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10 Advantages of Writing a Single-POV Story (What I Learned Writing Wayfarer)

single pov storyMultiple-POV story versus single-POV story? Which is the right choice for you? The answer depends on many factors, since every story is different. Knowing which approach to POV to choose isn’t difficult once you know how to choose.

Wayfarer by K.M. WeilandMy just-released historical-superhero/gaslamp-fantasy novel Wayfarer was the first ever single-POV story I’ve written. For years now, I’ve consistently been minimizing the number of POVs I use. (Behold the Dawn had six; Dreamlander had three; Storming had two.) Part of the reason for that trend has been nothing more than the subjective needs of the stories; but part of it has also been my own growing understanding of the importance of managing POVs to create a solid overall effect within a story.

Being confined to a single POV in writing about blacksmith-apprentice-turned-super-speedster-and-reluctant-hero Will Hardy challenged me in new ways and taught me about the value of a single-POV story. Certainly, there are just as many benefits to multiple-POV stories (and, indeed, my next couple books will return to featuring three POVs—which seems to be a sweet spot for me), but today I want to talk about the amazing power locked away within the restraint of a single-POV story.

4 Frequent Pitfalls Found in Multiple-POV Story

Let’s start by taking a look at the opposite side of the coin. What are some reasons multiple-POV stories are especially challenging—and why might an author want to consider a single-POV story as an alternative?

1. Scattered Narrative

Too often, multiple narrators create a narrative with a scattergun approach to the story. This is especially true when those narrators haven’t been chosen with clear reasons. Every time you add a POV to a story, it should be in clear response to the question, “What is this narrator adding to the plot and theme that is irreplaceable?”

Although there is no reason a story with twenty POVs couldn’t easily answer that question for every one of its narrators, the more POVs a story includes, the more difficult it becomes to justify each of them at every level of the story. When a POV cannot be fully justified, the result is a story that, however entertaining, inevitably feels unfocused.

2. Less Action in the Plot

Because multiple POVs often contribute to a sense of busyness and action within a story, it is ironic that stories jammed with many POVs often present plots in which very little actually happens. Often this is simply the result of trying to include too many characters in too little space. (Even more ironically, I find the problem of “nothing actually happening” is often only exacerbated in novels with bloated word counts.)

Writers are often drawn to the idea of multiple POVs because they’re trying to tell multiple stories (which, hopefully, all tie together at some point). What this means is that the overall narrative can only be advanced insofar as all of the characters’ POVs are being advanced. Either multiple events will be required to move the plot, or the same plot-moving event must be recounted from multiple perspectives. As a result, the narrative often moves at a snail’s pace.

A particularly notorious fantasy novel stands out in my mind (although it is certainly not the only one), in which literally only two plot-moving events occurred in the entire story. On the story’s surface, it certainly seemed as if lots was happening, since the narrative was busy jumping from POV to POV. But when the actual bottom line of the advancing plot and the overall big picture of the story was examined, it was revealed that next to nothing actually happened. The multiple POVs ended up acting as a smoke screen for the actual lack of plot.

3. Complications, Instead of Complexities

Multiple POVs often seem like a good way to deepen a story’s complexity. But this is a false paradigm. Lots of moving pieces don’t necessarily equal greater depth. Rather, the more moving pieces a writer adds to a story, the more complications that writer must juggle in order to create a seamless story.

When handled with precision and conscious intent, multiple POVs can indeed provide great depth and complexity. However, when authors add extra POVs without purposeful intent or without a clear understanding of the challenges, the result can be exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for. Instead of adding complexity to the story, the extra POVs just complicate it unnecessarily.

4. Characters Who Don’t Impact Each Other

Another pitfall I commonly see in multiple-POV stories (especially fantasy) is that of multiple storylines that never interact. A book must have a clear throughline, with every piece advancing the plot down that line. As one of the most influential “pieces” in any story, a POV that fails its most important role of contributing to the overall story will, at best, always create a noticeably jarring effect.

Even more specifically, when narrators are leading separate storylines that do not directly interact with the storylines of other characters, what results is a frustratingly weak relational story. Stories are about people interacting. When the most important characters fail to interact, one of the story’s most important opportunities is inevitably lost.

6 Advantages of a Single-POV Story

Now let’s take a look at some of the explicit advantages of choosing to write a single-POV story.

1. Clear Protagonist = Clear Throughline

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Every story, no matter how many POVs it uses, must possess a unifying focus. Almost always, that focus will be a single-character protagonist. This is the character who will appear at and directly influence every important structural moment in the story. Even should he be onscreen for a comparatively small portion of the story (which, though possible, is rarely optimal), he will be the unifying thread that brings clarity and cohesion to the entire story.

It is, of course, possible to write a multiple-POV story in which the multiple narrators unite under a prominent protagonist. However, it is much easier to accomplish this effect in a single-POV story. Every single scene you write will revolve around this character; if ever you write a scene that does not, it will be much easier to spot the problem within the context of a single narrator.

In itself, this isn’t a huge argument for a single narrator, since this effect can be accomplished in any type of story. But in realizing this is the great power of a single-POV story, you may have an easier time determining whether your story will truly benefit from multiple POVs, or whether it would be better told from a more focused perspective.

2. Clear Structural Throughline = Clear Thematic Throughline

Just as conscious thought is a mental explanation of emotional motivations, plot is ultimately a device for conveying a deeper theme. As such, every choice within your story should be about creating a cohesive and resonant thematic throughline.

