Yet Another Pitfall of Multi-POV Stories

Yet Another Pitfall of Multi-POV Stories

This week’s video discusses the problem of POVs taking up too much space with too few plot points.

Video Transcript:

I want to start this week’s video with a disclaimer. As you can tell from the title, this is going to be yet another two minutes of me harping on the dangers of multi-POV fiction. However, I want to make it clear that none of this is to say multi-POV fiction is inherently bad or wrong. I love multi-POV fiction. Every single one of my books has featured multiple POVs. So don’t take this to mean you should never write multiple POVs. Take it to mean multiple POVs should be approached with caution because they’re difficult. The more POV characters you have, the more you’ll have going on in your story, the more threads you’ll have to keep track of, and the more room you’ll have to make mistakes.

With that in mind, here’s yet another danger to beware of as you consider how many POVs to include in your story. Boiled down to its lowest common denominator, this pitfall has to do with the fact that POVs take up space. The more POVs you include, the longer your book is likely to be. Nothing wrong with this on the surface—except you can easily end up with a very long book in which not a whole lot happens. This is particularly possible when your POV characters are not interacting with each other. If you have what essentially amounts to half a dozen separate stories happening simultaneously, you’re likely to need a ridiculously large amount of space to allow enough stuff to happen within each POV.

So what do you do about this? First thing, of course, you’re going to want to analyze your POVs and make sure they’re all really necessary. Once you’ve determined they are necessary, your next step is to boil everything down to essentials. Figure out what events need to happen in each POV and focus on them first. What you want to avoid is stretching your plot so thin to keep track of all these POVs that readers get bored waiting for something to happen.

Tell me your opinion: What is the largest number of POV characters you have ever worked with in a single story?

yet another pitfall of multi-pov stories

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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. Also known as “The Wheel of Time problem,” since it caused WoT to grow from first a trilogy, then a sextet, and now, finally, after almost three decades, the last book (number 14) is coming out.

    The main problem I have as a reader is when an author uses multiple POVs in the same chapter, and inelegantly switches between them.

  2. What if I switch the view-points almost exclusively when the characters are in close interaction? Say, George is trying to blackmail… I don’t know, call him Jeff. So George’s line is followed by his emotions and reactions to Jeff, and then Jeff’s line is followed by his reactions.

    Well, that above sounded absolutely normal, but I’m asking because I have a fight scene which every (short) paragraph switches between the fighters, showing their reactions to the other combatant’s style. It was an experiment on my part and I don’t know yet if it will pay off.

    Otherwise, I keep closely to the viewpoints of my three main characters, only occasionally foraying to a scene which reveals some plot mysteries, e.g. showing a villain survived, or gods commenting the characters and planning their actions.

  3. I have 2 main characters in my WIP, but I also added 4 other POVs (when the plot was acting on the MCs instead of them being the driving force). These other POVs are few and dispersed in the novel, and only one of them is more than a couple of chapters. I also change chapters with each POV to avoid head-hopping–that drives me crazy too.

  4. Well, the largest number of characters I ever worked on in a single story was within my first novel, and at last count (which, I only got about halfway through the book when I counted POV’s and never finished counting) was at 15+. O.O I was quite the optimistic teen. 😛 haha!

    Now, I like to work with 2 POVs, but I have done just a single POV.

  5. Dozens in the trilogy I began which I wrote half of before realizing it was waaaay too long, probably due to the dozens of POVs. Revising would be quite the undertaking.

  6. @Sam: Switching between POVs is yet another often difficult area. The best way to handle a POV switch is to do it at a chapter break. But that’s not always going to be possible.

    @Adam: Hard to offer any opinion of value based just on the description, but at a glance, I would say so many rapid POV switches are more likely to irritate readers than not.

    @Patchi: Headhopping is nobody’s favorite technique these days. Even omniscient doesn’t allow for it.

    @Unknown: Two or three POVs is my favored modus operandi as well. It allows for the flexibility of multiple POVs, while still maintaining some of the intimacy and focus of a single POV.

    @mshatch: And cutting beloved POVs is always heart-wrenching!

  7. The most POVs I’ve ever had was three, the least was one. Both have their challenges, but I like having multi-POVs because the characters convinced me their thoughts and feelings matter too, and threatened to burn me at the stake if I didn’t give them a platform.

    In my current WIP, how Cheryl feels that her uncle was killed in a hit-and-run, is just as important as how Joe feels that he killed someone with his car then ran from the scene, and just as important as how Blake feels watching his best friend, Joe, changing into someone he doesn’t recognize, but not knowing what’s wrong or how he should help.

