Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.10: Structuring with Multiple POVs

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

In our second micro-structure episode, Peng Shepherd leads us into an exploration of the ways in which the use of multiple point-of-view characters can create a framework within the larger framework of the story.

Liner Notes: In one example we contrasted the single POV Killing Floor, by Lee Childs with its multiple-POV TV adaptation in season 1 of Reacher.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write a scene in your current WIP from another character’s POV and see what changes,  like how the tone of the scene shifts, or what new emotions or information are revealed.

Thing of the week: Meet Me In Another Life, by Catriona Silvey.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Multiple points of view. How does going from a single POV to multiple POVs affect worldbuilding, pacing, and character? Start by asking yourself you want a single POV or multiple POVs. Police procedurals often use an A plot for the main mystery, and a smaller B plot. Multiple POVs can also help control pacing. It also provides a way to flesh out side characters, and even main characters, by looking at them from other sides. It can also help examine motivations. Remember, you choose to use multiple POVs to let you dig into the complexities if you want to.

[Season 17, Episode 10]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring with Multiple POVs.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Peng] I’m Peng.

[Howard] And I’ve got the B plot.


[Dan] Now, POV, that’s points of view. We want to make sure that that is clear. When we have multiple points of view in a story, how does that change the structure? How can you build the structure to take best advantage of your multiple POVs? So, Peng, what are your thoughts on this? Where do we start when we’ve got a story with multiple points of view?

[Peng] Weel, I mean, I think the first thing you start with is do you want to have multiple points of view to begin with? Because some stories may not be served by that, and then others, it would really have a… So, when you have… When you think you have a story that you want to tell with multiple POVs, it has really important implications for, I think, a lot of different aspects of craft. We can kind of go one by one. But I would say worldbuilding, pacing, and character are some of the aspects of stories that can be changed the most by taking your story from single point of view to multiple points of view.

[Mary Robinette] So I’m going to…

[Peng] Mary Robinette, you…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I’m going to jump in real fast, because that thing you said about you want your story to be single POV or multi-POV. So, full disclosure, I’m about to do a spoiler.

[Peng] Oooh!

[Mary Robinette] For the Glamorous History series. But it’s book 5. So in book 3, we had a discussion about… Excuse me, in book 4, which was Valor and Vanity, we had a discussion about whether or not I should do multiple POVs. Because I was doing a heist, and doing multiple POVs would have made it significantly easier to hide information from the reader by controlling which character… The character that was in the know would be the one that… Whose POV I was not in. So it was going to be significantly easier. However, I said no, I have to keep this single POV, because I know… In part, there was the thing that the whole series had been single POV up to that point, but also, in book 5, I had anything planned that needed the shock of suddenly switching POVs. Which is that… This is the spoiler part. You have been warned. This is your last opportunity. Okay. I make the reader think that I have potentially killed Jane, who is my POV character, by having her lose consciousness and switching to her husband’s POV. We get his POV for two chapters. So it is… It was something that I did with the intention of using that POV shift for shock.

[Howard] Mary Robinette, that sounds like it might have affected some people.

[Mary Robinette] I have been told, and it is one of the things that I’m most proud of, is multiple people threw the book across the room…


[Mary Robinette] When they got to Vincent’s POV because they were shocked and appalled that I was doing that thing.

[Howard] Well played.

[Dan] That’s wonderful.

[Howard] Well played.

[Dan] That would not have worked as well if you had done the multiple POVs in book 4, like you were saying. It wouldn’t have been the shock that you needed it to be.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] When I introduced myself at the beginning of this episode, and said, “I have the B plot,” I was telegraphing the entire structural format of lots of police procedurals, the whole CSI franchise. Where a portion of the POVs are devoted to the B plot of the episode. You have an A plot that is the main mystery, and then you’ve got some side characters who are doing the smaller B plot. Sometimes they tie together, and sometimes they don’t. The point of all this is that when you have an ensemble cast, or at the very least, multiple POVs, now you have the ability to manage A plot, B plot, CDE plot, whatever, and thread things together.

