Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints

We called “can-of-worms” on multiple viewpoints last week because the topic is too big to share the ‘cast with anything else. We talk about why multiple viewpoints are useful, and then how to do it well. We discuss the pitfalls and how to avoid them, and then the strategies we use to pull off multiple viewpoints well.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: John Ringo’s Live Free or Die, in which the main character is based on Howard Tayler, only shorter and more Napoleonic.

Writing Excuses Podcaster Book Launch-of-the-Week: I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells is available now in the United States, and he’s on tour promoting it.

Writing Prompt: Write a multiple viewpoint story in which a single tree serves as the focus for each of the different viewpoints.

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31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints”

  1. Well, the Tom Clancy thing is a genre thing, that is, every scene starts with a short epigraph (?) telling the reader the location and time of the scene. A quick and easy reference to know who is “on” during the scene. You come to associate a certain character with a given location, such as Washington D.C., Moscow, Iceland or Western Germany (Red Storm Rising).

    Also choosing the right POV character is important. The same scene will look very different to each character.

    Sticking to one POV character is a must, no jumping mid-scene or or worse mid-paragraph!

    I used multiple-POV on my second book, in part because while it was Urban Fantasy it borrowed heavily from techno thrillers. It also allowed we to compare and contrast the heroes vs. the villains (as in a comic book where you have a panel showing what the heroes are doing and another panel or page showing the villains reaction).

  2. You know, these writing prompts you guys give us seem to get larger and larger in scope every week. A “multiple viewpoint” prompt? Darn, you guys want COMMITMENT. :P

    Also, about a year from now, agents are going to start to wonder just what the heck is up with this query trend about speculative fiction novels told from the POV of trees.

  3. Another fantastic ‘cast by the Writing Excuses gang. I’ve only recently begun listening to you guys– nearly a year now, I think –but I’ve always enjoyed your podcasts, and found them awesomely enlightening and useful.

    I look forward each week to Writing Excuses, and I will continue to do so.

  4. It seems to me that switching viewpoints at a cliffhanger might come in useful when you eventually get back to the character who you switch away from. For example, if it’s still early in the story and the characters haven’t had a chance to make much of an impression in the reader yet, then if you go back to a character who was last seen at a cliffhanger, even if the reader doesn’t exactly remember who the character is, you can make a reference to the situation that they were last seen in, which will then hopefully jump start the reader’s memory.

  5. Brenton: The problem is essentially that you ruin the cliffhanger that way. If the reader needs to be reminded, it’s lost impact. Cliffhangers are fine, but you need to get back to them quickly before their impact dissipates. If you have an “unavoidable cliffhanger” that you don’t really want, you could possibly dissipate the impact that way, but I can’t really think of any situation you’d want to do that in.

  6. I’m not so sure that multiple viewpoints or multiple storylines leads to a loss of momentum; whenever I read or write in multiple viewpoints, I find the point of view changes to be refreshing. Sometimes you get sick of being with one character for a long time, and the point of view change makes things interesting again.

  7. Has anyone here read “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner? I bring it up because it too has multiple viewpoints, and the chapter naming manages to make this very interesting, plus there are bits that give exposition on the world and what it’s like in his world.

    I’ve never seen anyone else manage multiple veiwpoints the same way, or as well. One could completely skip all the ‘Tracking with closeups’ chapters without losing the main story line.

  8. I’m one of those people who can pick up a book, read half of it, put it on a shelf for ten years, and then read the second half and lose absolutely nothing from the experience. I really don’t have a problem when a viewpoint switch interrupts a cliffhanger because I always remember what was happening when the viewpoint switched. I’m afraid this might make it hard for me to write a multiple viewpoint story due to lack of sympathy with my readers, who might get annoyed at the interruptions.

    One thing that has surprised me, though, as I’ve looked around, is all the different kinds of multiple-viewpoint stories there are. There are even some stories where one of the viewpoints is in first person and the rest are in third person. This made me feel a little bit better about myself because my current book does something similar.

  9. I have a rotation of three main characters but it’s not as strict as Brandon’s 1-2-3. It’s much more complex than that so hopefully it’s not predictable to my reader. I did this on purpose and I think it will work but I’d like any of your thoughts on this approach. Another piece of this puzzle is contrary to Tom Clancy’s way of working (I have never read any of his work to be honest). My characters come together rather quickly, well within the first 100 pages. Can this be a viable way around this “problem”?

