By Beth Ann Bauman, Writing for Children & Young Adults Faculty
Maybe it’s just me, but the use of multiple perspectives in middle-grade and YA fiction seems to have swelled in the last decade. And it’s understandable why this is an appealing choice for a writer. It’s fun to head hop, use different voices, and create a broader understanding of the world. When done well, it makes for a satisfying, compelling read, such as in the young-adult novel Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, a WWII story that follows four narrators seeking passage on a ship to escape a Soviet advance. The shifting perspectives provide a wide lens on this historical event while keeping a strong narrative focus. But handling multiple perspectives is tricky and complicated, and a book can easily lose its narrative unity. Before attempting, here are some considerations:
Perspective is the story’s beating heart. It addresses the internal struggle of the protagonist(s) and becomes what the story is ultimately about. Each character’s struggle is individual and includes his or her particular desire, motive, and weakness. Using multiple perspectives means the writer needs to juggle many things at once. It means each character arc needs to be developed and brought to an outcome. Consider that it’s challenging enough to tell a story through a single POV—to fully inhabit a character who needs to be interesting, nuanced, and capable of growth and change. The challenge with multiple POVs is that each individual storyline needs to overlap or braid with the other storylines to create meaning (without repeating information). You have to be clear on all of these threads and how they ultimately form and inform the whole. Because if you’re not, it can result in a book that feels too broad, like a big sprawl—a story that touches on many things but lacks a true center.
With two POVs you run the risk of one being more interesting than the other. This means the reader wants to skip ahead to the more engaging one, and, of course, the problem is intensified with multiple perspectives. A related problem is that the reader can lose track of individual storylines, forgetting what happens in earlier sections and necessitating a reread. It can get complicated. Point-of-view characters who don’t get enough stage time can feel insubstantial. Then there’s the problem of perspectives that aren’t differentiated enough, resulting in characters that blend in the reader’s mind. All of it is trouble. Not to mention the loss of story traction.
This is why for a first book I recommend a single POV, so that you can dig in and create a rich, focused journey. It takes time to get to know a character, and if you’re head hopping, you may not be able to give each character her due. You’ll learn so much about perspective by taking a single character through an entire book.
BUT, what if after deep thought you decide your story needs two or even three perspectives? Then do it (rebel). What is writing if not experimentation and discovery? As long as you’re clear on what the story is ultimately about and how the perspectives contribute to the whole, then you’re in a good starting place. Here are some tips:
Don’t switch perspectives within chapters. This can be confusing and jarring and is hard to pull off even by the best writers. Much better to separate out perspectives by chapter. This provides a clear division for both you and the reader.
More importantly, vary language and syntax to match each sensibility. For instance, the language and sentence arrangement you use for a worry wart should differ from that of a smart ass. Use words within the character’s frame of reference, words that reveal personality traits. And how you arrange the words is equally important in creating tone and effect. Consider short and punchy sentences vs. long and lyrical ones vs. declarative ones, etc. Remember, each perspective is unique and the prose itself should reflect that. Of course, I’m mainly referring to first person but this can apply to third person, too. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t need chapter headings to know which perspective we’re in.
To further distinguish the perspectives, try giving each character traits that rub against each other in interesting, surprising ways. Weetzie Bat in the eponymous YA novel by Francesca Block is both hipster cool and big-hearted, two traits that may not seem harmonious but work really well to individualize her. For more examples of well-distinguished perspectives check out Lamar Giles’s YA thriller Spin and Gordon Korman’s MG novel Schooled.
If it sounds hard, it’s a good kind of hard. Figuring out who will tell your story and how the perspectives work together is important work and should take time. Deeply considering these things at get-go will clarify your vision of the story and save you time in the long run.
Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection Beautiful Girls and two YA novels, Rosie and Skate and Jersey Angel.