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Switching From One to More than One Point-of-View in Your Story?

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a writer, Philippa East, who did our online course in Self-Editing Your Novel (We'll have 300 graduates, by the time the current course has finished. Could you be our 301st?)

Hi Emma - I'm wondering if you have any blogs or can recommend any articles on revising a novel to change it from single POV to a dual POV structure? I understand the basics of writing in multiple POVs, but I'm looking for any help with actually tackling this kind of serious rewrite. Currently I sort of know what I have to do but just don't know how to do it. Thanks for any advice!

I said I didn't know of any articles, but I'd put it on my to-do list, so here goes. If you want a re-cap on the basics of point-of-view, and the possibilities when you tell a story through more than one point-of-view, pop over to the Toolkit. Here, I'm assuming that you've taken those posts on board (or know it all already), are well into the project and are reasonably happy with it in other ways. And for now we'll stick to the conventional assumption that once you've decided which character's point-of-view you're working in, you can only show things that they could and would experience, understand or know. (Although that is only the conventional view: for a different take, scroll down my post on internal narrators). 

So, if it was all from Ann's PoV, how do you decide what to re-work in Bill's, or Con's? There are two main things to think about:

What's already "on-stage": existing scenes. In terms of scenes in which Ann and Bill, or Con, or all three, are already both present, you could try reading through each scene with a highlighter, say, and marking which bits would be fruitful in Bill's or Con's. The precise moment of shift might be obvious, or it might be something you decide as you re-work the scene, and realise where there's a natural point to move out of one head and into the other. For more about how to move PoV - and yes, of course you can do it mid-scene - click that link. 

What used to be "off-stage": new scenes. If Bill or Con was at events that Ann wasn't, you can now write those events directly, rather than finding other ways to make sure the reader knows about them. But should you? One reason beginner-writers often shy away from working with several points-of-view because how on earth do you decide, when anything is possible?

How to work it all out. If you want to get maximum creative value out of your new PoV, you're going to have to go back to the basics of how the story is built. Try a planning grid, with rows for chapters. The first column is Anna's PoV - i.e. the current version. Jot a note for each scene which is "onstage" at the moment, so you have the outline of the current version from beginning to end. Column two and three are for Bill's and Con's points-of-view- or whoever else is a possible viewpoint character. Make a note of any "off-stage" scenes which currently happen parallel to the "on-stage" scenes, but which Bill or Con are present for. I would then make a fourth column, which is, if you see what I mean, the "new on-stage" version: a first try at laying out the scenes which will now make up the novel. As I jot the scenes into their right places, I'd put little A or B or C in a circle by each one, to show what I think I'll be doing in terms of which PoV for which bit. Do it all in pencil, and be prepared for a LOT of rubbing out while you work it out, not least because you might want to write ...

...totally new bits of story. As you roll around in all this material, it may well be that you realise that things are shifting, and you can or must write new events. If so, don't sigh: it's a really good sign. Huge-scale carpentering on an existing draft always carries a certain risk that you're creating Frankennovel, but finding your creative (as opposed to editorial) imagination waking up proves that the novel is being re-born as a creative whole.  (Apologies to whoever first coined "Frankennovel", because I can't remember, but I do so love the concept and have created at least one myself, so please out yourself in the comments if you want to.). 

Remember that the narrative voice may, even should, change. As you'll know if you've got your head round Psychic Distance, a different PoV may also affect the narrative voice. The closer-in we are to that character's consciousness, the more the scene and how it's narrated is coloured and shaped by that character's personality. So changing PoV from Ann to Bill doesn't only change the mechanics of what you show us, now we're in Bill's head, and give you the chance to withhold or supply information, it also may also change the words you use in both Showing and Telling us what happens. If that shift from Ann's voice-and-point-of-view to Bill's isn't coming naturally - often it doesn't - there are various things which help.  

  • Copy-type the new PoV sections, don't cut-and-paste. This is why and, I'd say, it's crucial if you want to make sure you don't give birth to Frankennovel. 
  • Make sure Bill and Con are really developed characters: perhaps review their dialogue, as a way of clarifying their voices now you need them to colour the narrative as well.
  • Write some of Bill's in first person, maximising the differences quite cold-bloodedly, in some of the ways I suggest in that post, then flip it back into third.
  • First-draft a short story in Bill or Con's voice-and-point-of-view. Sometimes it's easier to develop this kind of thing independently of the practical demands of the plot you already have.

And that's it, I think. Oh, and Happy New Year!