    You mention matching your viewpoints to your reader’s expectations but how exactly can an emerging author know his audience exactly? I know the basic demographic I want to reach and other books in the genre but won’t it ultimately take them a book or two before they become familiar with my personal approach to viewpoints?

    Thanks for any responses. As always, your help and your podcast is invaluable!

  10. Okay, here’s a question.

    The podcast mentioned two different kinds of strategies regarding multiple viewpoints: switching fast and often, usually with cliffhangers (the thriller approach) and spending more time on a given viewpoint in order to flesh it out and let it rest for a while (the epic fantasy approach).

    Is it possible to mix the two approaches in the same work? Have a story where some of the viewpoints switch often and end on cliffhangers, where others are grander in scope and take up more space?

    Once again, thanks for the awesome writing advice! This is, without a doubt, my favorite podcast.

  11. Multiple viewpoints can be wonderful. However, every time you change view points you risk losing the reader IF you switch to a story they don’t care about. You risk losing narrative momentum. You risk readers starting your story only to abandon it.

    How do you minimize the risk?

    1) You DON’T switch to a new story. You switch to a point of view in the same story line. For example, let’s say you have a hero pov. You can switch to the villain’s pov to reveal stuff that will shoot suspense through the roof for the hero–the villain already knows the hero’s plan, is two steps ahead, receives a traitor and makes a plan, plants a bomb, etc. Or maybe you have two points of view of the good guys and they’re in the same battle AND what they’re doing affects each other. That’s the key. That the point of view either affects or sheds light on the OTHER story.

    2) You DON’T give the second point of view much stage time. We know they’re on for only a few pages and then we can get back to the main story.

    3) You only give the next point of view stage time AFTER building to it so it’s likely to be interesting. For example, when the guys talk about LOTR, we meet our group and get to be invested in all of them so that when they split, we’re hopefully interested in both story lines.

    4) You do what Brandon suggested and write a complete arc then hand off the story. For example, Orson Card’s Prentice Alvin starts with Cavil Planter, then moves to the slave mother trying to save her baby, and then moves again to Alvin. But we don’t go back. Cavil and the slave mother are done. However, they’re connected to what comes later. This one still carries risk because subsequent stories might not interest. But that just means you have to have 1, 2, 3 “beginnings” and treat them as such.

    Having said all that, you can also say to heck with the risk. I’ll just have to appeal to the readers who will hang with me.

    @ onelowerlight,

    It’s possible to do anything you want. For example, you can use the longer sections and then do quick cuts during the climax or some other major scene. In fact, Brandon did exactly this in The Hero of Ages. A lot of movies do this as well. You could do the same at the beginning and then slow it down–Lamentation by Scholes starts with a lot of quick cuts.

    The only thing you need to think about is reader effect–will this guide the reader into the experience I want them to have? My advice: always start with the effect you’re yearing for, even if it’s still mostly subconscious. Don’t start with rules. Start with the objective and then figure out the techniques to get you there.

    Have you noticed how Brandon talks about producing a certain type of effect with his works–he wants them to be a bit slower (on purpose!)? He wants people to have resting places, feel closure throughout. And so he does it the way he does. But I don’t think all epics need to be this way. RUNELORDS (the first book) felt epic to me, but it was rollercoaster fast. Short chapters, different viewpoints, boom, boom, boom. I loved it.

    What is the effect you’re after? What is the experience you like? Try to ID that and then use the techniques that support it best.

  12. Great podcast – thanks, guys!

    I notice that Pratchett can use multiple viewpoints, but still keep the momentum going. He has very quick, short scenes, and switches back and forth between viewpoints where action is going on in each one. He seems to be able to build momentum this way – maybe by using this as a means to skip more boring or slower bits?

    The short scenes certainly help, too – makes it very hard to put one of his down, because I always think, well, just a FEW more pages, just ONE more scene, kinda like just ONE more potato chip. :-)

  13. Oh, man. Potato Chip. I loved that series. Epic, and yet everyman-accessible. It’s like the meat-and-potatoes of fiction, only the potatoes have been thinly sliced, deep fried, and then salted. I seriously could not put those titles down until I’d emptied them into my fiction-hungry maw.

    I’m afraid to pick them up again. I’ll read Potato Chip to the exclusion of everything else, and that just wouldn’t be healthy.

  14. Random comment:

    Thanks for recommending Name of the Wind a while back. I finally got around to reading it and 1/3 of the way in it’s a fantastic book.

    Oh yeah, you guys are good too.

