Ask The Writer: When is it OK to use multiple points of view in a novel?

"Writers are often instructed to use only one point of view in a novel. However, I note that some authors use multiple points of view – often in the same chapter. Are multiple points of view OK if transitions are not jarring and the reader isn’t overloaded?"

Ask The Writer: When is it OK to use multiple points of view in a novel? This illustration shows a variety of multicolored hands reaching towards a collection of different-colored speech bubbles.

Point of view is a sprawling topic with lots of little intricacies, and, as a result, I find it useful to tease out some understandings before starting. The term “point of view” is often used exactly how it seems you’re using it – to refer to the character through which the reader experiences the story at any given time. Point of view, though, is a much broader term, taking into account many other authorial choices that define the author’s overall strategy employed to tell the story, including:

Person: such as the first-person “I” or the third-person “she” or “he”

Distance: emotional, spatial, and temporal

Limitations: the narrator’s access and more

To avoid confusion, I like to make the distinction between point of view – that big, sprawling issue – and perspective, the character through which the reader experiences the story. Here’s one thing that’s true about point of view: While some of its elements should generally remain fixed throughout a given work, some can be multiple and shifting.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t switch between, say, first person and third person in the same short story. And if you commit to third person limited, you shouldn’t lapse into another character’s perspective for two sentences halfway through the story. (As with all rules of thumb, these should be disregarded when there’s a compelling reason to do so and when you can also make it work well.)

In some point-of-view strategies, perspective also remains fixed. Many writers choose first person – and stay in one character’s perspective – to achieve an intimacy with an individual character’s experience. Third person can be limited to one character’s perspective or can incorporate many characters’ perspective. These shifts can take place at breaks or within paragraphs.

Determining what perspectives to include, even when you have a lot of freedom regarding which you can include, shouldn’t be an arbitrary process. Instead, it should grow out of your intentions for the piece. In Russell Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a town’s experience of the school bus crash that kills most of the area children is told through a series of first-person perspectives. By bringing in more perspectives, the conflict widens. It’s not about the individual experience so much as how the individual experiences work in concert to tell the larger story about the town negotiating this aftermath.

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—Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers Workshop.

 

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