Because a single narrator is often the best vehicle for creating a cohesive plot, it is also one of the best vehicles for creating a powerful theme. Every other piece of the story will relate back to this person’s journey through the plot. She clearly owns every piece of the structure. Every moment in the plot is powered by her personal character arc. The result? A unified theme throughout the story.

3. Single Narrator = Direct Connection to Reader

One of the attractions of multiple-POV stories is that they allow readers to experience many different characters. In the hands of some authors, this can be an amazing adventure for readers. But it can also detract from one of the most important aspects of the reading experience: the reader’s driving connection to the protagonist.

Readers read for two primary reasons. One is to be entertained; the other is to experience an emotional and/or vicarious connection with the protagonist and his journey. In a multiple-POV story, this connection from the protagonist can often be muddied or strained when the reader is asked to spend long periods away from their favorite character. It’s a rare book that can engage a reader equally in all POVs (especially if the protagonist is not present in the other POVs).

A single-POV story never faces this problem. Rather, its greatest challenge is in creating a protagonist readers can’t turn away from—because if they do, that’s it for the story. As can be seen in so many wonderful single-narrator stories—from Anne of Green Gables to Jane Eyre to Ender’s Game (not counting its clever little chapter openers) to The Great Gatsby (which features a main-character narrator who is distinct from the structural protagonist)—a solid narrative told from a single POV has almost unmatched power for connecting readers to the main character.

Naturally, this is not to say readers cannot or do not connect with characters in multiple-POV stories. Many of my all-time favorite books are multiple-POV stories, so I am in no way suggesting I’m not a fan of the technique. But the extra moving parts required in a multiple-POV story makes achieving the same effect that much trickier.

4. Precision Drilling Into the Story’s Depths

Just as complication does not necessarily equal complexity (see earlier section), neither does simplicity necessarily equal depth. There is many a simplistic single-POV story that falls far short of any kind of rewarding thematic depth.

However, again, by virtue of its more inherently focused narrative, a single-POV story has a tremendous opportunity to strip away non-essentials, to focus on only the most powerful and integral pieces, and to share stories of straightforward but profound depth.

With fewer working pieces to bother about, authors can focus all their energy on polishing the true heart of their stories.

5. Stronger Subplots and Supporting Characters

Although at first glance it can seem as if a single-POV story might inhibit the contribution of subplots and supporting characters, this is actually not the case at all. In fact, making the right choices about which characters and subplots to include—and why—becomes infinitely clearer when they must be selected in support of a single narrator.

Ideally, subplots and supporting characters should always be chosen to support a story’s throughline, whether that throughline is a single character or a more abstract thematic premise. This is true in any type of story. But the criteria for making those choices is often much clearer when the author must weigh them against the bottom line of a single narrator.

6. Tighter, More Streamlined Dramatization

One of the greatest challenges of writing a single-POV story is that all events must either be told from this character’s perspective or told to her. In a large, complicated, sprawling story, this is often tricky. However, it can also contribute to a much tighter writing style.

Writers must come up with more streamlined ways of conveying certain events and information. Scenes that might otherwise have required thousands of words of dramatization can often be reworked into a brief, creative explanation. The result is a leaner story that moves forward with more focus and momentum.

***

Choosing the right narrator(s) is one of the most important creative and stylistic decisions a writer can make. Arguably, no single choice in writing a story will have more effect on the end result.

There are no real rules that can dictate right or wrong choices when it comes to POV. Only the ultimate effectiveness of the story can determine the rightness or wrongness of a choice. For some stories, multiple narrators are absolutely the best decision. But for others, a single narrator may be the factor that transforms a mediocre story into something extra special. Understanding various pros and cons of both approaches will allow you to choose which approach is right for which story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are you currently writing a multiple-POV story or a single-POV story? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Robert Billing says

    I can say decisively “it depends”. “Thirteenth Commandment” was, and had to be, single viewpoint. This is because the protagonist (Jojo) is an antiheroine, murderess, drug dealer, seducer and general ratbag. It’s only by going completely inside her head that I could make her attractive to the readers. In a single POV you realise that Jojo has suffered some pretty terrible things, and sees what she does as her struggle to survive. It’s only when she comes up against someone who loves her that she realises what she has done is wrong and finds redemption.

    At the other extreme the SF novels have a protagonist who is a secret agent. If she vanishes everyone is worried about her, and she has to get on with the mission regardless of what is happening. Getting the other characters worried about the protag really creates tension.

  2. My current story had two POV (the protagonist and the guardian/love interest), because I needed both for showing the theme. They sound very different from each other, which makes it challenging to do it right, but it is also very fun to write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most romances do best with two POVs. Readers like to see the story from both characters’ viewpoints.

  3. Multiple, using four POVs: two protags and two antags (neither of whom are the arch antagonist). Yes, the story moves back and forth between their actions, but it also takes place over the course of only a few days and following these two particular antags shows what the bigger picture is that is going on that the protags alone cannot. They are also both male/female teams, I wove their interactions between the pairs in such a way as to follow the underlying theme, and I made my transitions between the POVs such that you want to keep reading both to see what the current couple are doing AND can’t wait to get back to the other couple to see what they’re up to now. At least I hope I did. 🙂

  4. My current writing project is a single-POV story of a princess on the run. It’s my response to a badly told novel with a similar premise and – guess what – multiple POVs. (Plus an absurd plot.) I expect my rewrite to be great practice before I return to my longer-running work-in-progress which features two POV characters and from which I had to take a break.

