Who’s telling your story?
That’s the first question readers ask when they begin reading your book—and it should be the first question you ask yourself when you begin writing it.
Whether your story has a first-person narrator or takes a third-person “over-the-shoulder” perspective, point of view is a huge determining factor in how your book comes across to your audience.
Perspective is the lens through which your story is told. It’s the keyhole into which your readers peer. It determines how much we see and hear, what we know about your fictional universe, how intimately we understand your narrator and the other characters in the book, and how large or grand the story itself can feel.
Consistent and well-executed point of view is the key (excuse the pun) to the success of your book. A strong sense of perspective grants your narrative focus and structure and direction. Without it, your narrative isn’t a narrative at all—just a sequence of semi-random events.
But what if your narrative is too big for just one measly point of view? Too grand… too global… too cinematic in scope?
What if your story doesn’t belong to just one character? What if you don’t have just one protagonist, but three—or five, or a dozen?
Why You Should Write in Multiple Perspectives
The answer seems simple at first: if just one perspective won’t cut the mustard, use more than one!
Multiple-viewpoint narratives have a long and proud tradition in literature. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying switches narrators every chapter to show different perspectives on a complex, emotional story. Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love uses varying viewpoints as part of the novel’s structure: a series of distinct-yet-intertwined vignettes that all discuss the nature of love. And George R.R. Martin famously utilizes a whole ensemble of point-of-view characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series to expand the epic scope of both his story and his fictional world.
So what do all these examples have in common?
Here’s the skinny: In each instance, the author’s decision to tell his story in this fashion was not a random choice. Multiple perspectives are narrative tools and should be used to serve your plot, characters, or fictional world—not as an aesthetic or a crutch.
Still unclear? We’re here to help: this may not be a complete list, but here are just a few ways using multiple points of view can enhance your storytelling:
1. Dramatic Irony
By their very nature, differing perspectives bring with them different levels of “informed-ness.”
Simply put: some characters know things other characters don’t, and you can use this to the advantage of your narrative.
Picture this: Two characters are set to have a pistol duel at dawn. In one scene, we see one of the two duelists loading her pistol with blank rounds. But when the morning of the duel arrives, the scene is told from the perspective of the other duelist. As readers, we know that his opponent doesn’t have a deadly weapon, but he’s completely in the dark, ratcheting the tension of the ensuing scene up to DEFCON 1.
While this isn’t the only way to accomplish dramatic irony in your fiction, using multiple viewpoints can be a powerhouse technique to exploit differences in what your characters know—and to mine these differences for nail-biting drama.
2. Epic Scope
Say you’re writing a story in which a huge meteor hits Earth: the impact has global ramifications, with characters in many parts of the world all reacting to the devastation in different ways.
Writing from multiple viewpoints would allow you to capture the full scale of a crisis of this magnitude, from street-level civilians trying to protect their loved ones to world leaders bickering over red tape and disaster-relief funding.
Maybe you’re writing an epic fantasy set in a fictional kingdom of your own creation, one with dozens of interesting places to visit and people to meet. Instead of having your Child Hero Protagonist set out across this magical landscape and “discover” these elements one by one, you could write from the perspectives of multiple characters all living in different parts of the kingdom, establishing your setting as a living, breathing world instead of the background of a guided tour.
Or maybe your story is so grand in scope that it tells the story of multiple generations of characters, each with their own viewpoints and perspectives on past events—and the actions of past generations.
Whether you’re trying to make your world seem vaster, your plot beats seem more impactful, or you’re just trying to wrangle a huge ensemble of characters, “bigger” stories require “bigger” writing choices—and telling your story from multiple points of view is a grand way to accomplish your, ahem, “biggest” goals.
3. Multiple Storylines
Not all books have a single narrative running through them, after all. Many popular novels take a “two lines, no waiting” approach to their storytelling, alternating between two or more storylines that occur simultaneously but don’t truly overlap until much later in the book.
Consider the always-popular example of the police detective and the PI each investigating seemingly unrelated crimes, only to discover that they’re working the same case in the third act. Or look to classic “pursuit narratives,” like Inspector Javert tracking down Jean Valjean in Les Miserables or Chigurh pursuing Moss in No Country for Old Men.
These separate storylines are clearly linked to each other, yet it is their separation that creates the tension and intrigue in their respective books. Adding additional perspectives lets you weave storylines together in intricate patterns and to later join them together for maximum dramatic impact.
However… writing from multiple viewpoints, while a powerful and effective tool, isn’t something you can just use willy-nilly in your fiction. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about using more than one point of view—and the wrong way is a little something called “head-hopping.”
How a Head-Hopping POV Can Ruin Your Story
Head-hopping is when your story’s point of view changes without warning in the middle of a scene.