[Peng] Yeah. It also, when you’ve got multiple POVs like this, it’s a good way to control your pacing, too. Especially for something… I mean, if we’re going to talk about the police procedurals, if you just had on A plot, the mystery would almost seem… I mean, it would seem a little too fast and kind of surface and flat, because that’s the only thing you’re focusing on. But if you’ve got another POV to switch to, it can… It helps you control pacing because you can have one going slower or faster than the other. So your readers or your viewers will get a little bit of a break if you’ve got a really tense moment in the A plot, for example, and then you switch to something a little bit slower in the B plot. It can release a little bit of that fast pacing and give the readers a chance to breathe. It also indicates that both of them are related. It just makes the whole thing… It can make the whole thing feel a lot deeper. If you’ve got more than…

[Howard] I’ve seen B plots used to turn super obvious clues from the A plot into “Oh, wait. That must be a red herring.” Because of the way it… It’s the pacing of a mystery. Using a POV shift to convince the reader that the clue you just given them isn’t as important or is way more important than they thought it was. It’s cool. It’s super difficult to do without multiple POVs.

[Dan] So, while we’re talking about this, let’s do our book of the week. Peng, you have that this week.

[Peng] I do. Our book of the week is Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. It is a book with two alternating perspectives. It’s this really fascinating clever mystery about these two people, a man and a woman, who keep meeting over and over again in different lives. Like, sometimes they’re lovers, sometimes they’re friends, sometimes they’re colleagues, or sometimes one of them’s very old and one is very young. But the weird thing is that they’re always in Cologne, Germany, and they’re always in the same time. Because everyone else in their lives is also the same. Like, it’s the same bartender at the bar that they always go to, it’s the same train conductor on the train. So at first, they don’t know it, the way that the readers do, but they slowly start to recognize each other and realize that something really strange is going on. They set out to try to figure out what’s happening to them together. It’s such a great story. I won’t spoil anything, but every time you think you have figured out what’s going on, you’re wrong. Just like the characters are. The ending is just so surprising and different that you think that there is no way that the author’s going to be able to pull it off. Then she does. So it’s such a great escape. I read it during lockdown in… During the early part of the pandemic. I think it was the first book that I was able to actually read. It was one of those one’s where you sit down, and a few hours later, you look up and you’re like, “What? Huh. What time is it?”


[Peng] So it’s really… It’s great. It’s fantastic.

[Dan] Wonderful. That is Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. So, everyone go read that.

[Dan] We have recently been given a really wonderful example of how multiple POVs can alter the structure of a story. Who is it that put The Killing Floor…

[Howard] Oh, that was me.

[Dan] Into the outline? Howard, talk about that, because I find this fascinating.

[Howard] That was me. In Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, Jack Reacher is the POV character and the story is told first person from Reacher’s perspective, beginning to end. There are couple of side characters that he interacts with, who help… I say help with the investigation. It’s really supposed to be their investigation. Reacher isn’t a police officer. He has no authority here. But they’re off doing police stuff. We get their clues, their information, when they touch back with him. In the Amazon’s Prime series that just aired a couple of… Three weeks ago as of the time we’re recording this called Reacher, those characters get their own points of view. It changes the way the story unfolds. It makes those characters… It makes those characters feel more important, more real to us, and it gives us tension that we didn’t have before. We like them more, we don’t want bad things to happen to them. If they die off camera… In the book, in Reacher’s POV, lots of people die off camera. We don’t see what happens. Reacher learns about another body. But actually having the camera on them changes the pacing, changes the tension. I enjoyed it a lot.

[Dan] Yeah. It was really interesting to watch that unfold. I’m glad that you pointed it out because adding in the extra POVs change the story and the characters obviously, but also required and demanded a different structure. In a lot of ways, the fact that they were turning this into a TV show, the structure demanded multiple POVs. They couldn’t have done 10 episodes were however many it was solely with the one person. Now, on the other hand, Lee Child himself has come out and said that because there are multiple POVs, because we got to know Roscoe so well, for example, he is very sad that the structure of the series overall is that of a drifter, and we never come back to Margrave, we will never come back to Roscoe again. So in some ways, it kind of works counter to the book series because now we want to see Roscoe, we want to follow her just as much as we want to follow Reacher. Honestly, probably a little more.

