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I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me

I was told posting pictures of cuddly animals increased traffic. Wrong.

Dear Ms Lerner,

How many POVs are best in a novel? I have been told no more than four.
The reason I am inquiring is my manuscript has two plots that intersect along with several sub-plots that thread their way in toward the end.
Thank you for your informative blog on writing and the publishing industry. It has been a great help in my writing.
Yours truly,

Dear Yours Truly:
These are the kinds of writing questions that give me a stomach ache. It’s a very good question, but it also reminds me of the kid who wants to know how long the paper has to be before he’s even figured out what to say. There are no rules; or, more precisely, you make the rules.  Your narrator(s) and POV(s) are like the DNA in your book. You can’t impose them from the outside. They emerge as you write. Often a piece of writing begins with a high dive off the deep end, the narrative voice distinctive and high octane. But just as often that voice is difficult to sustain, the writer comes up empty or deploys a different narrative strategy.
Eventually, these questions will sort themselves out, third person or first, limited or omniscient, one narrator or twenty.  Whoever said there should be no more than four was probably being practical; after all, it’s hard to juggle more than that. What baffles me about your question is: what does the number of narrators have to do with the plot and sub-plot lines? I believe these are separate issues. I don’t like multiple narrators because it often feels more like ventriloquism than storytelling. I also get attached to the narrator and fight the arrival of a new one. It’s always a little battle for me to start over with a new narrator. But fuck me, what do you all say out there? I’m too tired to even think of a novel with multiple narrators that I like.

37 Responses

  1. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout had multiple narrators, but it read like a collection of interconnected short stories instead of a novel. At any rate, it was a marvel.

  2. Just finished Reiken’s Day for Night. Every chapter has a different narrator but all chapters are interconnected. Like you, I usually prefer a single narrator but thought this was beautifully done.

  3. I’m not going to touch this subject on the grounds that it may incriminate me (and my novel) so I plead the Fifth. There was a ventriloquist in Washington Square Park the other night. He was brilliant. I think it was the same night I met Patti Smith there. Her voice as she spoke to me seemed to be coming from the ventriloquist. William Burroughs has the most brilliant line about ventriloquists in JUNKIE…let me see if I can find it…one sec….

    I found it, but it’s too controversial to copy here, even here.

    • C’mon Kyler, don’t make me beg you. How will that look? Anything Mr. Burroughs committed to print can appear on my lowly blog. Pretty please.

      • OK, Betsy. I got it. Let me preface it by saying that I’m a gay man and I think this quote is amazing:

        “A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous. The live human being has moved out of these bodies long ago. But something moved in when the original tenant moved out. Fags are ventriloquists’ dummies who have moved in and taken over the ventriloquist. The dummy sits in a queer bar nursing his beer, and uncontrollably yapping out of a rigid doll face.”

      • PS: please keep in mind that this was written in 1953 and that Burroughs himself liked guys.

  4. Favorite novel with multiple narrators is The Sound and The Fury, but I also tend to dislike many narrators. Faulkner is so genius that he pulls it off and gets me to empathize with almost all his narrators, though, like many readers, I’m very attracted to Quentin and could happily have read the whole book from his POV. Recently bought and am 3/4ths through Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers. Bought it sort of mindlessly — didn’t realize it was very loosely interconnected short stories about different people. I think this is part of the reason that short story collections tend to do poorly in the market (as compared to novels). When I read a book, I want a companion, someone I can get to know. A short story is like a one-night stand. It can be satisfying, but I can’t live on it.

  5. I’m with Betsy on this one. The question is a good one but ultimately (hopefully?) answers itself as the work progresses. I, too, am too tired to think of a novel with multiple narrators that I like, and haven’t read the novels mentioned above (except for Burroughs, whose work presents a certain poetic impenetrability of style all its own). McEwan’s ATONEMENT makes good use of shifting focalisations to propel the narrative, but that is something different than what is being discussed here.

    [Betsy, re: cuddly animals: I think it’s only fair you give equal time to Zac Efron.]

    • Oh, wait. I recently read Banville’s THE INFINITIES, written with brilliant, near seamless shifts of narrator.