  15. Wow, not many comments this week.

    In any case, I really appreciated this podcast. Since I don’t have much experience right now, I decided to stick to three main viewpoints in my book. In other things I have written, I like to try to jump back and forth between different things, but this time I am trying to stick to just these three characters, with the occasional side character thrown in when a scene is vital to the story, but the three characters can’t be there. It has been useful for me, and I have learned a lot about viewpoint, though I think that I have messed some things up in this book in that regard.

    The next book I am planning also only has three viewpoints, so I think I will do that one a lot better than I have done this one.

  16. Good show guys, I really appreciate that you all still take a little time out of your busy lives to help us newbie’s.

    As for multiple viewpoints; I haven’t reached the point where I feel comfortable doing it myself. It is something I want to try in the near future. Right now I am happy with the single POV in first person.

    I always love it when John Brown offers his thoughts, thanks John.

    @ Dan Wells, I read your book, I am Not a Serial Killer and I loved it, good job.

    @ The Writing Excuses crew, is there any chance of getting Jim Butcher on as a guest? He is one of my favorite authors, even after the way he left me hanging after I finished reading Changes.

  17. @Brenna hah it’s funny, EVERYONE has that reaction to the end of the new book (yes me too). However I hear the resolution is covered in his coming short story collection (all Dresden Files), so we don’t have to wait until next April to find out what the hell happened.

  18. Great ‘cast, guys! I’ve learned so much from the three of you over that last couple of years (which begs the question of why I haven’t commented before now…). Anyway, just wanted to officially say thanks, and I look forward to more podcasts in the future!

    Also, my copy of I Am Not A Serial Killer just came in today. Can’t. Put it. Down! Can’t wait to find out how it ends!

    And Howard, thanks for the description of Live Free Or Die. You made it sound really interesting, so I’ll have to pick it up now. (Oh, and I’ll actually have a chance to meet John Ringo in May! It’s my first ‘Con and I’m really excited!)

    Darn it, now I’m rambling. Sorry about that.

  19. Heh, the fact that he left me hanging was actually reassuring. I was like, “Right, because this guy is a good writer, what this means is that we have another book coming, because NOBODY would end their series like this.” And of course, when I checked, I was right ;)

  20. @ John Brown — Thanks for the reply! Very interesting and helpful advice. When you’re totally immersed in the writing process, it can be hard to see the story the way the reader will see it, but I can see how it’s still important to keep that in mind. I certainly will.

  21. I didn’t mention this in the first comment, but great job guys (and I second the Jim Butcher special guest appearance if you can wrangle it). I also feel that this podcast is the very tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to POV in general and multiple POVs in particular.

    Can’t wait to see what the next one brings.

    Oh and so far I’m enjoying Mistborn.

  22. One of the pitfalls of juggling multiple storylines no one mentioned was the author losing track of the characters and simply forgetting to write about someone for a while. I know it’s happened to me, and I’m sure everyone has an example they could point at.

  23. Hey ! An other great podcast from the team!

    Really helpfull, as the comments and especially John Brown’s, thanks.

    The first book I finished was based on two POV only and it was a hard and easy choice in the same time because there were so many things I had to let on silence… Anyway, it was just a first try and now that I’m working on a new one, a fantasy novel, I think that this is more interesting to have mutliple POV, for the writer and the reader, because it’s the type of story that I like to read ! It’s like a challenge to write like this but a real pleasure.

    There is so many ways to tell a story.

    For exemple, the Stephen Lawhead “Pendragon” books (sorry if the title isn’t the same that the english version because I only know the french edition) are very interesting because every book has differents POV and in every one there are two or three POV but at the end, the reader realise that this is the same story and not the same. It’s like if the reader’s POV was include in the story, really great !

  24. I’m doing an Archive Binge for Writing Excuses and totally loving the podcast. Clancy’s Tree has come up AGAIN though, and I resisted commenting on it before. For the record, the tree is in Debt of Honor– not Sum of All Fears– and it hits a transport ship, not a submarine!

  25. I only do view points from the main cast. Unless its a plot point and I have to adress it, then I’ll either come up with another character to help me with that or have an MC do it. Anyway, I do a really random thing of switching between first person and third person. The information is limited to the characters of course, because you can’t have a character know more than they’re supposed to know – and I also believe in cluing in the audience when you clue in a character.

  26. Well Brandon, you were pretty damn mean with this. That cliffhanger with Spook. You just don’t do that D:.

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