Monday, March 21, 2011

Alternatives to multiple POV

Tabitha over at Writer Musings blogged about multiple POVs the other day, in a post called "How Many is Too Many?" (excerpt: "There has to be something that all viewpoints add to the story that you can’t get if you only had one.")

I commented on the post, and she quoted me in the follow-up post that links POV to issues of character and plot. Which, by the way, is brilliant, and I don't think I've seen multiple POV discussed from that angle before.

But I've decided to expand a bit more on my original comment, in which I said that the use of multiple POV seems to be increasing, and perhaps writers could rely on it a bit less. For the record, I also said this:

Which isn't to say that it can't work, or that it hasn't been done well. I liked the technique in Paul Zindel's classic, THE PIGMAN. And Brent Hartinger's SPLIT SCREEN is one of my favorite examples: there are only a couple of "overlap" scenes, and the dual narration serves as two halves of a puzzle: together they tell the reader more than either part alone.

So, although I think it can be done well and is often necessary, I want to talk about when it might be a good idea to fight the impulse. Now that there are so many examples of multiple POV out there, a writer's first instinct may be to use this technique when she wishes to show what a character other than the first main character is feeling or thinking--to jump out of one character's head and into another. Tabitha suggests asking what purpose the multiple POV serves. I would suggest that if the only answer is, "We need to know what Character Y thinks/feels," there are other ways to approach the story.

Part of the fun of reading is putting the puzzle together ourselves: picking up clues, interpreting the action of the story. Characters give all sorts of cues to their thoughts and feelings: In what they do, and how they do it. In what they say, and what they don't say. If the character just up and tells us what's on his mind, it can spoil some of that fun. An interesting challenge for the writer is conveying the inner life of a character without bringing us directly inside that character's head: through gesture, timing, tone, dialogue, action, reaction.

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