If the book is narrated in the first person, the “I” narrator inexplicably changes from paragraph to paragraph—or even sentence to sentence.
Or if the book is written in a “close” third-person perspective, readers go from listening to one character’s thoughts and opinions to eavesdropping on another with such speed and suddenness that they’re left with narrative whiplash.
In either case, the story’s point of view “hops” from character to character with little rhyme or reason, sowing chaos and confusion wherever it lands.
Head-hopping is most often the result of an author’s attempt at a “cinematic” perspective—trying to show all “angles” of a scene the way a movie’s moving camera can. But in nearly all cases, this structural choice just makes the story feel unfocused and poorly written, turning off both readers and publishers alike.
Still not convinced? Then let’s take a look at our top 3 reasons why head-hopping can seriously hurt your storytelling:
1. Head-Hopping Confuses Your Readers
Of course, the best way to truly understand the horrors of head-hopping fiction is to experience it for yourself… so here’s a little taste:
Helen watched him slouch into the room. Jim sat down, unsure of how he should feel. She looked good—the years hadn’t touched her like he’d feared they would.
“I hope you have some excuse for yourself,” she heard herself say. Jeez—was that her voice? Did she sound like this to everyone?
Jim frowned. This wasn’t going how he’d planned it at all. She thought he could at least straighten his posture a bit, and take off that ridiculous hat.
Notice how the POV changes every time a new paragraph begins—and once more in the middle of paragraph three. Not only are these changes confusing, but they muddle the purpose of the scene as well.
Who are we meant to root for in this conflict?
Who’s in the right?
Who does the author think is in the right?
Because both these characters share the POV spotlight, neither gets enough “screen time” to fully develop their argument against the other, and the scene is left feeling half-baked as a result.
2. Head-Hopping Ruins Immersive Storytelling
The goal of any narrative is to completely immerse your readers in your fictional world.
The longer they listen to your narrator, the more they’ll become attuned to her particular speaking style—and eventually, if you do your job well enough, they’ll even hear her voice in their heads.
Head-hopping makes this kind of immersion impossible.
Constantly having to reorient yourself to an entirely new point of view can be incredibly jarring. After all, how would you possibly get used to one narrator’s voice if the narrator changes every 10 seconds?
In the end, no matter how good your world-building is, no matter how smooth and immersive your narrative is, a head-hopping viewpoint will leave your readers too frustrated and exhausted to properly enjoy your story.
3. Editors Hate Head-Hopping
If you’re looking to publish a book or short story anytime soon, listen up. Not only can a head-hopping perspective damage the quality of your story, it can also torpedo your story’s chances of getting published.
Here’s the thing. When you submit a story to a publishing house, your manuscript doesn’t go straight to the top brass for consideration. First, staff called acquisitions editors briefly glance over each manuscript in their “slush piles” to see if they meet the publishing house’s standards for publication.
These fine folks appraise dozens, sometimes hundreds of submissions a day, so of course they don’t read every manuscript that crosses their desk cover-to-cover.
Rather, most acquisitions editors have a set of requirements or qualities they look for on the very first page of a manuscript—and if a certain story doesn’t meet those requirements, it gets discarded on the spot.
Bad punctuation? Toss.
Poorly formatted dialogue? Toss.
Head-hopping point of view? Toss.
It’s brutal, yes—but that’s just the way the business works.
Here’s why acquisitions editors dislike head-hopping so much: it’s extremely difficult to correct.
While punctuation, spelling, and formatting issues can be fixed fairly easily in the proofreading stage, a head-hopping point of view is more pervasive, affecting a manuscript’s quality at a structural level.
Rewiring the book to use a more consistent POV is possible, of course—but it would take huge rewrites and weeks of developmental editing, which is a lot more work than your average hard-working editor is willing to commit to one project.
At best, they’ll send you a revise-and-resubmit letter asking you to completely rework your POV on your own before they’ll take another look.
So, no matter how good a writer you are, no matter how wicked your story’s hook is, a head-hopping perspective can still ruin your chances with even the most patient of publishers.
How to Use Multiple Points of View Correctly
Now that you’ve heard all about the wrong way to handle multiple points of view, let’s take a look at the right way to go about it.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you: handling multiple perspectives is one of the most difficult undertakings an author can commit to. Not only do you have to tell an engaging story with compelling characters in a believable world, you’ve got to do all that while juggling a half-a-dozen distinct character voices, motivations, and viewpoints.
It can get mind-bogglingly complicated—but it’s not impossible.
And if you do it effectively, you can create something truly special.
So without further rigmarole, here are 3 rockstar-quality techniques you can use to write in multiple points of view correctly:
1. Stay Consistent
We’ve talked multiple times in the past about the importance of consistency in your fiction, and many of those same points apply here.
