Are Your Multiple POVs Killing Your Story's Suspense?

Are Your Multiple POVs Killing Your Story’s Suspense?

This week’s video cautions against sharing too much information with readers at the expense of their investment in the protagonist.

Video Transcript:

A trend I’ve noticed among writers—myself included—is that we tend to love writing multiple POVs. We have all these characters that we just adore, and we want the opportunity to explore the mindsets and the activities of as many of them as possible. But something rather interesting that I discovered during one of my Writing Questions of the Day on Twitter (#WQOTD) is that readers actually prefer a minimalistic approach to POVs. This is so for a number of reasons, but the one I want to talk about today is maintaining suspense.

The advantage of multiple POVs is that they allow us to reveal what’s happening to characters who may not be on set with the protagonist. But the disadvantage is that giving readers this outside knowledge removes them from the protagonist’s personal story. Consider, for example, Jim Sheridan’s Brothers and Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life, which are both about wives who are left in serious doubt of their husbands’ survival after the husbands are captured. Both of these stories include POVs from the husbands’ perspectives. The wives have no idea what’s happening to their husbands, but we do.

We could certainly argue several advantages for this approach. But the one thing it doesn’t do is maintain suspense by allowing us to share the wives’ uncertainty. You would have gotten different stories without the husbands’ perspectives, but they would arguably have been stronger and more suspenseful stories.

Before you add a second POV to any story, always stop and ask yourself if allowing readers into this other character’s mind will either pull them away from identifying with the protagonist and/or sap suspense by feeding readers more information than they may actually need or want.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever cut a POV because it was giving away too much information?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think this really depends on the point of your story. Who’s story you’re trying to tell. My book is not about Eric it’s about Selkin, the country where he lives, and so I’m telling my story from many POV’s.

  2. I guess it depends what the other POV characters are doing and whether it’s significant.

    I’m just thinking of Game of Thrones (because everyone’s thinking of that at the moment, right?) where many characters don’t know if their family members are alive or dead, but we do. Here it works though because the story is sprawling enough that each POV character can have their own suspenseful story.

  3. Wow, is this ever timely for me! I so wanted to include the male love interest’s POV in my WIP, but I’m starting to think that might not be a great idea, that I really just need to have the protagonist’s POV and leave it at that.

    An integral part of the story is my protagonist thinking that the man she’s falling in love with is guilty of embezzlement. Of course, he’s not guilty–he’s being set up–but she has to THINK he’s guilty. And I want the reader to think he’s guilty, too (or at least have a smidge of worry that he could be).

    I’ve been agonizing over this for a few weeks now, because I love this male character desperately. But your post just whapped me upside the head (in a good way) and made me see it has to be about the story, not about how cool I think a character is. Thanks for the wake-up call!

  4. What is necessary to the story you’re trying to tell? Often it’s necessary to have a second (or third) POV character because necessary action takes place outside the main POV character’s range. I absolutely abhor the practice of giving a character “visions” or “dreams” in order to show us what a secondary character could have easily revealed.

    On the other hand, following a secondary character just because we love them isn’t sufficient reason for another POV.

    Lauren

  5. This is timely for me too, Linda. I’m about to start the read-through of my WIP (it’s been resting for about three weeks now) and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m going to have to kill at least one POV (maybe more) to jack up the mystery and tension.

  6. @Anne-girl: Absolutely. Choosing POVs is all about understanding what kind of story you’re trying to tell. If you don’t understand that first and foremost, your choice of POVs can lose focus quickly. The right and wrong of POVs is never about “how many”; it’s always about whether or not you’re creating and maintaining that intended focus.

    @Matt: Game of Thrones is one of those massive fantasies that, like Anne-girl’s story mentioned above, is as much about the overall world as it is any one or two (or two dozen) individual characters. Readers either love or hate this approach. Just remember that for every POV you add, you always have to sacrifice something (e.g., suspense) to gain something else (e.g., information).

    @Linda: One thing to always keep in mind is the guidelines of your genre. If you’re writing a romance, you’ll find that many books in this genre include both male and female perspectives. So if you do decide to buck this trend, be sure you know *why* you’re doing it (which it sounds like you do).

    @Lauren: POV characters are characters who need to have something at stake. A minor character who is given a POV doesn’t have to have goals on quite the grand scale as the protagonist, but he does need to have a mini arc of his own. If he’s just a “camera” to show readers what’s happening in another scene, then he’s a wasted opportunity.

