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How to Layer Points of View

If you are writing a manuscript with multiple POVs (points of view), ie: first or close third person narration through the eyes of different characters for different sections or chapters, how do you space them? Do they have to be evenly spaced throughout? Here’s a question that Kathryn sent in:

If I am doing a novel with a defined MC, but alternate between him and the supporting (but also very important) character’s POV, do I need to have this happen constantly? Because there are a few times in my book that I switch to ‘the girlfriend’s’ POV, but it isn’t like VAMPIRE DIARIES, for example where LJ Smith has each scene switch to a different character’s POV. Is this something that has to be completely consistent? Or can I put it in as needed?

This is a relatively easy question to answer. When writing from multiple POVs, you don’t need to lock yourself into any kind of scheme. A lot of people think, if they’re splitting the story between two POVs, for example, they have to alternate always POV 1, then POV 2, then POV 1 again. This isn’t always the case. If your two POV characters have almost equal “screen time” in the novel, maybe you can keep it that consistent, but there are no rules that say you have to.

Especially if your story has a MC and then the POV of a supporting character, you can use her when you need her. A few things to consider, though, for any manuscript where you alternate POV:

  1. Give us the first instance of the “other” POV pretty early on, so the reader knows to expect another POV throughout the story.
  2. Don’t go too long without hearing from your other POV characters. You don’t want us to forget that their voices are there and we will if you go for like 50-70 pages without changing POV.
  3. It’s all about balance. You don’t want to switch POV every 4 chapters at the beginning and spend 70 pages in one POV near the end. Make sure they’re somewhat evenly spaced, even if they’re not totally consistent.

Finally, one thing I would urge all of you to consider: do not include adult POVs in manuscripts that have predominantly kid or teen POVs. I’ve seen a lot of writers try this, and it never works that well, unless yours is a very specific type of story (and yes, I expect mentions of THE BOOK THIEF to pop up in the comments, but that is a very specific type of story, more on this later). Besides, a kid who is reading a book targeted to their age group is going to be SO BORED dipping into the head of their teacher, their parents, their minister, their librarian, their whatever. I’ve read manuscripts where we dip into Dad’s head while he’s fretting about the mortgage… his marriage… troubles with his manager at work… Yikes. A lot of adult writers want to reinforce to teen readers that adults have problems and to be more sympathetic to them. Probably because they’re raising teens at the time and feel unappreciated. This is not the way to help teen readers empathize because this type of moralizing usually doesn’t get published and reach teen readers. Even if they’re dipping into the head of the adult villain, it’s still not advisable to do this. You don’t want to alienate your reader, and adult POV does that more often than not. I see the adult POV issue most in fantasies and mysteries, so people writing in those genres, take extra caution.

Other than that, feel free to experiment. You’ll probably be rewriting a lot if you end up changing your mind but really nailing the balance of POVs is important. And, also, do keep in mind that you should vary the voice. If you have a few different characters providing their POV but they all sound the same, use the same words, use the same imagery, etc., then what’s the point of multiple POV? That’s what makes this technique very difficult.

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  1. Susan James’s avatar

    It’s so funny that you would post this today. My sister-in-law and I were just sitting at the table yesterday talking about the books that turned us both onto a lifelong love of fantasy at the tender ages of 12 and 13- Mary Stewart’s Merlin/Arthur triology-in no way imaginable could that be considered a kid’s book.

    I turn on my computer and read this and it finally clicks- I never read “YA.” I didn’t read book for my “age.” I would say it’s because of the limits of my small town library but my sister-in-law was raised in a big city. So, it must be taste.

    Anyway, I’ve been told by eds and agents that I switch POV too much, my work would be “stronger” if I stayed in my (young) MC’s POV and stayed out of “older heads no one cares about.”

    But, I always shook my head- because I cared about such stuff at a young age. (and knew others who did too) I remembered my 13 yr. old daughter looking at me somewhat surprised after reading one of my chapters and saying “I felt so sorry for John!” (the MCs uncle) Now I get it- it’s the fantasy predilection. For some reason were just more accepting of the wise, old folk in the robes or even farmer’s breeches.

