Writing in Multiple Points of View: Not As Easy As it Seems?

Being a mentor in the 2017 Pitch Wars contest was not only exciting, it was also instructive. I had the chance to read the query letter and first 10 to 50 pages of almost 200 novels from authors looking to be published. I think the experience will help improve my own writing. By critiquing the work of others, I gained insight into what worked (and what didn’t work quite so well) in a number of different genres.

So, what was the greatest issue that I saw writers struggle with in this contest?

Photo by Okssi68/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Okssi68/iStock / Getty Images

In the submissions I received, many writers wrote in multiple first-person points of view. I have heard that agents aren’t always enthusiastic about debut novels written with multiple POVs, because this format is very hard to pull off! Yet many writers today are obviously inspired to write stories this way.

The biggest problem I saw was writers jumping abruptly back and forth from inside one character’s head to another, in the middle of a scene. Writers should be aware that the execution needs to be polished in order for multiple POVs to work. If you’re going to try writing in multiple first person points of view for the first time, I’d suggest that you:

  • Study the format used by a successful published author like Jodi Picoult.
  • Stick to one point of view per chapter, so the reader can settle in for an entire scene from start to finish.
  • Resist the urge to switch POVs in the middle of the action. You might be able to get away with this once or twice at a very dramatic point, but otherwise it can be confusing and make the scenes feel disconnected.
  • Make sure each character voice is unique—distinct and believable. Each character should have his/her own insights, knowledge, personality, and journey throughout the novel.

Here you can listen to Jodi talk a little about working with this literary device:

Here is another very helpful article, from Jane Friedman’s website. This article was written by Jordan Rosenfeld:

Using Multiple Points of View: When and How Is It Most Effective?

I think using multiple first-person points of view is creative and interesting, and can help craft a compelling story. I admire writers who can do it well! In fact, my mentee in the Pitch Wars contest, Krista Riccioni (On the Verge of Breathing) uses this device to great effect. Her primary characters Leela, Erin and Paul don’t just speak differently—they look at the world differently. Each character is sympathetic and fascinating, for different reasons.

Last but not least, don't get frustrated. This is a technical issue. If you haven’t got it quite right the first time, you may be able to fix it with a re-write. Good luck!

Sandi Ward