Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

The other week someone asked me how many points of view it’s possible to have in a novel. It’s a tricky question. The best answer – certainly for novice or learning novelists – is ‘one’. That’s the simplest.

Wright_Typewriter2It’s simplest because the author is dealing with but one major character arc, and a single point of view can be handled from various writing angles – first person singular (‘I’), as if the novel was a personal narrative. The reader only gets to see what the narrator sees. It’s closely related to ‘third person singular’ – which is the same as first person, but where the author steps back and refers to the lead character as ‘he’ or ‘she’.  But they don’t reveal anything that anybody else sees.

Both angles offer differing advantages, depending on what the author has in mind. With first person singular, for instance, it’s possible to play with styles. The classic, to my mind, is George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in first person singular in the style of a ‘found’ nineteenth century memoir, to the point where one reviewer thought it actually was. Brilliant. It’s harder to produce that sense with third person singular, where the writing style is more independent of the content. But that independence may be what’s desired.

Handling multiple points of view – in effect, treating every character as a lead – is possible but quite tricky to accomplish well. It virtually dictates that the novel has to be written from ‘third person plural’ perspective – ‘he’ or ‘she’ perspectives, covering multiple people. It’s possible to play with styles and voices to give a different feel to each narrator. But it carries structural complexities – the multiple ‘lead’ character arcs have to be very carefully planned so they mesh properly around the plot, as just one challenge.

Great novel writing definitely includes multiple POV. But I would not recommend this for novice authors. Nor would I recommend it for a contest like NaNoWriMo – it’s too time-consuming to get multiple POV right. I can be done, of course – but don’t forget, what I’m talking about here isn’t just how to write fast. It’s how to write fast with quality. Some forms of writing – well, they impose speed limits. And multiple POV is one of them.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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9 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

  1. I wonder, is it possible to write the exact same novel four times, but each one from a different Point of View? So it would essentially be the same narrative of events, but a totally different book each time because the of the different perspective.

      1. I thought, for example, someone could rewrite Lord of the Rings, but from the point of view of Sauron, and find that the story as originally told is actually quite different from his perspective, even though you know what happens in the end … or think you know what happens..

        1. Now that’s a thought! Fred Saberhagen did the same with Dracula, with interesting (and hilarious) results. Tolkien was very clear about ‘evil’ being ‘evil’, but these days we tend to have a greyer perspective.

  2. Wondering if you have read -Palo Alto- by James Franco and what you think of the format if you have. It’s short stories with some characters that show up in one or more other stories, but the first person confuses some readers as they think story X has the same narrator as story Z.

    1. I haven’t. That technique is a known one. Definitely easier to pull off in discrete short stories than a single narrative. But still, as you say, potentially confusing.

      1. Thanks for the reply! I liked the book though I saw several reviewers didn’t. I know I’ve heard of at least one other book with that kind of format, but I’ve completely forgotten who the authors are.

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