What is Multiple Viewpoint?
Multiple point-of-view is the literary technique of presenting a story from the points of view of two or more characters relevant to the story. It’s not a new technique, if you paid any attention in English class in high school, or are among the lucky few who enjoy reading for its own sake, then you’ve certainly come across it before.
Structuring a story through multiple-viewpoint allows you to build complexity into the nature of your secondary characters’ motivations and objectives and enhance the reader’s understanding of the importance of the story problem.
It creates the, “Oh, you heard this story too!” effect that makes gossip so exciting: confirmation of the problem from a third source, or more.
It gives you the opportunity to weave a counter-point to the experience of your main character’s viewpoint.
But it also presents the opportunity to confuse and confuddle your reader. You have to be:
- Clear. Signal to the reader that a change of point-of-view has occurred in the narrative. Highlight the name of the narrative’s new point-of-view character, and engage that character in some action, ideally either for or against the heroine.
- Concise. You must introduce this new point-of-view character matter-of-factly and soon put him into action. And I mean very soon. In the same sentence with the introduction, if possible.
- Captivating. The new point-of-view character has to immediately tell the reader something the reader doesn’t already know that is relevant to the action at hand at the end of the last point-of-view character’s tenure as narrative focus.
If the other character viewpoints are not themselves privy to the new character’s new information or action about the plot problem, this serves to create literary irony, the state in which the reader knows something that the characters might not know, which can be used to heighten suspense in the reader.
As the writer, you get to choose what important thing about the main character that is and show it to us, possibly before the hero himself sees it.
But How Many Viewpoints?
I’m a fan of a process called The Marshall Plan, by Evan Marshall. He has been the architect of a great many books. He’s a literary agent and an author of nonfiction books and murder mysteries.
He is noteworthy for writing the book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, a formatted novel-writing system, the first of its kind (playing off of the name of the historical Marshall Plan). The plan assists in the process of writing fiction by developing that fiction around a particular structure of scenes and story elements. Some writers praise the system described in the book as helping to create well structured novels (I would be one of those). But I also won’t dispute that it could be used to create formulaic prose. Forewarned is forearmed.
Putting Marshall to Work
To give an example, in his plan, Marshall breaks down a new book project from the assumption that the book is going to get published. And one of the first things he lays out is a ratio for deriving the number and position of the viewpoints in your story from your overall intended word-count and the number of scenes that should fill that word-count.
In my own process, for an upcoming project, I took Marshall’s ratio of scenes, total word-count, and view points and laid them out on a grid in a spreadsheet, against a grid of a standard three-act thematic arc, the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, and the Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.
My new project is a love-triangle. So what I did was lay the total number of scenes I needed to meet my word-count, and saw which character was telling the story in each scene. By matching the Heroine’s Journey to the scenes, I can follow the story-arc of a major female character, while I can also follow the arc of the villain and the major male character on the Hero’s Journey.
At points in the scene and story structure, I have alternate points of view interjecting. By cross-referencing the point-of-view character with the position of the character’s scene in the story arc, and always looking to resolve the story-question in that scene from that scene’s primary character viewpoint.
One is the villain’s. It’s always important, in building a great villain, to remember that the villain is the hero in his own story. He’s also trying to achieve or stop the hero from achieving the resolution of the story problem. And in someone’s mind, maybe his own, maybe in those of his community, he is the hero. Using multiple point-of-view allows one to exorcise the villain in your own soul as a writer, and build sympathy or revulsion for the villain in the reader. This can bring the story to a more cathartic ending.
Through this method, we can see the villain’s arc against the Hero’s Journey story line, and at appropriate points, interject his vile viewpoint as he ties Daisy Mae to the train tracks.
People love a happy ending. So every episode, I will explain once again that I don’t like people. And then Mal will shoot someone. Someone we like. And their puppy. — Joss Whedon
The other is the secondary romantic lead character. She’s a stranger in a strange land, arrived from abroad. Her fate in the story is tied to the story problem, and she can be both an ally and an antagonist to the hero. It is her challenge to him that sets him on the course that he follows through the major through-line. By:
- interjecting her voice into the conversation between them,
- presenting her counter-arguments to the hero’s plan,
- showing what she thinks they really need to solve the story problem, and
- lining up her story to the Heroine’s Journey from Maureen Murdoch,
Her story arc is then tied to a stage in a feminist scholarly work in the vein of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, one woman’s view of the character arc of the feminist heroine. I can then see where in her story arc the romantic interest is at the moment each scene is scheduled to appear in the narrative, and in so doing use those scenes to heighten romantic tension, introduce irony and suspense, and propel the story-problem forward in some way, for good or ill.
This may sound like “formula” tripe, but consider this: every story is a discussion about some subject close to your heart as a writer. An argument, if you will, with someone who doesn’t think your hero should win. Who doesn’t think your cause is deserving of success.
Multiple points of view allow you to offer these counter-arguments to your beloved cause.
They are the opportunity for you to line up their objections and throw them as hurdles into the oncoming rush of your hero.
And then resolve them.
- Show the reader (through the scene’s point of view character) why the hero’s economic or political plan won’t work.
- Show the reader (through the scene’s viewpoint character) why hunger and domestic violence are crippling stains on the honor of any developed nation, and that’s why the villain is a tramp.
- Show the reader why you should (or shouldn’t) shoot puppies.
The points in the hero’s story from the hero’s point of view are your chance to present your argument.
By interjecting a competing point-of-view at certain points in the story, elements of the story problem and the lead character’s development can be enhanced by interjecting tension, irony, and suspense through the dislocation of the reader’s attention by the point-of-view shift.
What I like about this method of handling point-of-view is that each character’s viewpoint is limited to a clearly demarcated element of the story structure: A scene.
Many writers—and many of them very good, like Virginia Woolf—try to float around between points-of-view without giving readers much warning. Let me say it categorically here and now: I studied Virginia Woolf for two years in graduate school. I am not Virginia Woolf. I don’t have half her talent in this regard. I respect her deeply for her contribution to the form. But I don’t recommend floating through POVs as if they were little thought clouds in a cartoon.
Why? For one thing, because you probably ain’t Virginia Woolf either. Join the club. We meet on Tuesdays in the church hall. We have t-shirts.
For another thing, because without the benefit of the “cartoon,” the line-art drawing that depicts the action and assigns the dialogue to particular heads in the frame, your reader can’t see who’s talking. So I recommend using something clear as a natural demarcation point, like the element of the scene, to break from one character point-of -view to another.
But as long as the transition is handled well, it can be an excellent way to put a small road-bump in your reader’s way to jog their attention, but then excite them with something new: a new character with a whole new set of schemes and motivations! What fun!
Just be Clear, Concise, and Captivating about it.
And Keep Writing!
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