[Howard] One of the thoughts that I had in that regard is that the emotional arc of Reacher being so disconnected that he can just drift. In the books, we don’t really get a feel for the cost of that. But as audience members watching the TV show, there is a cost. I’m not going to get to see Roscoe again, and that makes me sad. Why do I have to be a drifter? Well, okay, I’m having an emotional experience because of the kind of story that’s being told.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things for me about this conversation is that I think when we’re talking about the characterization that it’s easy to think about it as giving that multiple POV makes these additional side characters more fleshed out and more interesting. But the other thing that it does for me is that it gives you an opportunity to learn more about whoever tips us in a book where you have a main character, or even on ensemble, it gives you an opportunity to learn more about those other characters because you get to see them from the outside. That’s something that a novel or a short story, that prose can do that is harder in film, is that having that second POV and the interiority of the character who is observing someone that you’ve already met can give you, I think, a greater sense of… Someone can feel like, “Hello, I am a hot mess.” Then you see them from the outside, and they’re cold and controlled. That’s an exciting thing that multiple POVs can give you. One example that I’d love to bring up is Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.

[Peng] That was such a good book.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, so good. It’s got so many different POVs. It’s actually not so many. It’s got…

[Peng] I think it’s three, right?

[Mary Robinette] Multiple… Three? Is it?

[Peng] Yeah, I think it’s three.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The thing that’s wonderful about it is that it does this thing, that each of those characters at a certain point intersects with one of the other characters and you can see them from the outside and how they are perceived by the rest of the world, and it is at odds with how they perceive themselves. Which is, I think, true for a lot… Inherently true for a lot of us.

[Peng] Yeah.

[Dan] Definitely.

[Peng] I think the other thing that the multiple POVs in Black Sun does really well is not only does it allow Rebecca Roanhorse to illuminate the characters in that way, but it also helps you, or it can help you explain their motivations too. So it’s not just the way that they see themselves versus the way that others see them, but also whatever their goals are. You… When you get to see the other side of it, it really helps you understand that… What each of them wants can be really complicated, it’s not just black-and-white or… Like, for example, if you’ve got somebody that seems like the villain the whole time, if you’re only viewing them from one perspective, like the hero’s perspective, you’re only going to see or get the hero’s read on that. But then if you are able to jump to either the villain’s perspective or someone else’s perspective who can see the villain, you’re able to flesh out the quote unquote villain’s motivations in a way that you wouldn’t be able to if you just had hero, because the hero can only see one way. I think that happens a lot in Black Sun where from the outside it might look like somebody just wants war, they want to conquer something or they want to preserve a way of life that seems very bad to the other characters. But then when you get to hear it from that character, it’s so much more complicated than that.

[Dan] This is something that can work both ways, right? If you want to draw out those kinds of complexities, then structuring your book such that it has multiple POVs is a good choice you can make. It’s not just an outcome that happens, but one that you can choose. Which I think is really wonderful.

[Dan] All right. It’s time for our homework, and, Mary Robinette, you have that this week.

[Mary Robinette] I do. So what I want you to do is take a scene in your current work in progress and rewrite from another character’s point of view. I want you to look to see what changes, how the tone of the scene might shift, what new information or information might be revealed. If you want to really dive into this, try to make sure that the beats, the physical beats, don’t shift. So, if a character enters at the top of a scene and pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, they still have to do that, but now you have to try to write it so that it makes sense about why they’re doing that. I can’t imagine what reason that would be. But maybe they’re saving them from a fire, maybe that old lady in a wheelchair is actually a demon and you didn’t know it. Whatever it is, see if you can make all of their motivations make sense without changing the beats. You can include things that the other character didn’t notice, absolutely. You can have the scene start a little earlier or end a little later. But what you really want to do is dig into the why of the character.

[Dan] That sounds awesome. I actually think I’m going to do that with the work in progress that I currently have. So…

[Howard] You’re going to push an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs?

[Dan] Oh, yeah. Is that not what everyone else got from the…

[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly the homework, yes.

[Howard] That’s what I got, yeah.

[Dan] Excellent. You are out of excuses, now go write.