  8. Well, we wouldn’t want them burning you at the stake or anything drastic like that!

  9. I understand the difficulty in assessing that. Hopefully once I’m done with the writing, someone knowledgeable will be able to review my “alpha” version.

  10. When in doubt, ask a beta reader. They usually know what they’re talking about. 😉

  11. I think I’ve done 4 POVS.. Protagonist, support character, antagonist and victim.

    Generally, I run on either 1 or 2 POVs though.. usually Protagonist, and either support character or antagonist..

  12. Four is a manageable number. So long as each is providing something of value to the story, they shouldn’t be too many to appropriately juggle.

  13. The more POVs ya got, the funner it is — but only for the author.

    I’ve got 4 long novels (well over 200K words each) with lots of POVs. My major revision path to start with is to eliminate (literally) the vast majority of them, taking them down to the four major characters with maybe a couple others only for a scene. That alone will cut out probably half the un-needed verbiage in the first two books alone.

    The characters are still there, they just get no page time for themselves.

    All the POV changes are during a scene break, not necessarily a chapter break. Tough work, but necessary.

  14. I don’t envy you the task! But I’m certain you’ll end up with a stronger and more cohesive book as a result.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Multiple POVs is my plan for a future epic series.

    Six characters, six different species, six different cultures, six different worlds, each with a different belief about the meaning of life, the definition of right and wrong, the classification of moral and immoral, working together on a quest with a common goal.

    How does each see his or her role in the quest? How does each deal with the differences among the members of the band of heroes? How does each change as a result of the adventure?

    This tale will strain the limits of my story telling talent. I look forward to the challenge.

  17. Always write stories that are more difficult than your skill level. It’s the only way to grow!

  18. In the first manuscript that I wrote, I had more POV characters than I can count. In my currrent WIP I’m mostly only using the POV of the two main characters. I have one other character that I can use on the rare occasions that one of the two main characters in not present in a scene. This character is not the main antagonise, but will be present with the antagonist when I need him.

  19. I’d never really thought about this from a reading point of view. Now I’m about to release my first novel I’m obsessed with it. Is POV a modern preoccupation? I just finished reading DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (didn’t much like it)and the POV changes were not just within a chapter, but also within a paragraph. I don’t think I would have been particularly bothered before I started writing.

  20. @Adam: Sometimes antagonist sidekicks are some of the most fun POVs to write.

    @jd: I haven’t read Lawrence, so I can’t say with this with any final authority, but my guess is he was using the omniscient POV, which was very popular in the “old days.” Omniscient allows for a broad view of the story and the characters, and it actually qualifies as a single POV, if we’re counting.

  21. I write third-person omniscient 99.9% of the time, since I write historical. I’ve never kept count of how many characters lead a storyline, though there are lots of main characters apart from the one or two leading main characters. I’m really not a fan of the apparent trend of switching back and forth between POV characters in different chapters. It doesn’t matter if it’s first- or third-person. When you’re building up a juicy story, I don’t want to end a chapter with a cliffhanger and then follow two or three other characters before getting back to the other person, or have the events the first MC was involved in narrated by another person.

  22. The cliffhanger between characters has its good points, but as a whole, I would mark it another pitfall of multi-POV fiction. Dragging readers away from what they’re really interested in is never a good idea.

  23. I’m currently working on my first multi pov novel. Although there’s only two the same rules apply.

  24. Multi-POVs definitely offer some new challenges. But every book should challenge us, so it’s all good!

  25. My novel is 3rd-person-omniscient (safe). But I decided to create one chapter (scene)totally from the viewpt of a minor character who is nothing but a prop (gets killed by the antag.) Her actions were prime motivators for the antag. and the only way I could tie antag./protag. together. Wrote it like a stream-of-consciousness to explain her thoughts and hence her actions. Since I kept it isolated in its own chapter, I don’t believe it will confuse the reader.

  26. I usually like artful switches between various types of POVs. Dickens did it perhaps best (and perhaps first?) in Bleak House. The majority of the book is told in an omniscient POV, but he’s interspersed 1st-person chapters from the POV of Esther Summerson, arguably the most important character in the book.

  27. Good advice! I love multi-POV’s too, and most of my stories work with it. I have found that parallel stories work if there’s a reason for them to be interconnected–it happens a lot in political thrillers. They usually come together at some point, and then you see what the author was doing to begin with and how everything fits together.

  28. The interconnectivity helps a lot. Often, in series, you’ll have parallel stories running for whole books at a time before they finally come together. That can make it difficult for readers to keep up with what’s happening in both timelines – much less care equally about both of them.

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