Using shifting perspectives in literature

Warning: I am annoyed.

Before we begin, let’s all agree on something: good storytelling revolves around properly framed perspective. No arguments there, right? Bueller? Bueller? Ok, good.

The literary device of shifting perspectives involves a plot that is illustrated through multiple points of view. While I must admit that when used correctly it’s not without its charms, in my heart of hearts I hate it and wish most authors would stop using it.

Consider the lens through which a camera might effectively capture a snow-capped mountain looming above a meadow versus the creases in the petals of a flower on the valley floor. The setting in both pictures is the same, and yet each point of view provides a completely unique frame of reference. Bearing that in mind, we must acknowledge that different lenses are more well-suited to capturing certain perspectives.

Same goes for character perspective. Every character in a story can be thought of as a lens. Choosing your protagonist is about so much more than their voice and personality. It’s their perspective, their personal view of the story, that really makes them compelling and necessary as the main character. But what about stories where you feel certain that there are several valuable points of view through which the plot should be communicated? I’ll tell you right now, I think you’re probably wrong. Don’t get mad, just hear me out. You’re under the impression that it’s going to be very sexy and avant-garde, but in reality it will leave your story helplessly vulnerable to the following pitfalls:

1. Disrupted rhythm

I don’t feel it necessary to state the importance of proper rhythm and pacing in any given novel, no matter the genre. Even the greenest of authors should know this. That said, do you really want to cut your readers off at the climax of one character’s story arc just to thrust them into the dull moment of another? One could argue that this is avoidable by having consecutive chapters that feature the same perspective until the high action in question has been somewhat resolved. However, by the very nature of this argument, you’re admitting the plot line shouldn’t be disturbed. At the end of the day, it’s just not worth sacrificing the precision of your pace for what you might gain if lightning strikes and you pull it off perfectly.

2. Repetition of observation/known facts

I recently read a book (I won’t say which) wherein multiple characters several chapters apart all described seeing the same man for the first time from their own perspective. The issue? They all said the exact same thing—and took a healthy paragraph to do it. Do you know how tedious it is to hear a man’s physical features described almost verbatim for the third time? Why are you doing this to me? Do you hate me? If I’m not gaining something unique from each character’s description, what is the friggin’ point??

3. Picking favorites, or worse…

Your readers will inevitably like one of the perspectives the least. They might even actively dislike some of them. Again, one of the main reasons you’re introducing an alternate perspective is that this character is entirely different from your other characters, allowing them to provide your reader with a unique look at the plot. However, the more perspectives you introduce, the more likely your readers are to dislike one or more of them. Why risk it? Is the novelty of the literary device really that compelling? Here I am, thoroughly enjoying your story in one perspective, then the next, and then oh great, we’re back to the perspective of the talking cat. Riveting.

4. Perspective overload

It’s one thing to include two or three different perspectives, but when you have six or seven? Come on. You got carried away. Admit it. Where is the line? Two is company, but eight is a crowd? If you’re not going to restrain yourself to using one POV, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from using nine. Please, don’t give yourself an inch on this one. I guarantee you’ll end up taking a mile.

 

The only story I have ever read that effectively utilized this technique and made it feel completely necessary was Une Pièce Montée by Blandine Le Callet. The multiple points of view all recounting different experiences of the same day weren’t being used as an overly-clever way of framing the plot. In many ways, they were the plot. The story was about alternate perspectives, not simply recounted by them. As such, the device felt purposeful. Unfortunately, 90% of the time elsewhere it does not.

If you’re on the fence about whether or not to include multiple perspectives in your story, I beg of you, ask yourself if it is really and truly necessary.

Thanks for coming to my rant. Now we can fight about it if you want.

 

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