Multiple-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.
My 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
Every 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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