    @S.R.S: Killing POVs (or any major element) is never fun. But it can do wonders for perking up a story when it’s the right move.

  7. I just said the same thing to two people who sent me their WIP for critique. One of the problems stemmed from giving the bad guys POV at the beginning when they are hashing out the plan. Another I’ve seen is trying to increase the number of action scenes, by portraying the same scene through different character’s POV. But the time POV switches annoy me the most is when characters are rehashing a previous scenes that as already described from a different POV.

  8. We have to tread lightly with antagonist POVs. Not only are they often extraneous, they’re also much harder scenes in which to keep the interest level high.

  9. Yes! In my almost-finsihed WIP I danced away with four (!) POVs in the first drafts. Two had made it through to the current version, and I know they will stay. They are both equal protagonists, and the story needs both of them. It did not need the other two.

  10. A trend I’ve noticed in my own fiction is that each book tends to have fewer and fewer POVs. I’m down to two myself in my WIP.

  11. In the book I’m writing right now, I considered writing from a certain character’s POV (in addition to the main character’s POV) but decided against it because a lot of the plot revolves around the main character thinking that this other character is the villain. If I had written from his perspective, then that would not have been possible because he is actually very much NOT a villain, which would have been revealed about one paragraph into his thoughts 🙂 So I’ve decided to keep it down to just POV’s from the main character and her brother.

  12. Sounds like you made a good choice. Whatever you’ve lost in not being able to share this particular character’s narration, you’ve almost certainly gained back in both suspense and increased intimacy with the main POV characters.

  13. I have four POVs in my current WIP – each character have something significant at stake – with conflicting goals between them. I think I manage to maintain suspense (from feedback I’ve received as well as my own assessment) – in part because one of the POV characters is the daughter of the antagonist. While she doesn’t really know her father’s plans, she knows enough to increase the tension and suspense by intimating danger to the other characters and to cause internal conflict (for the daughter). Interestingly enough one reader of my previous WIP (of which this is the sequel) said it reminded her of “Game of Thrones” (which I haven’t read or viewed yet) – though my stories are not on such an epic scale.

    I am also currently debating with myself whether to add a POV to my first manuscript – which had 2 POV – so that the story is not as predictable by making the competing love interest (not an antagonist btw)a more viable option and the plot less linear. I do need to think about how to do this without undermining the mystery (ie not revealing significant information).

  14. The last book I worked on featured three POVs – each rotating equally. I chose that approach because it was important to the story that each character be given the same amount of emphasis. So if you’re choosing a larger number of POVs for a good reason, you can have three, four, or even more POVs. It’s all about intent.

  15. My story has three main characters. All three characters are keeping secrets from one another and the reader. I want all their secrets to be revealed to the reader much later in the book. What kind of narration should I pick to be able to keep crucial secrets from the reader in order to maintain tension and drama as long as I can without making them feel cheated?

    Can you do that with 3rd person limited by simply not allowing my protagonist to “tell” us her secrets?

    Another option I’m considering using is 3rd person multiple switching between the three characters. Perhaps I can have the POV never be with the character in a scene where this character’s secret would have to be revealed because that’s the POV character. Does that sound doable? Any other options?

    I’ve already decided that the beginning sequence of events will be in objective narration because it shows one of the characters doing something suspicious that I’m using as the “hook” that will compel the reader to want to read on to find out what on earth this person was doing and why. After setting this initial scene, I would like the readers to become more intimate with one or all of the three of the main characters.

    At first I was thinking of telling the initial sequence in the objective POV with two of the three main characters, and then for the rest of the book, switching to the 3rd person limited POV for the third main character. That character (the protagonist) appears for the first time in the beginning of the second chapter. I’m not sure if that would look strange? Perhaps I can call the first objective section a prologue to separate it from the rest of the book that will be told in a different POV.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would recommend choosing a consistent POV throughout.

      Also, it’s very tricky to have POV characters keep secrets from the readers. Unless there’s a reason the character is denying the secret or forcing it so deep into his psyche that he’s not even facing it himself, it makes no sense for him *not* to share it with the readers. Thus, it comes across as gimmicky or worse. Readers want and expect to be “in the know” alongside the POV characters. If possible, I would recommend choosing just one POV character, which will allow you keep the secrets of at least the two other characters.

      Otherwise, you’re probably better off being upfront about at least the *essence* of the secrets.

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