    Quick question: What is your take on managing the voices of multiple POVs? How does a writer tell if characters are sounding too alike, and revise accordingly? Thanks!

    • Robert Billing says

      I try to make sure that they have different agendas, basically they want different things, and voices follow from that. Of course every character is convinced that they are right, but in a different way. Arthur would torture people in a good cause as he sees it. Jane doesn’t think a cause which requires that can possibly be a good one. Starting from there they talk in different ways.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m actually planning a post on managing multiple voices (in narrative or in dialogue) for sometime soon. Good voice comes out of good characterization. If the voices are sounding too similar, often the problem is that the characters themselves are too similar.

  5. Casandra Merritt says

    The biggest problem I have when reading stories told in multiple POV is that it’s rare to find one where all POVs are equally as interesting. And mostly, I just want to be with the main character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. This isn’t impossible by any means, but it ups the challenge quotient immensely for the author.

  6. I’ve always done multiple POV romance and women’s fiction, including a 20k word novella that had three POVs. My current WIP is largely – like, ninety percent – from one POV, precisely because I want to focus on the main character and his experience.

    And I totally get most of the points you’ve raised here.

  7. I’m writing a single POV (in omniscient close 3rd person) for many of the reasons you stated above. That said, my most favorite book of late is in multiple POVs — All The Light We Cannot See — which does it so superbly, and with unabashedly large amounts of exposition (in elegant prose), I learned this: write a book in the voice, style, form that serves your story and theme and never mind all the “rules” as long as you do it well and with purpose. Thank you for your post. It was helpful.

  8. I’m having this exact problem right now with my current WIP. I much prefer writing single POV stories– clearer arcs and all that– but this one might need two. Is there some kind of litmus test you do to determine whether or not multiple POVs are necessary? I would rather not if I didn’t have to, but sometimes I doubt myself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless the story is really multiple stories happening concurrently (which is common in multiple POV stories), it’s unlikely the story *needs* a second POV. The real question is ultimately one of style. Will the book be more potent, poignant, and interesting with another POV?

      But my rule of thumb: when in doubt, stick with fewer POVs.

  9. Harald Johnson says

    A wonderfully timed post as I work on my first 1st-person, single-POV book. This is coming from a multiple-POV prior one. Something different for me, but I’m resonating with the points made above by Katie.

    And in that context—and because I’m writing historical fiction with some time travel in the mix—I can’t help wondering why in something like “11/22/63,” Stephen King had to include one+ other-POV/3rd-person scenes in a mammoth 1st person book. Even Blake Crouch does the same in “Dark Matter.” If they couldn’t get around the single-person POV restriction, I wonder if I’m biting off more than I can chew. Am considering a few well-placed other-POVs as Part openers. Have to take a look at Enders Game again to see how he handles it.

    Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting. I don’t even remember the other POVs in 11/22/63. :p Could just be me, but that strikes me as a sign that maybe the extra POVs were totally unnecessary. Good book though.

      • Harald Johnson says

        Yeah, it’s easy to miss (in 11/22/63). It’s only 1 scene in probably over 200. It describes a violent act to a key character 2/3-way into the book. It’s a key action and I guess King couldn’t see another way to do it. But agreed: what a great book. Thanks.

  10. The series I am working on is told in third person except that it begins (first chapter) with the protagonist speaking and telling her story up to a point …. hopefully the point where the reader is hooked in to go to chapter two. As a new supporting character is introduced, they also have a chapter unto themselves. I don’t know if this is “legal”, but it is the way I am writing so far. I wanted the reader to get into the head of each important character throughout the series, yet retain that third person storytelling aspect so that all aspects can be tied together in a neater fashion.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So the minor characters only have a cameo POV? Although I think this could come across well in certain stylistic or experimental types of narrative, my advice would to generally be careful with a random introduction of POVs, which isn’t followed up by consistent usage of those same POVs throughout the book.

  11. My last four books were in first-person. I like telling a story from the eyes of one character, I can get deep inside of him and it helps to see the whole from one perspective. The book I am writing now is in third-person. It was hard changing from first to third. I had to keep going back and changing errors(Habit of first person). I like first person if the story is more compact and one person can easily see the whole. In the book now, the story is large and has many characters and the plot needs to be attacked from all directions. For me, the story plot is one aspect in deciding the POV.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I toyed with using first-person for Wayfarer, but ultimately went back to my favorite: deep 3rd. For me, voice is easier to manage in third.

  12. John Marvin Blundell says

    A guardian angel tells the LORD what is happening to Lydia, his assignment on earth. Lydia, the main character and Dennis her friend, a controversial character are both teachers at the same elementary school. Dennis suffers from ALS and his last wish is to ride horseback in the Rocky Mountains. Lydia agrees to chauffeur for him. The POV is the interaction between the angel and the LORD regarding Lydia’s experiences. These are interspersed throughout the novel. The trick is to keep the reader mindful that this story is being told to the LORD by Lydia’s guardian angel. Is this too complicated?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Depends how it’s done. Ender’s Game (and much of Brandon Sanderson’s stuff) offer good examples for how to stick in little insights from extraneous POVs, without necessarily bogging down the main narrative.

