Telling a Story From Multiple Viewpoints

There are some stories that just can’t be told from one perspective—there’s too much going on, and no way the main character can be there to see all of it. That’s where multiple viewpoints come in—and where things start to get a little complicated.

The first thing to think about is how many viewpoints to use. The advantage to having a lot is that you can cover all sorts of different places, from all sorts of different perspectives or both—but that means making sure you have that many differentiable narrative voices, and you can’t lavish the kind of resources on each that you can on making just a few appeal to the audience. Having few lets you focus on the characters, but there are that fewer places it makes sense for them to be able to go, and things they could reasonably do.

Then there’s what each viewpoint brings to the story. The most obvious thing, of course, is location—one character will give you access to places that others can’t go, or won’t go, or simply wouldn’t be able to be because they’re over here at this time, which is necessary. But there’s also perspective—an adult will understand things a child won’t (or a child won’t understand things an adult will, and both have their uses), someone with a particular background won’t notice something that would be dead obvious to someone from a different background, and so on. If one viewpoint character isn’t giving you something that another does, you might want to think about whether you really need her.

How are you going to balance time between viewpoints? In some stories, it makes sense to include everyone equally, but if what everyone’s doing isn’t equally interesting, it might not be such a good idea to try for perfect balance. Consider also how to factor in who you most enjoy writing and how that might affect your balance; sure, a character might be enjoyable to write, but if she’s the one who isn’t doing much of anything good, you’re probably going to need to cut down a bit, or find an excuse to switch her with the one doing the interesting things that just won’t fit in your head quite right.

How do you plan on switching between them? Perspective transitions, handled badly, can be downright disorienting, particularly in first person where you can’t necessarily tell at a first glance who the narrator is. Some people deal with this by only switching at chapter breaks, and switching at every chapter break; some by labeling the beginning of each new section with its viewpoint character, some by doing one person’s scenes in first person and another’s in third person limited, some by changing the font, some by doing some or all of the above. Pick a method or set of methods and stick to it, if at all possible.

What happens if you’ve got a lot of overlapping time? While it can be important to see the same situation from two different angles, sometimes it can get a bit frustrating to the audience if it’s a fast-paced scene that ends on a cliffhanger, and they have to go through it twice without much advancement of time before they can move on to the part they want resolved.

Narrating through multiple sets of eyes is a useful element for a story; make sure you know what you’re doing and how not to go overboard.

2 comments

  1. Michael says:

    I love multiple viewpoints, and use them in nearly all my writing. I started using them almost accidentally — in the first draft of my Sailor Moon fic, in the early stages before I found my feet and grew more confident about steering the plot, I was still following the events of the anime closely. So, in the place corresponding to episode 3 where Naru gets knocked out, I had Thetis take over narrating for a couple of chapters. When I came to revise the story, I was much more concerned with the plot’s internal structure than with slavish adherence to the sequence of anime episodes, so the original reason for this viewpoint switch was gone. Still, I kept the switch, for a number of reasons. In terms of the new plot, it was easy enough to justify: there was an interesting subplot taking place that Naru would not be able to witness. (I could have had Thetis tell her about it afterwards, or have her spy on events using magic; but neither of these would have given the same sense of immediacy.) And I liked getting the chance to write in Thetis’s character, to develop her as a person and bring out the contrast between her and Naru’s perspectives. (Among other advantages, this made it much easier to indicate Thetis’s feelings for another character, which was handled with abysmal lack of subtlety in the first draft.) I even — without planning for this to happen — ended up with a scene between Naru and Thetis falling in Thetis’s perspective chapter, which worked out very nicely as it developed the relationship between them in a way that I just couldn’t have done from Naru’s perspective. Thetis is very much a character with hidden depths — and although there’s a scene at the end in which Naru finds this out, it’s much more effective because it was revealed to the reader earlier.

    In that story, the multiple perspectives were something of an add-on; it remains Naru’s story, and she narrates 30 out of 33 chapters. Return to Hinamizawa was my first story where multiple perspectives were essential to the scheme. Each arc is narrated by just one character, so we get one person’s perspective on the mystery and then switch to another, and so forth — each one shedding a little additional light until we finally hear from the people at the heart of the matter.

    As for methods — I prefer to switch only across chapter breaks, and since I predominantly use first person, make sure that it’s clear who the narrator is as early as possible. When the story gets so fragmented that I need to switch perspectives more frequently than that, as in the last arc of RTH, I prefer to fall back on an omniscient perspective. After all, it’s quite tiring work, continually jumping from one character’s head to another :)


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