What I’d never done was trying ALTERNATING points of view, whether first or third person and whether present or past tense.
After being converted to first person, single narrator stories, I was addicted. I couldn’t get enough of them. Even if the present tense sounded clunky and sounded like EVERYONE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME because of the immediacy of it, I couldn’t stop writing that way.
Even if I consciously tried to structure my narrative differently, my fingers always slipped back into typing everything from the single character’s POV and usually in the present tense.
Verb tense aside for now – because that’s a whole other blog post – a couple of writing instructors started asking me questions like: Whose story is this really? Should we be seeing some of this from another character’s perspective? For the most part they were right, at least for the stories I worked on with them. They suggested I play with alternating POV chapters. Even if I didn’t keep the new character perspective(s) it would still be a great craft exercise.
Before that advice, I often wrote the same scene in different characters’ perspectives as an exercise to better understand all my characters. However, I hadn’t ever consciously set out to write a story in multiple POVs.
Multiple POV stories have a lot of advantages. Writing this way can be very freeing because you, as the writer, are no longer indelibly locked into one single character’s head.
But a number of issues can arise that you should be aware of if you want to write in this form. They include the following.
Voice. If you’re writing alternate POVs, you have to create each individual narrator from the ground up which means each needs to have an authentic and recognizable voice. That doesn’t mean one of them should speak with a funny accent and the other shouldn’t, but it does mean you want to think about their speech patterns, their though processes, the way they relate to the world around them. How do they move? How do their bodies take up space? Maybe create a notebook or journal for each character with guidelines and rules for how they each speak and react. Then in revision, make sure character A’s traits haven’t slipped into the passages told from character B’s perspective and vice versa. A great example of keeping voices distinct like this can be found in The Walls Around Us by one of my favorite authors and MFA advisors, Nova Ren Suma.
Page Space. Are you going to give your characters equal page space? There are no rules about this. It doesn’t have to be: one chapter for character A; one chapter for character B; rinse and repeat. Character B could simply interject short chapters occasionally to round out the emotional depth of the story. A great example of this is I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios. If the characters don’t have equal page space, there’s a good chance that they’re not joint protagonists i.e. the one with more page space is more likely the true protagonist (the main character who’s internal conflict drives the story) and the second character is more likely to be an antagonist, ally, or other kind of character who helps support or inform the main narrative in some way.
What Goes Where? In revising alternating POV stories, I’ve also found myself confused about which parts of the story should be recounted from which character’s perspective, especially if the two characters are in a lot of scenes together. In fact, if they’re predominantly in the same scenes together, you might ask yourself if the story would better be told from a single character’s perspective. Alternating perspectives probably works best where the second character brings new information to the page from sources unknown to the first character, which will usually involve the second character being in different scenes.
Overall Length of the Manuscript. If you’re writing two distinct leading characters with alternating POVs throughout the story (or possibly even more than two), this may well affect the overall length of your manuscript. While a single POV story can easily be told in a shorter book, the more significant characters whose stories the reader has to follow, the more pages this will take. Obviously that’s not impossible and many readers enjoy longer stories with multiple POVs as long as all the characters are sufficiently engaging to hold reader interest. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is terrific example of this: longer books with large casts of complex characters.
How Soon to Introduce a new POV. This is maybe a more tricky issue, and opinions will vary widely, but introducing a new character’s POV too late in a story can feel jarring to the reader. “How late is too late?” is a subjective inquiry. The answer will depend on your reader and on the story you’re telling. This is an area where a good beta-reader can make a lot of difference. Ask someone else to read the story to see if the new voice is coming in too late. There’s usually a way to introduce a short snippet of the new character earlier in the story that you may not have realized in your first draft, so it’s worth being aware of those opportunities.
I’m sure there are tons of other guidelines for writing in alternating POVs and I’d love to hear from other writers as to how they’ve handled the structure. I’ve not yet published an alternating POV novel, but I’m working doggedly away on a couple of drafts, and could use all the advice I can get!