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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.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you for challenging yourself! One thing we have to say about writing: it is never dull.

  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. ingmarhek says:

    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!

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