  13. So the novel I just finished last weekend (actually, the FIRST novel I’ve ever finished), had a single POV character, which was fantastic for that particular story for just the reasons you mentioned: it forced me to write a tight, concise story where every action weighs on my POV character’s arc in some way.

    It was ALSO a ton of fun because it’s a first-person narration which turns out to be unreliable in key places; but the audience has no way of knowing that till my narrator herself chooses to “come clean” in the resolution of her character arc. Because they’re inside her head the whole time! So they have no other reference point!

    *evil laughter*

  14. Such a timely post! Thank you! The books I have written vary. The first was all over the place with way too much head-hopping. It has been revised to 2 POV with one chapter from a married couple trying to set up the two main characters. The sequel is just the 2 main characters. My third was originally in 1 person POV, but I’ve revised it to 2, but it doesn’t work as well. It really depends on what the story needs. Although, writing an established chapter from a different pov will deepen your understanding of the scene and other characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, becoming a master writer is really all about the art of learning to listen to what the story needs. It’s a little different for every story.

  15. At first, I was intimidated by the notion of multiple-POV. I didn’t think I had the skills. After my first novel, I struggled with whose story I wanted to tell next, and the sequel I wrote was in 2 POV — the original main character and her sister.

    For the most part, they’re in the same places, going through the same main events. But. I alternate POV, only rarely showing the same scene from both POVs. It was an exciting challenge and it desperately needs a round of revisions.

    For those complex story-lines, that eventually weave back together? I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I look forward to being there.

  16. I’ve written novels with six points of view and with two points of view. I like writing both. I’ve never tried a single point of view, though that might fit a future book.

    When I used six POVs, I did plan which characters took precedence. That meant that three or four of the characters had many more scenes than the others. But I still felt that the other points of view were necessary to flesh out the conflict or to provide information that the main characters could not.

    The two-POV novels were romances, which almost demand both male and female POVs.

  17. I have a single POV story after removing a few non-protagonists POVs. It is as you say about tight plot and through-line. One question: how is a single POV consistent with the many arcs of supporting characters? I don’t want their arcs to dilute the power of the protagonist’s arc, and it seems each time I focus on the subarc (?), the main character’s arc is diluted. I ensure that the protagonist is always present when the subarc is extended. Is there a better way?
    -abc

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually, in a single-POV story, the supporting characters’ arcs will be more subtextual, coming into the light at crucial junctures where they impact the protagonist’s.

  18. Pepper Hume says

    I was lucky! I learned POV very early in my writing with the dictum, NOTHING goes in that the POV character doesn’t know or see. So branching out into multiple POV is a stretch for me. In my current novel, I alternate POV by chapters. All odd-numbered chaps are in the hero’s POV. Even numbered chaps are seen through one of two primary characters, the love interest and the hero’s helper. Keeping track of who knows what requires a separate tally sheet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. I like that you kept the protagonist to the odd numbers. My need for cohesion approves. 🙂

  19. I used a multiple POV in my first book and it was noted that there weren’t many differences between the four characters. I went single in my second book and found that a single POV works better for me.

  20. I’m finding third person omniscient a challenge for the SF/Adventure novel I’m revising at the moment. The story requires multiple POV’s (a group of three, one of them separated by a natural disaster, and another pair on the way to help). They come together after the first act, but repetition of events was necessary, particularly the earthquake itself (which was felt around the world). Head hopping becomes a real problem, so notes are required concerning the ‘who knows what, when’ details. The City in the Sand (not its original title) will be a much better book for the revision, much of which will deal with making the POV shifts seamless.

    I love writing single POV stories, but without exception, they’re shorts or flash. One day I’ll write a novel using it, (actually, I have one in my drawer, which is where it belongs) but the two projects I’m working on right now are both multiple POV, as dictated by the storyline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To me, omniscient always seems the most challenging to do well. I tried it once for a short story, but ended up changing it to first-person.

  21. davidbeckler says

    My first novel was told in multiple 3rd person POV. It’s featured two friends as equal main characters so needed at least two POVs to work. I also like to give lesser characters ‘stage time’, including the antagonist. When it first came out I had feedback asking for more stories involving the two main characters, the lead policewoman – it’s a crime thriller – and also the lead antagonist. I made it the start of a series with the two male leads, but intend to give the others their chance. When a new publisher picked up the series, they wanted to republish the first novel but asked me to drop three POV characters, including the antagonist. I tried, but it just didn’t work the way I wanted to tell it. In the end I dropped just one, and they seem pretty happy. On your advice, I’ll try a single POV novel and see how it goes.

  22. Jim Porter, Sr says

    WWII. Different continents, men, women, did FDR know, what was Tokyo Rose’s story, what could accidentally save you from an atomic bomb in Nagasaki, how do you know when a German pilot is out of ammunition, did the German fighter or the German armored car scare Rutabaga worse, how do you know when you’re done, what did playing drums for the Glenn Miller orchestra have to do with anything. My first multiple POV story is in the works. The research alone has me wondering if I shouldn’t go back to writing e-mails for small businesses. If you hear someone running out in the woods screaming, do not fear. It is NOT bigfoot. It is I, trying to write the darn thing.

