Plotting Strategy: Multiple Viewpoints

Another aspect of plotting a novel is whether you’re going to utilize one viewpoint or several. I began my career using a single, limited viewpoint. After I’d written and published about a half-dozen books, I ventured cautiously into the realm of switching viewpoint. I discovered that it was fun. Then I got carried away and jumped at random into the perspective of one or two minor characters just because I could.

At some point, however, I learned that there are valid and invalid reasons for shifting viewpoint. Valid in the sense of enhancing the storyline and developing the characters. Invalid in the sense of just sharing what all the characters were thinking or getting myself out of a boring plot segment.

Multiple viewpoints add subplots to your story. Each character chosen to carry a viewpoint is going to become the lesser protagonist of that subplot’s storyline. That means that each viewpoint character will have a goal, will have an antagonist (who may well be the book’s protagonist … confused yet?), and the subplot will be resolved in a small climax or showdown of its own.

Accordingly, if you’re planning a book that will have several viewpoints, choose them wisely. Your main protagonist will carry the central story question, will drive the primary plot, and will be at the center of the most important action. Because of those duties, your main protagonist will get the most viewpoint pages.

Another viewpoint will probably be awarded to the main antagonist. This will enable you to set up or heighten threat to the protagonist. It will allow you to present the antagonist’s motivations.

A third viewpoint might belong to an important secondary character, such as the love interest or a sidekick. This viewpoint allows you to shift away from the protagonist to follow the story and keep the action from pausing.

For example, say that your protagonist is ambushed in a dark alley and beaten unconscious. If we stay in only the protagonist’s viewpoint, then the story remains on pause until the character wakes up.

But what if a bomb has been set? The deadline for the explosion is fast approaching. The protagonist managed to discover the location of the bomb and called his demolition expert just before he was knocked out. Now the story can shift to the perspective of the expert who’s racing to the target and struggling to clip the wire just in the nick–pun intended–of time.

The key to juggling subplots and multiple points of view successfully is to limit their number to what you–and your story idea–can handle. Two to four viewpoints is generally sufficient. And if your story will work just fine without shifting perspective, then keep it in a single viewpoint. Your job as a writer will be much more manageable, the book will be less likely to split in focus, and the impact could well be more powerful.

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