From the Editor's Desk

The Novel with Multiple Points of View

When working with multiple points of view (POVs), there are a couple of principles to follow.

One is the Duckling Rule. This is the rule of how readers bond to characters, and how important it is not to mess with their heads on that. Read this first.

The second principle is that every character you introduce involves introducing a new storyline. But the more there are, the fewer of them are novel-length. Although it’s part of a series, think about how long each character’s story would be in Game of Thrones if they weren’t broken up chapter by chapter.

Not so very long at all.

They’re shorter stories braided together into a larger plot and storyworld tapestry. When you think about it, that’s actually a pretty complex undertaking.

Game of Musical Thrones

When POV changes exist primarily to serve a plotline (a progression of events), the characters tend to come off wooden and two-dimensional. The point-of-view planning isn’t focused on the character’s point of view!

Properly, every POV character brings their own plot angle to the story, which adds conflict and dimension to the overall storyline. Ah! There’s the G.R.R. Martin.

Multiple-POV story is a lot about character. Each individual story is driven by each individual. Plot is generated by character wants, needs, and choices.

In multi-POV writing, those wants, needs and choices are all centered around the same issue or goal or moral dilemma. If that multi-layered effect doesn’t happen, it’s likely the plot is simply getting diluted across viewpoints — and viewpoints are getting diluted across the event timeline.

Each character is a smaller story of varying length, but each rules their own little self-appointed kingdom.

But how long is each lesser character’s story? How does it intersect with the main character’s story for best effect? What do we even mean by “best effect”?

The Many Lives of a Reader (How Many?)

We need to consider how to ensure the Ducklings bond effectively with the right characters, so that the whole story is compelling and gut-wrenching and all those awesome things.

That means extra POVs must contribute to, not sidestep, the main story’s unfolding. Because characterization is a huge part of that unfolding, they can’t interfere with the main character’s development.

Hmmm. Tricky.

But before you throw in the towel, keep in mind: The big things in life are made up of several smaller stories working together.

Your family’s generational history.

Your workplace’s achievements.

Your Writers Anonymous addiction management meetings. (No, seriously. You should come with me sometime.)

The government, or the populace which opposes a government.

The challenge is, the reader’s brain is trying to live all those lives together at once. So make it as easy on them as possible.

Learning to Manage POVs

Here’s a general guideline you can use as a focusing lens for multiple POVs: Page-time ratios. Fellow editor Jeff Gerke gives it based on page count. I tend to prefer story percentage, because not every novel is the same length.

Nota bene: It’s not wise to force these ratios dogmatically. Sometimes you only need as much as you need. You won’t find me or any other reputable editor telling you to pad or cut the story unnaturally to satisfy a formula.

The point is just to keep the reader’s vicarious experience focused.

So here’s the caveat: This is merely a way of helping teach yourself balance. (And if you’re a romance writer, you’ll notice right away that this is all wrong for your genre’s POV conventions.) It’s not content; it’s content management.

This planning tool is better than mucking about randomly and hoping it’ll all turn out. But it won’t compensate for lack of solid story content. If the story development isn’t strong and effective, this won’t fix that. It can only help you shape the content. Got it? Got it. Good.

A multi-POV story can be planned along these lines:

1)      POV #1: Main character–40 pages/first 10k to 12k words. Other than a prologue which introduces an antagonist or a Major Consequence Of Not Being Heroic, you must start with your main character. That’s non-negotiable. I’ll accept as little as 30 pages/7500 words, but absolutely no less in a full-length (over 65,000 words) novel. This is the first 10-15% of the novel.

2)      POV #2—20-25 pages/5000-6200 words. This is the next most important person in the story. Could be an antagonist, could be someone entwined with the main character’s final goal. This is the next 5-6% of the novel.

3)      POV #1—10-18 pages/2500-4500 words. The first thing you do after introducing a second POV is reassure the Ducklings that their first love has not gone anywhere, and that he/she is in as much trouble as ever. This is between 3-6% of the novel.