Consistency in this case means three things:
- Consistent Degree of POV: Even if your narrator changes every chapter, they should still all be narrated in the same way. For instance, if your first chapter is narrated in first-person perspective, all subsequent chapters should do the same.
- Consistent Switching: Say your narrative alternates between three different perspectives. Generally, if each character is of equal importance in the story, their individual perspectives should get equal time in the limelight. Not only that, but their “screen time” should also be allocated evenly across your novel’s length. Establish a pattern for using your different “perspective characters.” Ask yourself: How often should I switch between them? And which parts of my story should they each get to tell?
- Consistent Characters: This should come as no surprise, but we’re big proponents of consistent characterization here at TCK Publishing. In order to create a smooth and engaging reading experience for your audience, your characters should always act “like themselves”—even as they grow and develop over the course of the story. This means that if a certain character appears both in and out of chapters that she narrates, readers should be able to tell that she’s the same character by her words and actions alone.
Editor’s Note: With multiple perspectives, character constancy is important—but not always necessary. Another awesome source of dramatic irony could be if other character’s descriptions of one POV character differ wildly from how he describes himself.
What if a slow-talking behemoth of a linebacker reveals himself as incredibly well-spoken and cultured in his personal narration? Or if a beloved inner-city social worker confesses an overwhelming urge to kill?
Play with perspective to subvert your audience’s expectations… the results can be soul-shattering.
2. Create Clear Divisions
Part of what makes a “head-hopping” perspective so infuriating to read is that the transitions between perspectives or narrators come completely without warning.
To make a multiple-perspective narrative work, you’ve got to make sure your readers know whose point of view they’re following at all times—and that they know the exact moment when the story’s POV switches from character to character.
How is this accomplished? Create dividers on the page between each point-of-view passage.
Since head-hopping is defined as changing perspective mid-scene, these passages should always be at least a scene or longer. Consider using section breaks or curlicue symbols (called typographer’s flourishes) to create a clear visual “break” between scenes: that way, when a scene ends and a new narrator takes over, readers will be ready for a change and won’t be thrown off-balance by the transition.
In my writing, I often use three of a certain symbol to mark my section breaks, especially if I’m about to switch to a new character’s perspective. It looks like this:
&&& *** ###
Many authors choose to divide their multiple-viewpoint narratives up by chapter, which is an effective and efficient way of doing things. Both George R.R. Martin and Rick Riordan name their chapters after the POV character in that specific chapter; that way, even if the story is told in first person, there’s never any doubt over who’s telling the story.
Editor’s Note: Authors who write short-story cycles or “composite novels” often do the same thing with individual short stories instead of chapters.
Other authors, especially those who write longer books, assign entire Parts—yes, with a capital P—to certain POV characters. These usually get descriptive, name-centric titles like “PART I: Susan Stronnbaw” and the like, and these sections of the book are typically more centered around the named character than whatever other POV characters might appear later in the novel.
3. Make a Plan
Writing a multiple-perspective novel is a serious undertaking, but it gets a lot easier if you take the time to write out a plan of attack first. Even if you usually prefer to write by the seat of your pants, creating a written plan, diagram, or even multiple timelines for your narrative is a must if you’re going to keep all the moving parts in your story straight in your head.
Here’s what you’ll need to do before you begin:
- Create a General Outline of Your Story: Don’t worry about perspectives or narrators yet. Just write down everything you want to happen in your story, including when and where each scene will take place and what characters will be involved.
- Assign Character POVs to Each Scene: Decide which character’s viewpoint is best suited to handle each scene, chapter, or Part of your novel. In the planning phase, I like to assign a highlighter color to each major character, then highlight their scenes in my outline in “their” specific color.
- Decide When and Where Your POVs Will Overlap: In other words, when will your POV characters cross paths with one another? If you’re writing separate timelines that eventually become one, when will this transition take place, and which character’s perspective will we view that scene from? Will you ever describe the same scene or interaction from multiple points of view? How will that affect the narrative, and what new information will your readers learn from this?
All this planning is a lot of work, but having this kind of structure in place will be invaluable to you when you finally start writing your bestseller.
Writing a novel from multiple perspectives is a complex and difficult process—but if you believe your story is better served by using many viewpoints instead of one, you owe it to yourself to try. And with this handy guide in your hands, you’ve got all the tools you need to make your first effort the strongest it can possibly be.
Folks at home—do you have any handy tips for wrangling multiple perspectives in fiction? Join the conversation by telling us about your experiences in the comments section below!
And for more how-to guides for planning your next book project, you need look no further:
- How to Write a Pilot Story: Crafting Compelling Lead Magnets for Fiction and Nonfiction
- How to Start Marketing Your Book Early: 6 Steps for a Successful Book Launch
- How to Write a Book in 60 Days