Sunday, July 30, 2006

Multiple Points of View

Isn't it strange how two people can gaze out to sea and, depending on their positions on land, observe different things?

From a certain spot along the coast one may notice the lights of a ship sailing toward the horizon. But from further down the shore, the other person may view a school of dolphins... or the waterspout of a whale... or a lighthouse's beam sweeping across the surface of the water.

If you place five observers along a beach and ask each one to record what they see, you'll find yourself with five very different accounts, each contributing in some way to your understanding of what it means to be at the beach on that day.

Multiple points of view work the same way in our stories.

While some critics claim employing multiple points of view sacrifices depth of characterization for breath of view, many writers find multiple points of view a compelling tool because such a narrative approach most accurately reflects the many-sided nature of reality.

How do you decide on telling a story from multiple points of view?

And how many points-of-view are enough... or too many?

With one point of view, you can pretend--and ask the reader to pretend--that the portrait painted within the pages of your story is an accurate reflection of reality... or skewed in a manner that raises questions about the narrator's truthfulness or reliability.

Either way--whether the narrator is trustworthy or unreliable--as soon as you add a second point of view, you raise the stakes in the reader's mind, and ask her to question the version of reality that each point of view represents.

No longer is there merely one view of the world. Now there are two views, and each one lays certain claims on the reader's trust, while, at the same time, calling into question the credibility of the second point of view.

A story told from two different points of view intensifies the potential for conflict in the reader's mind.

Two different points of view not only raise the question of which view is truthful, but which view is more accurate. (Since each of us views the world through our own idiosyncratic lenses, perhaps there is no such thing as accuracy, merely personal interpretations?)

Telling a story from more than two points of view raises even deeper questions about the nature of truth and reality. That's because the picture presented by multiple voices is broken into so many fragmented views. The reader is given a multi-faceted vision of the world...with different "truths" ... or a single "truth" select as the most faithful account.

It comes down, I think, to a question of trust. Which voice or view-point can the reader trust? And which view-point is problematic... raising doubts about the version of reality that the narrator presents?

Multiple points of view is a very difficult tool to use... a technique that requires a master craftsman to pull off successfully (as Virginia Euwer Wolff did in Bat 6 with more than a dozen different view points). But when it succeeds, the technique suggests an orchestra, with each instrument contributing its own voice to the total sound of the musical composition.

How do you decide on which point of view to adopt for your story?

Much of that, I think, comes down to your own characters... and how you hear them speaking to you about the story.

Do you hear a single voice... overwhelmingly clear and open... sharing his or her version of the story with you? Is there any doubt in your mind that this voice is the one voice needed to tell the story?

Or do you hear more than one voice... each voice offering a different perspective of the story, or perhaps contadictory information about what actually happened? In that case, you might try working with both voices in alternating sequence to determine if one seems stronger and more compelling. Perhaps you'll need both voices to tell the story... or perhaps only one.

Multiple points of view can help a writer probe the nature of reality in unique and challenging ways, and can serve as an excellent tool for replicating a sense of the fragmented reality that we find in our own lives.

What is gained from such a perspective is, of course, a wider angle into the world of the characters, and a chance to explore corners of the world that are often hidden in a story told from a single point of view.

But what may be lost is the depth of focus that comes from presenting the story through the viewpoint of one character.

It's a question of balance, and how you relate to your characters, and how they relate to you.

For more information on multiple points of view, take a look at the following resources:

For a list of some books using multiple view points:

For Sci-fi and fantasy author Tara K. Harper's exploration of multiple points of view:

For the risks of head-hopping vs. multiple points of view:

For seeing through your characters' eyes:

For a screenwriter's observations on point-of-view:

And for an interview with Virginia Euwer Wolff:


jo'r said...

As soon as the discussion got into using more than two points of view, "Bat 6" came to mind, and in the very next paragraph you indeed mentioned this strikingly original story. An avalanche of bit players that might not have worked so well except that it pivoted around the central, Joycean stream-of-consciousness, faulted character of Shazam, and the tension leading up to her confrontation with the other principal player, Akia? The Japanese girl. Wolff worked some potent themes into her story of a ball game—the sympathy one felt for a strange, scrappy kid who lost her father at Pearl Harbor, and the quiet, graceful strength of a girl who lived through the Japanese-American internment camp tragedy in our history. I’m just vaguely remembering details (though who could forget Shazam’s name after reading all those Captain Marvel comic books as a kid); I've already passed along Bat 6 to my granddaughter. I’ve never tried writing a multiple-point-of-view story, but it’s a challenge I look forward to at some time. Nice article.

Dave said...

One of the obvious benefits of multiple points of view is the creation of suspense. You leave a character in a perilous situation where the outcome is uncertain to the reader and switch to another character in the middle of a separate scene. You take this new character through their scene to a crisis point, leave the reader hanging, and switch back to the first character, or possibly to a third character. This ping-pong ball, back and forth, between characters immersed in conflict creates ongoing suspense that pulls the reader through the story. It's an excellent way to keep a story from dragging.