Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Many POVs Do You Need?



As a fiction editor and evaluator, the most common problem I encounter is with point of view. The advice I constantly give writers is: Stick with one POV for chunks of text, then signal the change if you need to tell part of the story from another character's point of view.

Chester Campbell—career journalist and author of two mystery series featuring private investigators—takes the subject further and discusses the pros and cons of different POV approaches.


In my Greg McKenzie mystery series, the stories are all written first person from Greg’s point of view. This has become sort of standard for private investigators. I did vary it in the first two books with third person prologues. That gave me the ability to provide the reader with background information on the books that Greg was not aware of until later in his investigation.

The first person viewpoint gives a feeling of immediacy, allowing the reader to follow along with the detective, picking up the clues as he does. But it also means neither he nor the reader gets to see what else is going on nearby, out of sight or earshot, as they say. Greg’s wife, Jill, who becomes a partner in McKenzie Investigations, appears only as Greg sees her, or as she reveals herself through her dialogue.

When I decided to write a new series with a different protagonist, I switched to third person so I could use multiple points of view. That permitted the reader to learn what was going on in different areas than just where the main protagonist was involved. I was aware, however, that switching too often and involving too many different viewpoint characters could become confusing to the reader.

I gave my main character, Sid Chance, an unusual sidekick to share the viewpoint, sometimes with separate scenes in the same chapter, occasionally through separate chapters. She’s a successful businesswoman, board chair of a chain of truck stops founded by her father. But she comes with an intriguing past. Early in life she was kicked out of the family by her aristocratic mother for wandering into such unsophisticated circles as Air Force Security Police and championship professional boxing. She was a Metro Nashville policewoman before returning to her father’s good graces after her mother died.

Jaz LeMieux gets her first shot at the viewpoint in Chapter 5, after learning that her housekeeper’s grandson has disappeared. What has happened to the grandson becomes a crucial subplot and provides most of Jaz’s opportunity to take the spotlight. This subplot is woven in throughout the book, right up to the end.

Using the old technique of the thriller, I also tossed in a few brief POV shifts to update things from the bad guys’ viewpoint. It was designed to ramp up the tension. One thing I’ve avoided is shifting viewpoints within a scene. Most critics highly recommend against that technique, although I have seen it done effectively.

From my observation, it seems that the objections to changes in points of view are becoming more moderate. I’ve read several comments lately from authors who feel it isn’t as troublesome as previously thought. I suspect most readers, outside the sophisticated folks found in places like the DorothyL listserv, have little familiarity with the technicalities of point of view. Their only concern is that the story reads smoothly and they don’t have to re-read parts to find out who is talking or whose thoughts they are listening to.

If we achieve that goal, our multiple POV manuscripts should be successful. With readers, that is. With editors, that’s another matter.

Readers: How do you feel about multiple points of views?
Writers: Have you struggled with this issue or had editors request POV changes?

This is next to the last stop on Chester’s blog book tour for The Surest Poison. Leave a comment and you will be eligible to win some of his books. The final drawing tomorrow night will be for an autographed copy of The Surest Poison and the grand prize, a copy of all five of his books, including four in the Greg McKenzie series.

Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. The Surest Poison is the first book in the Sid Chance series. Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. He's also the secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

16 comments:

Marvin D. Wilson said...

I've read books that pulled off multiple POV's well, but haven't written one yet. I agree it takes fastidious attention to detail and skill to do it effectively and not leave the reader confused.

Good article, Chester, as usual. :)

Chester Campbell said...

Back in my early fiction writing days, I did like most amateurs and shifted viewpoints at random. Some of it didn't read badly, but in other places it was like tripping through a minefield.

L.J. Sellers said...

I enjoy reading novels with multiple POVs and parallel plots. So of course, that's what I write. Most private investigator novels, though, only have a single POV. You're breaking ground, Chester.

Mari Adkins said...

I like reading multiple POVs when they're well handled. It has to be clear to me who's telling the story at a given time.

I've not tried writing any multiple POV stories yet, though - but that's in the works.

Barbara M. Hodges said...

