Point of View

POV Part 1, Shifts Within Scenes:

So, one of my students asked me about Point Of View (POV) shifts, multiple POVs, and multiple protagonists.

This is an interesting question for a number of reasons, not least because the way it is handled varies wildly from genre to genre and over time. For example, young adult is (or has been—these things shift with startling speed) mostly all right with mid-text snippets out of the POV of the scene’s main character. Modern F&SF frowns on shifting POV while in-scene, rather a lot, though, of course, there are exceptions.

Caveats: Note the “in-scene” there, it’s important, I’m not talking about multiple points of view alternating scene to scene or chapter to chapter. Also, as with every rule of publishing, sufficiently outstanding writing trumps all.

I personally have trouble with in-scene POV shifts. In my experience, jumps outside of a scene’s established POV tend to be weaker writing. This is for two reasons.

One, out of POV snippets are more likely than regular prose to tell instead of show, an inherently weaker form. Show, Don’t Tell when applied as an iron clad rule is a bad idea, because there are simply times when the writer has to tell or has to do both (Eleanor has commented on that here), but as a guideline it’s trying to get at an important point–actively engage the reader whenever possible.

Two, in-scene POV shifts usually signal that the writer has encountered some situation that he or she hasn’t figured out how to approach from within the established format of the ongoing narrative, thus forcing the writer to cheat, again inherently a weaker solution than maintaining the form established for the narrative.

The corollary to all this is that staying in POV usually results in stronger writing. Not always, of course, but usually.

That said, good writing trumps all. If you’re going to do in-scene POV shifting, make sure that you give your reader the tools to make sense of it. The few times I’ve seen it done well, the writer has always given the reader something to hold onto as they change POVs, a banister (term borrowed from Barth Anderson who got it from somewhere else). So, you might do something like this:

Main narrative voice.
Out of POV bits.
Main narrative voice.

Or this:

Main narrative voice.
Out of POV bits.
Main narrative voice.

The things is to give the reader that banister–some simple way of knowing that this bit is different from that bit over there.

POV part 2, Multiple POVs and Multiple Protagonists

First thing these are NOT the same thing.

Second thing, multiple POVs is bog standard as a tool for writing fiction and perfectly acceptable to pretty much the entire writing world. It only becomes an issue (not a problem necessarily, but definitely an issue) when you start to get into a bunch of in-scene POV switching. There it will often both confuse the reader and weaken their emotional investment in the scene’s primary character.

Third thing, reader investment. That’s really what it’s all about. You, the writer really want your reader to have an investment in the story. You want them to feel a sense of possession–that this is their story too. That’s the root of having your reader really care about what you write. There are two primary types of reader investment, emotional and intellectual. The emotional one is significantly more powerful in keeping the reader involved. Intellectual investment is important and can substitute for emotional investment to a degree, but it’s not as visceral a commitment, nor generally as deep.

And reader investment is where multiple protagonist stories start to run into issues.

One of the first things that a reader does at a conscious or unconscious level is to ask Whose story is this? If the answer is simple: This is X’s story, then the reader brain moves on to the next tier of questions. If the answer is more complex: This is the story of a bunch of people and how they interact, or this is the story of a planet, or this is the story of a movement the reader brain has to do more work. Some readers prefer this. Some writers manage it so skillfully that the reader brain doesn’t worry about it too much. But no matter how you slice it, the reader’s brain is doing less work with a story that belongs to one character.

Likewise, it is much easier for the reader to emotionally invest in one central core character, particularly if other POV characters come into conflict with that core character. We are a tribal species and we tend to take sides. If we know whose side we’re on going into a conflict, we’re more comfortable. It’s easier to have a best buddy in the story or a single person that the reader can project themselves into.

Can more protagonists be included successfully? Absolutely? Can you have a story about a planet? A conflict? A movement? Again, absolutely. But it will be harder to get solid reader investment in the story and therefor harder to do successfully. Like everything in writing it’s a balance. Is the added degree of difficulty in engaging the reader worth whatever it is the multiple protagonists buy you in terms of the story you want to tell?

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two parts on November 12th and 14th 2007, and original comments may be found there as well as in this response post by Sean Michael Murphy where we discuss the subject at some length. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)