Multiple Points-of-View: Tips for Clarity and Creativity

Years ago, back when I was tinkering with my first novel, I met another writer for coffee. She left the impression she was far more experienced than I was about writing. When I described my first ever work-in-progress to her, I said, “I alternate points of view between this college age woman and her sister-in-law who  . . . .”

“Let me stop you right there,” she said. She may have even condescendingly patted me on the hand. “Don’t write in dual POVs. At least not in your first book. You really need to know what you’re doing first. Save that for when you’re really good.” Or something like that. She was the only woman I knew who was a writer, so I believed her advice.

In hindsight, I realized that she knew little more than I did and that meeting was far more about her showing off than it was about practical help. Beginning novelists CAN use dual points of view in their novels, but to do it well, and to justify the choice, they should consider these guidelines. 

Voices must be distinct.

A character’s voice includes their attitudes, their self-perceptions, the way that they see their roles in their circles, and their inner most desires. In my case I wanted my college student, Kim, to be cynical and self-loathing. She hated being bossed around, yet was unsure of her way in the world. In contrast, her sister-in-law, Suzanne, demanded much of her young family and yet was overwhelmed by a surprise pregnancy. In her 30s, Suzanne was skilled, decisive, and intolerant of weaknesses in herself and others. Every time she spoke, this self-perception was revealed. To keep the reader from being confused, I wrote their stories in third person, alternating chapters.

Thought processes must differ.

In my book, Suzanne was logical and task-oriented. She organized her entire life with high expectations. This determination showed up in her dialogue with her husband, in they way she dealt with her meddling in-laws, and profoundly revealed her character when she discovers she’s pregnant for the fourth time. By contrast, Kim already knew she didn’t have any control of her life, so her lines of dialogue echoed a hopelessness. She needed to forgive herself of her past mistakes and make positive choices. Because I understood the contrast of the two thought processes, it was easier for me to justify the decisions they made.  

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Word choices must reflect personalities and backgrounds.

Because I understood their voice and the way they thought, I found that it was easy to make their words distinct. Keep in mind that “words” and “voice” are two different things. Suzanne was a hippy vegetarian from New England, so she made references to Boston, dropped her “Rs”, and obsessed over the food her children ate. Kim, however, was a much younger music nerd who grew up in suburban Oklahoma. She had a drawl and was used to the summer heat. As you develop your point of view characters, especially their voices, self-perception, values and goals, think about how their backgrounds and experiences can shape the words that they choose. 

For consistency consider editing one point-of-view at a time.

In my book, I alternated chapters between Kim and Suzanne’s point of view. It would have been easy for me to edit all of what Kim said, from beginning to end first, then go back and edit all what Suzanne said and did. If I had done this (and it was nearly 10 years ago, I don’t remember what I did) it would have been easy for me to mentally keep track of my characters so that the dual point of view chapters revealed enough contrast.

The more development you put in your dual point of view characters, the more distinctions you will see, the easier it will be to write the dialogue that enhances their story and doesn’t take away from it. Your story is their story, told from two points of view. 

I don’t think that it’s ever a bad idea for a new author to be ambitious. Aim high. Give your work everything you’ve got. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn new things and grow at every step. 

And keep in mind, not every writer you meet on the internet knows what they’re talking about. 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.