4)      POV #3—10-15 pages/2500-3800 words. And now, to keep things interesting, you can introduce a third POV. But, the next step is once again to keep the Ducklings focused and reassured of the story’s direction. This is between 2-4% of the novel.

5)      POV #2—5-10 pages/1250-2500 words/1-3% of the novel. So, back we go to your supporting character, just long enough to say, yes, this one still matters. And then…

6)      POV #1—20-25 pages/5000-6200 words/5-6% of the novel. Back to the main character for a good long while. By giving the main character that much more page time, it cues the reader to who really matters. It affirms their instincts about what’s important.

7)      POV#4—10-15 pages/2500-3800 words/2-4% of the novel. Having re-established what’s what around here, you can now introduce a fourth point of view. See how nicely this paces the revelation of story information, by the way?

8)      POV #3—10 pages/2500 words/2-3% of the novel. Now let’s make our way back through the cast, each in turn.

9)      POV #2—10 pages/2500 words/2-3%.

10)  POV #1—20 pages/5000 words/4-6%. Notice that the two main supporting characters together just got the same page time as Our Hero alone. That’s what I mean by ensuring the Ducklings bond effectively to the right character(s).

11)  Time to play. You can now get a bit looser with things, depending on the story’s needs. This is because you’ve done the groundwork of establishing your main character’s importance relative to the others; you’ve paid your dues. Here, you can give up to 10 pages to any or all of your 3 supporting characters in turn. These POV changes are up to about 8-10% of the story altogether.

12)  POV #5—10-15 pages/2500-3800 words/2-4%. Want yet another POV? Yes, you can. Just remember to think character and conflict, not merely, this guy’s sitting in the coolest seat in the house when the curtain goes up on this scene. Whoever this character is, he’s been there in other scenes, and now he’s going to get in his own stewpot full of trouble and/or do some serious messin’ with the other characters.

13)  POV #1—20-30 pages/5000-7500 words/5-9%. At this point, things are really starting to heat up. It’s time to focus in on Our Hero and do some high-impact, extended storytelling. We’re getting ready for the final push to the major crisis.

14)  Time to play some more. Now you can have the Ducklings get on the rollercoaster ride with each of your minor POV characters, up to 10 pages at a time for each. Let things unravel for the Minors. Remember, we’re aiming straight for disaster, so full speed ahead, now. This is up to another 10% of the story.

15)  POV #6—10 pages/2500 words/2-3%. You may or may not need a sixth individual, but if you do, chances are this is the person who’s going to turn the whole story on its ear. He’s been in the background, the other characters know him, but now we suddenly get a glimpse of things through his eyes. And everything shifts direction.

16)  POV #1—20 pages/5000 words/4-6%. Back to our MC. Things are headed downhill fast now. Tear up the place. Crisis ho!

17)  One final round of play. Go through any of the supporting cast who are involved in tying up the story’s loose ends. Up to 10 pages/2500 words each, as usual. In this analysis, this could be up to another 15% of the story, but in reality it’s probably much less.

18)  POV #1–20 pages/5000 words/4-6%. You’ve made it to the end! You should now have a novel between roughly 80,000 and 95,000 words.

What About Shorter Stories?

I strongly do not recommend that shorter stories use a percentage basis to balance a bunch of POVs. Here’s a third key principle: One POV character is best. Two may make a richer story, or be conventional to a genre such as romance or suspense where the antagonist is often given a perspective.

But in lower word counts, four to six POVs is cruelty to Ducklings.

A Successful Story Journey

If you take a listen to Michael Hague and Chris Vogel’s The Hero’s 2 Journeys,* it’ll make sense why there’s most often no room for more than one hero in any epic. Our Hero has so much to work through that anyone else’s epic journey has strong potential to derail the storytelling process.

You’ll also notice that Hague and Vogel’s approach to content affirms the content management idea of taking the first 40ish pages for the main character: when they explain the story development of the first 10%, it becomes crystal clear why that section belongs to Our Hero.

The Ducklings deserve the chance to bond with your main character and buy in to her journey. Your main character deserves the chance to win the Ducklings’ hearts. Everything else should support and enhance that connection.

That’s what good POV usage is all about.

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