  23. I’m reading the last book of Bradon Anderson’s Stormlight Archives trilogy that was recommended by a friend. The triology is my first experience with his work. I found it interesting when you mentioned him in a previous response because I’ve found the Stormlight series to be bloated with irrelavent or repetative scenes and POVs. His “Interudes” make no sense to me. Neither do the chapters from the POV of minor charters to explain their backstories. I have a love/hate relationship with these books and have nearly quit readinding them several times. Yet, I want to know the conclusion of the main characters arc. His work reminds of James Mitchner. I loved the core story, but skipped hundreds of pages.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, the Stormlight series drives me nuts. It has some amazingly brilliant moments, which could have been better highlighted in a more focused form, IMO. I was thinking more of the Mistborn trilogy, when I made that comment; it opens its chapters with a little blip from another POV. They’re intriguing without being obtrusive.

  24. I cannot imagine shuffling more than one narrator. My skill level is not there yet. Although three different perspectives seem intriguing, they can also invite stress for the author. Genre fiction in particular requires consistency.
    Great article, K.M. I enjoyed it!

  25. Hullo K.M. thanks for the good info. In my first series, I wrote omniscient / multiple POV. Second series, I not only went single POV but wrote them first person – now my favorite.
    New series, I have double MC’s (twins) in each book. I really wanted to write first person and i could, no problem, EXCEPT that some of the scenes step outside their POV like when they pull their twin stunt and confuse people. LOL

  26. ❣️

  27. I’ve only done single until now. One of my WIPs has three POVs: two main characters in 3rd limited, and then the third are the journal entries of a 15-year-old (the main characters were both “adopted” into her family). I had a lot of fun writing her voice, plus she gets to do most of the telling/interlude pages in a more fun way than the others could.

  28. I have two POV characters plus the antagonist, both in my first novel and in the second (which I am currently writing). I find writing from one POV difficult. Being a crime thriller the challenge is to let the readers know things which the main character does not (to create suspense). Exploring the antagonist’s motivation is also important. Do you know any techniques via which one can reveal certain aspects of the plot (to the reader) without using multiple POV?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are two basic ways to create suspense. One is what you’ve mentioned: let readers know about something the protagonist does not.

      But the other is, perhaps surprisingly, to keep the readers in the dark right along with the protagonist.

      For example, consider a time when something scared you. Or imagine you’re in a dark house and you hear a noise. You have no idea what it is, and it freaks you out. It’s the very *unknowing* that creates suspense. Handled right, with proper foreshadowing and tone, you can take your reader and your protagonist for the same suspenseful ride.

  29. Mary George says

    Wow. This post is huge. Just even understanding what POV is, is a big eye-opener for new novelists. I happened to have read a lot of novels written in my genre – women’s commercial fiction – so knew early on I’d utilize several POVs. As we speak it’s the three main characters and crucial secondary characters. At no time do I ever begin a chapter/scene with omniscient. I always write the scene using the POV of the character most affected by what is happening in that specific scene. And all of the characters are relevant to my protag’s goal.

    I can see how using a single first person POV is appealing, but you’ll lose me fast if there isn’t
    1) sufficient dialogue to flesh out what’s happening and why
    2) enough introspective narrative to get me into said 1st person’s head –
    3) plenty of writing devoted to scenery/setting as viewed by1st person – I want to BE there
    4) a writing style/voice so captivating it compels me to solidarity with this 1st person protag

    The problem I see is clearly with item number 2. There is no way to get deep into the heads of other characters using only one POV. The protag must speculate, or come across enough information to explain away everyone else in the story, because without delving into their motivations and emotional profiles, writers run the risk of casting a story with simple, flat people. It’s a daunting task for me, to say the least.

    I remember bringing up “The Horse Whisperer” by Nicholas Evans when I was at a Rittenhouse Writers Group meeting. Page 23. Over 5 POVs in three paragraphs. That page had one of the scariest, most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever read. . . . like I said, it just has to work. He nailed it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, what you’re addressing is a problem of show, don’t tell. Handled skillfully, the subtext a writer can create via a non-POV character’s actions and dialogue can sometimes be even more engaging than a deep-dive into their POV. (We see this often when a great minor character all but takes over the first book in a series, only to be given a spin-off in which he or she is no longer quite as fascinating.)

      However, you bring up another important point, which is: Know what you prefer as a reader and write to that.

      • Lynn O'brien says

        I was thinking of the same thing “show don’t tell” when reading the post you commented on. Have experienced this when I drafted a Romantic Fantasy in omniscient initially, then multiple POV (but only for three) Two of these characters are the main characters and are from triplets. I found myself converting thoughts of other characters into speech and a few descriptions of body language and facial expressions (without mentioning the needless word “face” of course) The inciting event is well along and what fills in the story leading to this, which is integral to the plot naturally, is the fact that the “twins” do not know the third child was separated from them at birth, due to factors developing at the time of her birth-as the youngest. This is where the two points of view in two characters in different family settings intertwine until circumstances lead to all three being together at the time of the inciting event. The one separated at birth and the reader knows the secret of what led up to her leading a different life. Different geography naturally changes the dynamics between the two protagonists. Yet there is mainly one protagonist. He is the one kept in the dark for many chapters. His need to transform from badly brought up underdog in a less desirable situation, has happened as a consequence of the initial plot point that separated him from his sister. Later they meet. Yet she (the rejected underdog) has had a better life regardless and because of not being there. The contrast between them spurs the protagonist to improve, transform and become the hero he needs to be. Later he finds out the truth. Less points of view definitely simplify a story. I decided more than one point of view was essential for my story. But one main one took over whether I wanted him to or not. He’s more of a well meaning antihero. I seem to like underdog stories. I also like the idea of those who mean well not quite accomplishing what they set out to do. Only superheroes do everything perfectly.