    Thanks, Mary. Your posts, as always, are so enlightening.

  2. Krista V.’s avatar

    Hmm. My current WIP is in close third, and I would say at least 75% of the novel is from his point of view. (Basically, I use my secondary character’s point of view when my main character isn’t in the scene.) Might need to address some spacing issues…

  3. Stella Michel’s avatar

    Very timely advice for me, since I’m working on a novel that occasionally switches to the POV of one of my minor characters. You reinforced what I already believed true so thanks!

  4. Lisa Gibson’s avatar

    Thanks for this great advice. I was struggling with POV in my YA novel. This helps greatly.

  5. Conda V. Douglas’s avatar

    I loved the last paragraph–if changing point of view doesn’t add to the story, why do it? I think some writers use it to “add interest,” which isn’t enough of a reason.

  6. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Thank you Mary! Great post.

  7. Michael G-G’s avatar

    Exactly the post I needed today. (I have brother and sister alternating POV and have found it a challenge, to say the least.)

    Your delving into the meaty stuff of writing is why I read and admire your blog, Mary. You are a gifted teacher.

  8. Marybk’s avatar

    Absolutely agree with this post. I’ve seen POV switches done well…believable changes in voice, and some not so well where the POV shift didn’t significantly change the quirkiness of the narrator’s voice.

    I’m sticking to the basics for now, but changing POV might be fun to try in the future. Like, not my next project, and not the one after that one, but perhaps the one that follows it. Maybe.

  9. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Harry Potter dips into adult POV once in a while, but I didn’t really like those sections.

  10. Karyn’s avatar

    When I got into fantasy books it was in my ‘middle grade’ years, and I wasn’t reading books that were written for children. I was reading adult sci-fi/fantasy. It sparked my lifelong love of the genre, and I didn’t think the adult POVs were boring. Now, I might not have fully understood everything I was reading… lol.

    I understand from a marketplace standpoint in today’s publishing that keeping out of the adults’ heads is a good general rule to go by, but… but… but… I’ve always enjoyed being in the villain’s head as well as the MC. And like Harry Potter, there are exceptions to every rule.

  11. Cat Woods’s avatar

    My last MC has multiple personalities. Made POV quite interesting!

    Thanks for your suggestions.

  12. Jackee’s avatar

    Point (ha, ha) taken. Thanks, Mary. :)

    I always think of As I Lay Dying when I think of multiple POVs. And yes, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to pull off what Faulkner did in that one.

  13. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    This is something I had to learn the hard way with my first stab at writing. Taking out those adult POV scenes or reworking them can do wonders, I bet.

  14. Kathryn Jankowski’s avatar

    I thought I was rounding out my story by including adult POVs, but you’ve made me realize the story will work better without it. Thanks.

  15. Liesl’s avatar

    In ENDER’S GAME the pov switches to Valentine on page 87, pretty late, but it worked because that’s when she became a central part of the story. He then goes back to Ender until page 161 and thereafter spends very little time with her. This is obviously an extreme example, but I think it shows that a lot of different things can work, it’s just a matter of what is needful.

  16. Parker P’s avatar

    I don’t like adult POV in YA either. It’s interesting that some teen TV shows switch to an adult’s story line quite often. I suppose it makes sense when you consider how many adults watch shows like Gossip Girl, but I always find it boring there too, even though I’m an adult! The adults’ side plots usually aren’t as compelling, IMO.

  17. Shari Maser’s avatar

    I had the chance to talk with a local, very successful kidlit author last year. She told me: no matter how you tell it, make sure you are telling the MC’s story, as it matters to her/him.

    Some methods of telling a story are harder to pull off than others, though, and multiple POV’s can definitely be one of the more challenging approaches.

    By the way, Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude is a popular picture book with multiple POV’s. Can anyone think of any others?