  6. Cloud Atlas!
    Atomik Aztex!
    As I Lay Dying!
    World War Z!
    Oscar Wao!

    • Duh, duh, duh, duh, and double duh.
      Thank you — where were you when I was posting this in the first place.

  7. Called a “wizard of form” in today’s NYT Magazine profile, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) said something about narrative experiment that made sense to me.

    “…As you age your life gets muddier. As an artist I think you realize that’s where art is art. I can only say it in very simple terms because it’s a very simple thing: art is about people, it’s not about experimentation.”

  8. Sounds more of a plot driven, commercial novel. Multiple pov’s are common among Grishams, Clanceys, et al. It’s my personal opinion multiple pov’s should be written in third person because it lends to more cohesive storytelling whereas a multiple first person can be quite jarring. Of course I’m sure there are some out there that do work.

    I agree the story emerges as you write. I’m working on a project that I decided to add a pov to because it seems to enrich both characters. Hope I’m right.

  9. My first novel is currently doing the rounds and so far the negative feedback has concentrated solely on the fact that my novel has multiple 3rd person POVs (i.e. the first chapter is told from POV of character A, second from POV of character B, third from character C and then it repeats until the end). I like it – of course I do, it’s my book! – but not having a clear central character is causing problems.

    I’m about to start novel no. 2 and am considering making life easier for myself by sticking to one POV throughout, but that’s a commercial decision made before the writing has even begun…. and the thought of doing that makes me feel a bit ill. Decisions, decisions….

  10. The reason they tell very-beginning writes not to use more than four POVs is because once a new writer realizes she shouldn’t head-hop, she immediately comes to the conclusion that the best solution is to have a bunch of short scenes, one in each character’s POV, in order to tell you what each character is feeling.

    Streamlining the number of POVs in the novel forces the writer to convey what the non-narrating characters are feeling by describing what they do. You know, showing-not-telling.

    If a writer has twelve POV characters in the novel, she might want to consider whether those scenes are there only because she’s trying to make sure we know that Anna is jealous, Barbara is smug, Cassidy is depressed, Deborah is angry, Emily is insecure, Francine is struggling…. When the writer is doing that, it’s a crutch, and it’s bad for the book.

    • Yeah, I totally agree. I always wonder about that differnce when it comes to publishing though: showing vs all out telling. I’m reading a popular novel as a matter of marketing research and it’s full of redundant, obvious statements of feeling. Since it also includes a lot of line by line issues maybe it’s due to poor editing. Sometimes i wish i could go back to that time when i could just read a book and either like it or not instead of performing an autopsy. Not so sure I’m loving this ipad at the moment either.

  11. I don’t have an answer to the question, but just wanted to chime in to say how much I approve of the accompanying graphic. Thank you.

    • I agree. It’s a fetching graphic, but I’m afraid the young lady is getting a little behind in her work.


  12. Is she wearing a butt bra?

  13. I hate, loathe, and despise multiple viewpoint, and the plot has to be pretty damn compelling to get me to read past the second paragraph of the second narrator. I won’t even pick up the book if the flap says multiple, so it’s always an unwelcome surprise.

    I sent June 24’s “Leo” to my brother yesterday. He was feeling sad about going to a family resort with (“sigh”) no thongs. The photo helped, he said. I liked it, too.

  14. Hi, Lyn, here. I like multiple POVs because…
    Hi, Ted, here, what a bunch of crap to deal with on a Monday morning
    Hi, Bliss here, have ot make the cupcakes for the PTO meeting summer camp fund
    Hi, JD here, one voice, one man, and fuck all of you
    Hi, Sarah here. No comment. what a night, three guys, two gals, and now I can buy those shoes
    Hi, Lyn here again. I can’t help it, I’m in love with all of mes.

  15. Let the Great World Spin nailed the multiple POV. And though it’s been years since I read it, I remember being awed by Stephen King’s juggling of POV in The Stand. I think multiple POV works best when all the narrators relay individual (though related) stories and not just several perspectives of one shared story.

