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How to Write from Multiple Points of View

9 Jun
Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small "compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder," according to a New York Times review.

Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small “compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder,” according to a New York Times review.

Anyone writing a novel with multiple points of view probably finds it easy to identify the characters to follow—you simply follow the plot lines and see who’s involved. The tricky part is figuring out how to signal the POV shifts. In his beautiful novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf made the shift at the beginning of each chapter and titled the chapters with a character’s name. The voice or tone of the chapters was basically the same, despite following different characters. This is one way to handle different POVs, but it’s not the only way.

You may want your POV sections to sound different, but it can difficult to create a different voice for each character—let’s face it, it’s hard enough to create one distinctive voice, let alone three or four. Therefore, we need to play with more than voice if we’re going to create distinctive sounding POVs.

No recent novel does as much with POV (or includes as many different perspectives) as Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

See How Small follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others. (To understand the scene, you need to know that the novel is about the brutal killing of three girls):

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

The chapter also contains this sentence: “It grew hot, dark, and wet like first things.”

Notice how the details are shape and focused when it comes to the characters’ memories, but the writing becomes fuzzy and impressionistic (even purposefully vague) when describing violence.

The next chapter uses a more traditional third person POV, from the perspective of a girl’s mother. Even though the writing probably feels more familiar, it does play with style:

Then, for some reason, most likely because Kate Ulrich is embellishing, revising even as she imagines it, the parking lot goes dark. Days are shorter now, Kate thinks.

The narration doesn’t rely on strict chronology but is impressionistic, like the first chapter but with a different sensibility since the character is different.

The third chapter follows Jack Dewey and lists his thoughts before a pivotal moment. The chapter is structured as a literal list, with each item focused narrowly on a particular detail:

1. Of his nylon search rope, which is five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter and two hundred feet long and attached to a snap hook on his belt.

The list advances his thoughts on the rope, which gives the chapter a much more narrow focus than the others.

The fourth chapter follows a man, Hollis, who notices something important but is distracted by something else. He’s so engrossed in that thing (a boy prying loose a shell that was glued to Hollis’ car) that he’s not even aware of himself: “Around him, at the other tables, heads swivel. He suspects he’s yelled an obscenity, maybe even a threat.”

Finally, the fifth chapter follows one of the perpetrators of the crime, 17-year-old Michael. As such, he’s inherently unlikable, yet he’s described sympathetically:

“He’d asked if Michael was working on his GED and Michael lied. The older man, whose hair was thinning, laughed ruefully and said, Sure, that’s you. Overachiever.

The contradiction in how we expect to feel about a character versus how he’s describes creates tension and mystery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s writing from multiple points of view using See How Small by Scott Blackwood as a model:

  1. Write from an impressionistic POV. It’s a cliché that any public moment or interaction will be seen and remembered differently by the different people who are present. But it may be more useful to think about what characters want or don’t want to notice—or what a character can’t help but see or not see, remember or not remember. In other words, much of what people notice is affected by their emotional states, both vague (in a good mood) and specific (mad at someone for a particular reason). Consider what emotional state your character has during the scene and how that state will affect what he or she notices or remembers.
  2. Write from a pointillist POV. Our tendency is to rely on a usual kind of camera view, taking in an entire scene at once. Try zooming the camera in. Focus on a small, particular part of a scene or on a particular thing that a character notices or thinks about. Put blinders on the narration so that it can only see one thing. What is that thing?
  3. Write from a distracted POV. In Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the splash of Icarus into the sea is only a small part of the painting. Many of the characters, like the farmer in the foreground, are looking elsewhere. You can do this with your characters (and their POV) as well. If you’ve created a significant event or interaction, the reader will expect to see it. So, defy that expectation and give your character something else to think about. If the significant event or interaction is important enough, it will butt its head into the scene eventually. Until then, what can distract the character? This is a good way to create suspense in the reader and also to develop a character.
  4. Write a sympathetic POV about an unlikable character. Again, this is about defying the reader’s expectations. If a character plays an unlikable or negative role in the novel, how can you show us the character in a sympathetic light? You might think about how the character would defend him or herself. What are some mitigating factors behind the character’s decisions? What would a character witness for your character say in a trial? Try building a chapter around those details. The opposite of this, of course, is to write an unsympathetic POV about a likable character.

Good luck and have fun.

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