  18. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    The manuscript I’m editing has two chapters from the friend’s POV. I can’t think of any books that only have it twice, so I’m wondering what I should write at the top of the chapters. Any advice, Mary?

  19. Lois B.’s avatar

    I’ve been reading the Ranger Apprentice series, and I find it has major POV problems. My 8-year-old son doesn’t notice it, but it sure bugs me. I know some people say an author can switch POV causally when he/she is being omnicient or writing in distant third, but I still think you have to be careful. (I’ve noticed most people who say this aren’t authors.) In the Ranger Apprentice, he swtiches between an adult’s thoughts and a teenager’s thoughts in the same paragraph. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed? What is the rule of thumb with omnicient?

  20. Mimm Patterson’s avatar

    Synchronicity, thy name is Mary. Perfect timing as I wage an ongoing battle in my brain re. multiple POV. Initially I was all for it, then a few critiques later was off the idea, but recently decided to trust my gut. And finally, after reading this post, I realized multiple POV wasn’t working in my manuscript because I hadn’t committed to it – I was hedging – not embracing the wonderful ways multiple POV can tell a great story. The reason? I avoid trends like the plague. So my question: Is the whole ‘Picoult-esque’ multiple POV trend getting old? Are agents, editors, publishers going to tire of it the moment I send a round of queries?

  21. Sheri Larsen’s avatar

    I’m so glad you mentioned that one doesn’t have to be generic, switching equally between the different POVs. It never felt natural to me to do that, but obviously it has to be written in a manner where the reader can follow the change.

    Thanks. Great Post. Very helpful.

  22. Anne B.’s avatar

    Thanks for this, Mary. My WIP can only be told with multiple POVs–omniscent narrator is too distant and the MC doesn’t know everything that is happening. I stuck to the POV of only a few of the characters, though, since the others could share their thoughts through dialogue just as effectively.

  23. Karen Amanda Hooper’s avatar

    Phew. I was so worried you were going to say don’t switch POVs in 1st person. So glad you didn’t. :) Thanks for the great tips.

  24. Joan’s avatar

    Very helpful info. I have a MG that switches POV and I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect balance between the two characters yet.

  25. Franziska Green’s avatar

    In Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins she dips into a parent’s POV and it did jar for me. It was toward the middle and I’d gotten used to all the different kids’ POVs, but when it suddenly went into Leon, the dad’s mind, I got a bit lost. I guess a young reader would feel that confusion even more.

    Great and interesting post!

  26. Jennifer Hubbard’s avatar

    I hate to mention my own book, but it does fit exactly with the answer to this question. The book is told mostly from the first-person narrator’s POV, but the rest is told in diary form from another character’s POV. The two characters definitely don’t get equal time. The book is called The Secret Year; it came out this past January.

  27. Lorielle’s avatar

    Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books written in first person pov past tense, in one chapter, then it alternates to another character’s POV – Crazy Beautiful comes to mind. I also just finished “The Clearing” and that’s how Heather Davis wrote her book.

    I’m struggling at the moment with which pov for my novel. I’ve written 14k words in first person pov present tense, but may want to re-think that…

    But I need to stop over-thinking it, as well.

  28. Andy’s avatar

    I think A.S. King weaves adult POVs very well into her books. I’m not sure if you classify her as “a very specific type of story.” But given her style, it works.

    It seems like adult POVs are much more acceptable in middle grade (THE WESTING GAME, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH) than in YA. Do you feel that’s true? Or are the examples I mention books from another time when it WAS acceptable and nowadays it’s less so?

  29. Kelley York’s avatar

    Love it. Also, SUMMER SISTERS by Judy Blume comes to mind. Every so often, there’s a short chapter from a POV by one of the adults or minor characters. Sometimes it seemed so random, but it was so well done and interesting it added to the story. (Of course, this IS Judy Blume we’re talking about…)

    Thanks, Mary! I worry about this when I write multiple POVs.

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