  30. Andrewisediting says

    This is a great post, thanks for putting it up.

    I’ve been writing a Single-POV story for a couple of books now, and I found the Multiple-POV points interesting (since my next thing will be Multiple-POV). Perhaps a companion post might be useful? 🙂

    One of the things I found problematic writing in Single is when interesting things have to happen outside of the POV character’s sight.

    I have two such scenes in my current WIP:

    * The first scene I solved through the use of a scrying device (backstory: my protagonist is the son of a Frost Giant and a Sidhe, who has the ability to scry in ice). The character was trapped and fading in and out of consciousness while an epic battle raged around him. By using ice he was able to witness everything (and do a couple of other mildly cool things as well).

    * The second scene I may have just solved while reading this post. I have a team of supporting characters who have to go and do a thing while the protagonist is recovering in a hospital bed. At the moment that’s a ‘they go, time passes, they return and report back’ champion bit of dullness. On the other hand, I also have an orphaned first-draft scene involving temporal scrying (Much like Harry knowing he could cast Expecto Patronum because he’d seen himself do it, an exercise in semantics that justifies a shocking abuse of physics) that I just might be able to panel-beat into watching the away team from his hospital bed. I must ponder this some more….

    I realise the above is jibber-jabber if you don’t know my story, but thanks!

    • It’s nice to have the pros and cons of both single and multiple viewpoints laid out so neatly. I’ve been practicing single-viewpoint because I enjoy writing in first person, but I’ve been toying with the idea of learning omniscient (the most difficult of all techniques). I have a thing for visible(ish) narrators. (I tend toward a comic tone.) It’s nice to have noted the pitfalls to watch out for if I ever go that rout. I’m figuring anything that’s true of multiple narrators has to be doubly true for multiple-characters-as-told-by-a-slightly-snarky-narrator-who-can-dip-into-anyone’s-thoughts.

      • Ooops! Sorry fo
        r being so off topic. That was supposed to be a new comment, not a reply.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        @Grace: Yes, one of my favorite approaches to the omniscient POV is a narrator who actually comments on what the characters are doing, saying, thinking. Terry Pratchett is great at this.

        • Terry Pratchett and Charles Dickens are two of my favorite writers. They remind me of each other in the way they build characters -starting with snarkey, shallow descriptions, then building up their character into someone amazing and heroic, and it completely takes you off guard because you had this kind of goofy initial image to overcome. (Lloyd Alexander does this too, and he’s another of my favorite writers.)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes! Have you read Pratchett’s Dodger? It’s a lovely ode to Dickens. It was actually one of the influences for my own Wayfarer–although they’re tonally totally different.

          • I am a year late and don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but I was going through older posts and saw your reply to my reply. I haven’t read `Dodger’ yet. A Pratchett book set in Victorian times is something that sounds like exactly a thing I would love.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. Thanks for sharing these techniques!

      And, yes, a companion post. I don’t know why hadn’t already thought of that, but I’ll try to do one next month sometime.

  31. I recently read A Simple Favor by Darcy Bell. I’ve been sampling different types of mysteries and thrillers to get a better feel for how my WIP fits in genre. While I understand how she was trying to manipulate the reader, I found her POV shifts to be jarring and unpleasant, poorly integrated. I feel it weakened the story, while some of the thrillers I’ve been reading, even with silly stories, have much better managed POV shifts. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t read it, but I say: definitely trust your own readerly instincts. And good for you for researching and reading broadly!

  32. Sharon Monk says

    I fell I miss something significant as a reader if I do not at least hear from the two primary characters. Single POV is usually always disappointing. I understand it is easier for the author, but it is much more interesting for the reader to get to know the primary characters’ thoughts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interestingly enough, in my experience, multiple POVs are far easier–or at least more instinctive–for most writers.

      However, as I mentioned in another comment, it’s important to recognize your own preferences as a reader–and the reasons behind them–and write to that.

  33. Maria Vesterli says

    I’m not currently working on a story – going to university with ASD, ADD, and APD takes a LOT of energy and finding the reserves to write without collapsing from stress in that environment is hard. Even so, this post is currently really useful for me. My boyfriend wrote a story with a single narrator (not for publishing, just friends and family) and I’m editing it. Which is honestly a bit tiring, ’cause it’s very clear that he’s a beginner. But the core story has potential and I want to help him unlock it. This post gave me some ideas on how he can improve the story that I hadn’t considered before.
    I’m still going to give him the link to some of your “Common Writing Mistakes” posts, though.

  34. Please could you give a few examples of novels in which multiple POVs with only the protagonist written in first person works well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm. You don’t often see stories that feature multiple first-person POVs. It’s not uncommon to see two first-person POVs in romances, especially YA, but more than that is often confusing. I’m not thinking of any off the top of my head.

  35. Thank you soo much for this. 🌸😊

  36. And here I am wondering if I should make my unplotted single POV novel into a multiple POV trilogy.

  37. I love multiple POV but never have aspired to write one. Even the book I’ve got going, in which the main character is far from the most complete personality in his skull, doesn’t shift POV even inside the single skull.

