Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Use Different Points of View in Your Story

Teri, a blog reader, sent in a great question about points of view.  I've gotten variations of this question often in my online classes.  Teri's two narrators switch back and forth, alternating chapters. 


She wondered if she needed to make their amount of chapters equal.  Does she need as many chapters from her male character's point of view as from her female's?

Variations of this question crop up often in my online classes. 



How many points of view (narrators) can you have in one book without confusing the reader?

Can I use both first person and third person in one book?

Can I switch narrators in the middle of a scene?

My experience:  In early drafts, the golden advice is just to keep writing.  Get the stuff on the page, don't worry too much who is telling the story.  I often find that I will write a scene or chapter from one narrator's point of view, then go back and switch later.  I often don't know who tells it best, when I begin.

I cite Barbara Kingsolver as backup for this:  She wrote each chapter of The Poisonwood Bible from all seven points of view (she had seven characters) to determine the best narrator for that chapter.

I'm not going that far.  I don't have seven narrators (not yet, anyway).  But I do find a lot of juicy information comes from trying out the same scene from different points of view.

If you get the draft on the page and it's a rough SFD (shitty first draft, a great term coined by writer Anne Lamott), you can begin thinking about these finer details of narration.  Let's look at each question individually.

Do I need to have equal amount of real estate for each narrator?

No.  But you do need to make sure that narrator doesn't drop out of sight.  If the reader loses track of one of your narrators, it'll be hard to bring them back.

When I am not using that narrator's point of view in chapters, I'll try to keep them in view in other ways:  dialogue about them, for instance. 

How many narrators can you have without confusing the reader?

One of my teachers said this:  "Seven people is the most we can keep track of onstage."  In my experience, that's true. 

If you're writing a saga, and you have more than seven narrators, include a diagram or chart in the front of the book (if you need to use the DVD jacket to follow who is who in Game of Thrones, you know what I mean).

Otherwise, try to trim back.  I had four when I first drafted my current novel.  I'm now at two narrators.  I find it easier to craft a really strong story with fewer people's thoughts.

Doesn't mean you have to avoid crowds--just don't make them people we have to track by getting inside their heads.     

Can I use both first person and third person in one book?

Tricky.  Fun to try!  Most important:  these two voices (first person=the "I" voice and third person = the "he" or "she" voice) have very different effects on the reader.  First person is traditionally self-focused, third slightly more distant.  When you switch back and fort, we readers not only have to jump heads, we have to jump voice. 

Be sure to craft those bridges very carefully, to make sure we don't slip out of your story as we slip from one voice to another.

Can I switch from one narrator to another in the middle of a scene?

Commercial fiction does this a lot (think Nora Roberts).  It's also tricky to pull off.  It happens more in novels that are plot-driven than character-driven, since the characters in these books are often subordinate to plot.  We get breadth rather than depth. 

Not a problem.  But, again, you need to be really good at those bridges between the two narrators. 

Study a published writer who does this well.  Test out your choices on your writers group or beta readers before you assume it's working for the reader.

Easier to switch as you start a new chapter.  That lets the reader get into one narrator's head, then take a little pause before switching to another.