viewpoint of one or multiple characters:
I was particularly drawn to Mary McCarthy's quote about POV being a technical issue that is "killing to the novel." While multiple points-of-view can be confusing and unreadable, switching the mind set between a few characters in one scene simply adds to the story if it is well-written.
What opinions do people have of the use of multiple first person narrative, i.e. two or more persons telling the story in the first person, and of mixed first and third person narrative?
The responses were varied, but interesting:
Though I'm a third-person kind of gal, I think the multiple POVs technique can be terrific. Among other things, they can reveal a disparity in perception about an ongoing plot. It has to be skillfully done. Would have to employ a different style with each narrative, but it could be lots of fun for reader and writer. (Pamela R. Winnick).
I'm not fond of multiple POVs even in third person, so I would find multiple first-person POVs really off-putting. A talented writer can express just as much with one POV, without giving the reader literary whiplash. There are some instances in which I make exceptions, but I believe multiple POV are the sign of a lazy writer. (Sherry Gottlieb).
I don't agree that multiple POVs are the sign of a lazy writer, though sometimes that might be the case. I've seen multiple POVs used very effectively. One of my favorite contemporary writers is Anita Shreve. I've seen her use many POVs. Best-selling historical author Philippa Gregory has used multiple first-person, third-person POVs to great effect. (Pamela R. Winnick).
I don't personally like first person very much, but I do like it when Watson, for instance, uses first person to talk about Holmes. Also Bram Stoker's Dracula used it well. Switching to another first person is okay when chapter heads change to make it clear who is speaking (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein), but many authors somehow manage to make it sound trite. Not sure why. (Cathryn Evans).
Something unique in writing adds to the fascination of a great read. It would be important to make each switch in viewpoint at a clear point, such as maintaining the same POV throughout a chapter, perhaps a scene. There should be no confusion which viewpoint is in use at any one time. The more frequent the change, the more rhythmic it should be to establish a familiar pattern. (Dave Chesworth).
Any time you have multiple POVs in a story, it's best to separate them by chapters or breaks. There are times you can shift heads - Twain was good at it - but there has to be a reason. Obviously you don't want to jar the reader out of the fictive dream you've woven. (Diane Sherlock).
I'm still of the mind that switching POVs adds to the story if well-written. That's the catch...learning how to do it well. Such a skill doesn't happen overnight, and might take years of practice. I'm in no way implying that I do it well, but I certainly like reading books by authors that successfully manage the technique.
Edward Rutherfurd novels are just one example, although he does make sure to be in a different scene or chapter before switching the POV.
Multiple POVs also work well in scenes containing horrific events, such as natural disasters (tornados, earthquakes), crime drama scenarios (serial killers, robberies) or man-made catastrophes (bombings, plane crashes) where different characters are all having "this is it" thoughts at the same time. If the scene is set properly, the switching POVs shouldn't be difficult to follow.