    Wouldn’t be the first novel I’d read with multiple POVs in the same skull, but I figure it’s been done.

    Sounds like some of the people with multiple POVs should make multiple books. I love to read a book and go, “Oh, hey, the battle of the line! I know all about that!” Maybe that’s why I sometimes change the POV for a rewrite, or maybe it’s because I chose the wimpiest character for the original POV. Probably both! I know I’ve put on my own site, two versions of the same story, from the husband’s and the wife’s POV. Originally the wife was the villain, but it turned out that she was the only one with the steel to fix it.

  38. I tend to write short stories in a single POV, but novels in multiple deep POV. I’m a huge fan of both Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty, who handle multi-deep-pov with an expert touch. If you’ve read Truly, Madly, Guilty, you know there is one character with a single chapter from their POV and it’s brilliant. I could see no other way to tell that piece of the story that only that character could possibly know. It’s done in such a way as to make the reader care about this character enough to want that chapter.

    I have nowhere near the skill of either of these authors, but they give me something to strive for.

  39. You’ve done a beautiful job of explaining the importance of multiple vs single POV. Often multiple POV is a writer taking the easy way out. If the puzzle pieces are shuffled around a bit, some even taken away, the picture can become more powerful and focused. I haven’t managed single POV yet, but I have whittled the number down to 3–and it wasn’t easy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I find three is often a good number if you’re going to do multiple POVs. It’s enough to provide variety and perspective without scattering the narrative.

  40. I’m actually writing my current novel in third-person omniscient, which makes it unnecessary for me to “choose” the narrators. I like it a lot– it’s so rarely used in modern fiction and isn’t so much as incorporating separate storylines as it is telling the story through the eyes of the characters as they see it. But when I’m not using omniscient, I write in first-person, single POV.

  41. Carol Painter says

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Good discussion too. This is so topical for me. I began my current novel while still learning a lot of craft. So it has evolved from two protagonists/two POVs 3rd person to single protagonist POV 3rd person to single protagonist 3 POV characters 3rd person. Each time I veered in another direction was due not to lack of clarity as to whose story it essentially was, but the challenge of time frames and sequence of events. For example, how far to progress the story-line with one POV character before switching to the story-line with another. How to make x happen before y etc. I’m trying not to make thibgs complicated but I feel very clumsy as I grapple with timelines and would love to know how I can manage this better.

    Also I note your comment about the challenge in keeping readers interested and engaged with multi POV characters. In my case I am hoping I have created sufficient curiosity in the story-line with 1st POV character (who is the protagonist) and 2nd POV character who are interacting to sustain reader interest the first time I switch to the 2nd POV character whose story starts separately (soon crossing over though). Your thoughts?

    And if I can squeeze in Am I right in thinking all POV characters need to appear in Act 1 of 3 Act structure?

    Thanks again for writing on this topic Katy. As you can see I’m greedy for more in this subject area!

    • Carol Painter says

      Correction sorry – the 3rdto last para should say “…the first time I switch to 3rd POV character…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In answer to your last question first, yes, it’s best if you can introduce all POVs as soon as possible.

      As for juggling the timelines, the best rule of thumb is to try to keep them concurrent. This isn’t always possible (or preferable), but it’s what readers expect unless you tell them otherwise. Beyond that, it’s really just a matter of pacing, and you’ll just kind of have to feel that out according to the story’s needs.

      Creating equal reader interest across POVs is one of those things that either happens or it doesn’t (and, honestly, it can be subjective to the reader as well). As long as the plot is working and the character development is good, that’s all anyone can ask.

      All the best!

  42. Single-character viewpoints (and first-person especially) is a good way to build a character’s charisma and personal likeability into the work. It makes the work of giving the reader someone to root for that much easier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly, when done well, these are the books where you remember the “character” more than anything else.

  43. How would you characterise “War and Peace”? I have read claims that it is really basically single POV, the protagonist being Russia.
    So Woody Allen (or whoever invented the joke) was right: The fellow took a speed reading course. “I learned to read straight down the middle of the page,” he reported. “I was able to go through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve yet to read it myself (had it in three volumes hanging on my wall for a while), but I would suspect it’s probably an omniscient narrator. That was most common in the period.

  44. Interesting. Someone shared this. I’ve lurked quite a bit on your site but never commented.

    Anyway, I actually love multiple POV. I don’t even mind if there isn’t a ton plot-wise if I enjoy reading about the world and the characters. That being said, I think that’s pretty typical of people who love epic fantasy. We tend to want the books to drag on so we can keep reading about the characters we love!

    My current WIP has 5 POV characters. I feel that I’ve learned so much about plotting and character arcs that I can do it well. I’m confident that each character’s POV is needed for the type of book I want to create.

    I’ve read a great deal lately from people who hate multiple POVs but I think- though there are certainly plenty of examples of it being done poorly- it’s often the case that it’s just not that particular reader’s cup of tea. That’s certainly okay, but there are also some of us that don’t really enjoy single POV novels as much because we love the richness of multiple POVs! It’s nice that there is a variety of books being produced so we can all read things we really love.

    Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love multiple-POV stories. It’s just that, as you say, they’re often used more by default rather than a conscious reason for serving the story’s best interests.