POV, it makes or breaks a story in my opinion. I've written in both first and third person. I find that both have worked depending on waht level of intimacy I'm looking for.

I have no problem with multiple POV's as long as they are in different chapters, or even scenes. Don't care for when a writer is hopping back and forth between them in the same scene.

Chester Campbell said...

L.J. - There are a number of other third person PIs like P.J. Parrish's Louis Kincaid series, but most are first person. Those using third person frequently indulge in multiple POV.

Mari - You're right, Mari. That's the number one requirement. You need to make certain there's no mistaking the POV character.

Barbara - I agree with you. One shift in a scene may work if there's an important point to be made, like right at the end. But jumping back and forth is a turn-off.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I don’t mind multiple POVs if they are done well. I have read books where I found the POV confusing, particularly at the onset when the characters aren’t well enough developed for the reader to distinguish whose mind they are currently in.

Jane Kennedy Sutton
http://janekennedysutton.blogspot.com/

Edward G. Talbot said...

I think that the difficulty with this topic is that a lot of people want to create rules when there aren't any. It's not like "telling instead of showing" where the reasons are obvious, it's about flow.

That said, I think the key is that POV changes should be very conscious. At a minimum after the first draft go back and look at each one and see if it makes sense.

Beyond that, i suspect it is nearly impossible for the author to determine whether the POV changes are too much - unless they are way too much. You need a third party to tell you whether it flowed or not.

©DGreer said...

I haven't found too many authors who do this successfully, especially in mid-series. Case in point - the old Arthurian novels by Mary Stewart. She's ever-popular for her Merlin Trilogy, but the last and fourth book in the series is no longer first-person (Merlin) POV and I think that contributes as much to its lack of popularity as the classic dismal Arthur ending. It's an entirely uncomfortable read.

Good post, Chester. Your blog book tour is great! Now that you have free time in your future ;), come be an editor at The Blood Red Pencil. We need you.

Dani
http://bloodredpencil.blogpsot.com

Robin Minnick said...

I've read the first Greg McKenzie book. I liked the book, and I always like reading Chester's advice. I'm comfortable with shifting POV's, both as a reader and a writer -- altho' I haven't received critical feedback yet. I do agree that the POV has to be clear. One solution is to keep shifts to chapter breaks and title it with the POV character's name.

Chester Campbell said...

I had to laugh at that free time in your future, Dani. I hope to get started writing a new book now. With the tour out of the way, I'm still doing three blogs, my own three days a week, Murderous Musings weekly, and Make Mine Mystery twice a month.

Good suggestion about using the POV character's name in the chapter title, Robin, but I don't use chapter titles. A sentence or two from the character's viewpoint can quickly establish who's in charge.

Good discussion, folks.

NL Gassert said...

As a reader, I enjoy multiple points of view and much prefer third-person POV over first-person, so much so that I hardly read mysteries anymore. Naturally, I was devastated when my first editor told me to stick to one POV. I found it extremely limiting, but I’ve since learned to live with it :-)

L.J. Sellers said...

NL: I sympathize. One POV would feel very limiting to me too. I write mystery/suspense and always use several POVs.

Jen said...

One of my all-time favorite novels switches off first person point of view beautifully and incredibly effectively - L.A. REQUIEM. I found it funny that Robert Crais thought that book would end his career.

On the flip side, I also love the John Ceepak series which maintains a consistent first person point of view that isn't John Ceepak's. Seeing John through Danny's eyes is also effective.

But, first person p.o.v. isn't a requirement for a great book, either. Michael Koryta's ENVY THE NIGHT was amazing and also his first foray into third person.

When used effectively, any of the points of view can pack a punch. Chester, did you find that you preferred one p.o.v. over the other? They offer different things for the story, but did you find one easier to use than the other?

conarnold said...

Good post, Chester! I enjoy multiple POV's if they're well done. I'm easily confused at times, so I appreciate a good writer who can do this successfully!

Chester Campbell said...

Truthfully, Jen, I feel comfortable in either voice. When I'm in Greg McKenzie's head, it feels natural telling the story as he sees it. And when I'm in third person, I just describe what a particular POV character sees and feels.