  16. Sue Miller’s latest (The Lake Shore Limited) is not only a page-turner but a lesson in POV craft. There are four, all third close. There’s an added layer of a play one of the characters wrote and another character acts in. Miller stays with one close third for a long chapter so there’s not jumping around. It works on a lot of levels, amazingly well, but the thing I like best is that the POVs give the reader a chance to see the other characters up close without the author having to go omniscient. Since people evolve through their interactions with each other, it’s fascinating to see those interactions and the subsequent changes from each POV.

    Show don’t tell is certainly important but it’s taken me twenty years to unlearn it. Writing is about showing and telling both. You just have to do it well.

  17. My novel has–well, I’ve never counted. There are two main protagonists but you hear from everyone else as well…so, let’s see…eight. All third person. There wasn’t a moment when I decided to do it; it just made sense. If you’re looking at the same thing over and over from different perspectives, you get–hopefully–a more complete picture, or at least a more complex one.

    Putting in a plug here for Evening, by Susan Minot. Gorgeous, and mostly one POV, but there are several others that all act to complete the story.

    I totally agree that sometimes you resist jumping from one to the other; one can’t be more compelling than the rest. I once read a book where some of the POVs were third and some first and I couldn’t stand it.

    That being said, you can break any rule you want as long as you do it carefully.

  18. When reading multiple POV, I usually find myself choosing a favorite, then being vaguely or thoroughly annoyed as I rush through the other sections to get back to the voice I’m interested in. Even when it’s well done and with books I really liked, like Olive Kitteredge and Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here.

  19. It’s the disparity between narrator, character and reader, and often added to that a clear distinction, but a subtle difference, between author and narrator— that keeps me engaged—writing and reading. That’s the kick of it. The what the f&?k is going on of it.

    Empathy develops and the world expands. Let’s not lose it folks. Let’s hang on to that magic craft.

  20. I thought The Poison Wood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was brilliant.

    I too can get very annoyed by multiple perspectives; PWB earner it for me because I felt I got something different and valuable from each of the different narrators.

    Basically I think if you’re going to do something other than tell a story in a straightforward way, you have to earn it. Otherwise you run a huge risk of becoming gimmicky.

    I will say almost all of the books I’ve really loved have a single narrator; there is an intimacy there that is hard to accomplish with multiples, much like having more than one boyfriend at once.

  21. The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

    Also, I loved The Poisonwood Bible.

  22. Never mind point of view, what’s with all the crack- a -boo lately?

  23. I feel a little cheated when the narrator switches. Like, why did you make me care about the first person if you were just going to take them away from me? If it’s well-written (Amy Tan and Kingsolver) I don’t mind but I’ve dropped a book more than once when the POV switched.

  24. The question feels off to me simply because whatever drives the choices you make when you are writing isn’t ideally dictated by some policy. However, as a novelist I do have a gut feeling that whatever POV you begin with, you should probably get back to it well before the end of the novel and then see it out with that POV. Probably there are terrific exceptions, but the first POV, unless it’s a Law and Order style instant victim, just somehow feels to me like an implicit promise to the reader — this POV signifies and has a committed relationship to the story arc.

  25. I don’t mind multiple narrators, but I believe writers often have pacing problems in their stories because they split their character groups too many times. The more groups you have to follow, the slower any one narrative thread is going to move. There comes a point when all the plot lines begin to drag until the writer is able to resolve or consolidate some of those plot lines. Give me a story with depth, but the main story should not suffer for the sake of subplots. My first question would be, can the author maintain multiple narrative voices without slowing down the events of the story to accommodate them? I also think that just because a story CAN support multiple narrators, doesn’t mean that it SHOULD. Maybe not all of those subplots are necessary in the end. Edit, edit, edit.

  26. Ulysses.
    To The Lighthouse.

    But I wouldn’t attempt this myself. LIke they say in on those stunt shows: don’t try this at home.

  27. The Woman in White & Moonstone, both by Wilkie Collins

    Jazz by Toni Morrison

    A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

    Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

    Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey

    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    These excellent books notwithstanding, I find a book with multiple narrators is often hard-going, which may explain why I never very far with Jodi Picoult’s work.

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