  45. Hi there.

    There’s so many options I get stuck in “possibility” mode. Struggling to figure out how I should tell the story is both fun and frustrating. Don’t think I can do a single point of view character for an entire story though. At least not for this book. Doesn’t it depend on who’s story it is? And careful selection of POV characters that bear weight on the story? Ack! Too options makes my brain go haywire.

    I recently read Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz (Great book). Besides the main protagonist, there were some minor POV characters that provided a unique insight into the story with valuable information that otherwise wouldn’t been seen. The only reason I know this is because an author friend pointed it out, lol.

    One of the POV’s was an FBI agent who headed up the main investigation on the protagonist. Her addition wasn’t big, but throughout the story I often wondered why he chose her. It didn’t seem wrong. Just curious I guess. It did provide a unique view of the story from another angle; especially the reactions of the main antagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Asking questions about our reactions to what we’re reading is one of the best ways to learn as a writer! 🙂

  46. There’s 3, really. These are needed to tell the full story.

    The main one. The co-protagonist gets a couple full chapters at a time when his internal thoughts most need to be known for the story, getting the main one temporarily out of the way was always part of the plan. Finally, one of the antagonists, who otherwise are hidden away most of the time but have their own arc.

  47. I have just read Lian Moriarty’s Truly Madly Deeply, in which a great deal happens, there are many POV and it all ties together very tightly. I only write in First Person POV and don’t think I could write multiple POV stories, but at least in this book Moriarty does a superb job, and deepens the mystery and the insight into the characters in a way single POV could not.

  48. Thanks for a great post. Books with more than 3 POV stop me cold. I hate flipping back and forth trying to discern who’s head I’m in. I just stopped reading a book that in Chapter 10 introduced a fourth character. I mean, come on. If I have to work that hard, to understand who and what is happening I quit.
    I’m a voracious reader and like to get immersed in the story. More than 3 POV and I find that difficult. Another thing I’ve noticed in multi-POV is if there are too many POV, it becomes harder and harder for the author to connect the dots.
    My current work is in single and your post really encouraged me. Thanks again.

    • Piers Newberry says

      Watch out for Game of Thrones then; it has very many POVs, which is occasionally bewildering, and, to make it worse, they often die off just when you get to like them. Also as you say he seems extremely taxed in trying to weave the (actually completely disconnected) stories back together.

      I do find single POV’s difficult simply in terms of attaining the necessary word count.

  49. David Butler says

    Interesting post. I’ve struggled a bit over the POV-shift thing as a writer. I fully understand that any POV shift can be confusing if it is not done cleanly and clearly. Yet many of my favourite and most inspiring authors have done it many, many times and got away with it.
    Modern editors say “Well, times have changed, Readers don’t like that any more.” I have been hauled over the coals for copying the past great writers and their brief comment from another player’s mind or perspective — and there hasn’t been any confusion at all. I’m merely violating the Conventions.
    “No mind-hopping, please.” sounds rather patronising. They say that we are not allowed to play God like that. But why do we create fictional characters in the first place? Aren’t we “playing God” in that sense anyway?
    I guess that’s why I’ve decided to go Indi rather than traditional publishing. Some of the rules seem rather arbitrary and unnecessary.
    Having said that, I do agree with what you’re saying above. Simple stories with a straightforward plot usually only require one POV. But my latest series (“Wings in the Wind”) has a large, complex plot which cannot be simplified without losing the grand scale of the world I created. It is impossible to give the reader a clear picture of the storyline with one or even 2 POVs. Making a clean shift from one to another is a challenge, true, but one I enjoy. Readers have also appreciated it.
    Thanks for the chance to let off a bit of steam.

  50. Question: does one POV mean that the narrative should always stay either “I” or “he/she,” or can the protagonist sometimes be speaking and sometimes be spoken about? What do we need to be conscious of when moving around in the book between what the protagonist says, does or thinks, and what someone else thinks about him or her?

  51. Thank you for an intriguing post which departs from the status quo these days. As a writer, I confine myself to a single POV, as I feel I can connect with the reader better that way–and also with the character herself. As a reader, I don’t mind the occasional book with 2 POVs, especially perhaps in a romance. More than that generally leaves me cold. Just as I am becoming interesting in one thread, the story line can change completely…sometimes hundreds of years! It’s not that I can’t understand how they connect and work together, it’s just I am tempted to put the book aside until I have time to “get into” it again. Not good…

  52. Yeah, I don’t even see how I could do my story in a single POV. The moving parts of the multi-POV all contribute directly to a solid through-line. Essential stuff, secret stuff, happening in different parts of the world, where my protagonist can’t possibly see and will never be told about, yet if those clandestine events don’t happen, if the reader doesn’t see them happen, later when the subplots intersect, the intersection just won’t make sense. It will seem random. Like the Big Bad. He schemes, he dreams, the poor romantic pair have no idea how bad it’s going to get. Then when it finally gets that bad, the reader doesn’t think, hey, I never saw this coming, I’ve been cheated. Instead the reader is worrying, asking how will the romantic pair cope with the terrifying evil headed their way. The anticipation produces tension. I need the tension. I don’t know how to get that effect with just one POV. No clue.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Kole teases out the differences between authorial voice and 3rd person voice, K.M. Weiland lists 10 advantages of writing a single POV story, and Laurie Schnebly Campbell reminds us that no matter which one we choose, POV should engage the […]

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