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This question came up in another forum, so I thought I'd share it here. Should there be only one POV per scene? Is it OK to go with multiple POVs?

An example is a scene with two characters facing off, in a tense situation. The POV shifts evenly between the two of them, and the reader gets to see that one of the characters is in full control of their emotions and their perception of control during the encounter, while the other is mentally falling apart, but manages to keep their outward appearance strong.

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    I made this more specific to the question you were asking - "any rules on this subject" seems unfocused, but asking about single/multiple POVs in particular is great :) – Standback Aug 4 '11 at 19:49
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I agree with Lauren that consistency is important, but I also think it's important for an author to consider some possible negative effects of switching POVs.

The big one, for me as a reader, is that I LIKE being in a POV character's head, and switching too often keeps me from settling in and getting comfortable. I can't care about too many characters at once. I like to see the scene from one perspective, and REALLY understand it from that POV.

Another possible draw back, one that I've become more aware of since I've started writing, is that switching POVs can detract from tension and mystery. Character A doesn't know everything. There are times when it's exciting, as a reader, for me to know something that Character A doesn't know, and this could certainly be achieved by switching POVs. But there are other times when it's actually better for me to be asking the same question that Character A is asking, and having the same frustration with getting answers. If the author has set up a pattern of switching POVs, and then doesn't switch at the exact time that I most want him/her to, I'm going to be pretty frustrated. Not in a good way.

I also think that too-frequent switches can be disorienting, unless the author spends a lot of words clarifying who's POV we're in, and those extra words can break up the flow of the story.

There may be other problems - anybody?

But I wouldn't say that it's wrong to switch POV, under all circumstances. I just think that it's a technique that should be used judiciously, and consciously.

I think there may be a link to the old 'show, don't tell' rule. There are obviously times when the author should 'tell', and there are times when the author should decide to establish shifting POVs. But often, with a little craft and effort, the author can find ways to show what s/he wants known without having to switch over to the other character and telling the readers what the character's thinking. And spending the time to figure this out often, in my opinion, leads to tighter, more satisfying writing.

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    "Judiciously and consciously": yep, I'm with you there. I didn't want to rule it out in my answer because a good writer can make it work, and sometimes the writer actually wants to confuse the reader with shifting POVs. I didn't want to make the claim that confusing the reader isn't a valid choice -- it's just a difficult one to pull off. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Aug 5 '11 at 11:54
  • @Lauren - I agree. It's very tricky to do well. And I think too often, beginning writers try it before they're ready, because on the surface it seems easier. – Kate S. Aug 5 '11 at 12:56
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This is fine with me. You can have just one POV, multiple POVs, you can even have multiple first-person POVs if you really want. (That might leave your reader confused, but that could be what you intend.)

The only rule might be "Be consistent." If your story is consistently from one person's POV, don't show someone else's unless there's a really compelling reason for it. (Example: The Harry Potter books are all told third-person with Harry as the focus, with the exception of two or three first chapters — Books 1 and 6, IIRC — because the reader couldn't get the information otherwise.)

If your story consistently shifts POV from one chapter to the next and you have multiple main characters, that's fine. If you have a chapter with two main characters, you can shift POVs between them as long as there's a reason for doing so.

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3rd Person Omniscient is the usual course for multiple POVs in a single scene, and therefore those types of stories.

The sun hated everyone it saw. Sandy hated the sun right back, longing for a long bath and a good shiraz. Jacob watched a dust cloud in the distance while he wondered who won the pennant. Freckles was a cat, so she just sat there under the porch. Her thoughts were uninteresting, unless you enjoyed a critical assessment of pretending to sleep.

1st person POV extremely difficult within a scene because everyone refers to themselves.

God, I wish I had some wine and a working bathtub. Hell a shower would be nice.

I bet Cincinnati won this year. They looked good last year.

It's so much better if you close your eyes while in the shade.

Changing 1st person POV each chapter has been done quite well, even as well-defined sections within chapters. There's a Susan Grafton novel which tells the main story in 1st person and the sociopathic killer chapters are in 3rd person, giving a distance, emotionless feel to that character.

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Depends what kind of POV switching are you doing, which depends largely on the narrative mode employed:

  • If the narrator is in 3rd person this is rather common; especially if narrator is established as all-knowing, omniscient entity - “where you will know more than one person's point of view”.

  • If the narrator uses 1st person's voice this should be done in a clean fashion. There are efficient devices for this purpose, for example switching at the end of chapter or a story retold through a series of letters or by following certain object (for example a camera with different owners).

  • There are also other possible switches, from first to third for example, which can be employed for a specific effect: for example to denote different time epoch, or significantly different perspective.

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Generally, I tend to use shifting POVs and will only shift with some narrative hard break (usually a chapter break... I'm actually loathed to write two chapters with the same POV back to back. Generally, a scene should have one POV as it plays out, and a chapter has only one, but you can have multiple scenes feature the same order of events from different POVs.. Just not told at the same time.

An excellent example of this is Akira Kuraswa's film "Rashamone" which has a simple but complex premise there are are number characters in the story in order of appearence:

The Monk*

The Woodcutter*

The Traveler*

The Judge/Jury/Audience**

The Samurai/Possessed Medium***

The Samurai's Wife***

The Bandit***

The Final Witness*****

And there are three set pieces used:

The Titular Gate House

The Court

The Grove

You will note in the story is told by a story within a story set up... the One asterict characters () are at the gate house relaying the events of an inqery court that the Monk and Woodcutter were material witnesses in, that concerns finding culpability in one of the (**) characters for the murder of the Samurai in the Grove (In the Samurai's case, a medium channels the dead Samurai for his testimony... the film portrays this as actually the Samurai's testimony... but the twist is rather than professing innocence, each of the three admit guilt... and that they and only they could have possibly killed the Samurai. Finally, the judge/jury/audience is an audience participation character two whom all witnesses answer unheard questions (think about the interaction between Dora The Explore and the Audience for an idea of what this looks like. You could even write a script to fill in the unheard questions based on the answers). The final witness is not an independent character but rather one of the pervious listed ones who reveals a critical evidence that was unknown to all parties at the time of the trial. All 8 characters are the POV character at various points in the film, but never at the same point. If we do a chapter break down, we can show the shift.

Chapter one: The Traveler Arrives at Roshamone (set: Gate POV: Traveler) - The Traveller meets the Woodcutter and the Monk in a depressed state. He inquires into what haunts them and they explain there was a terrible event near town that has much to say about how horrible humanity is... They then tell their tale to the Traveler.

Chapter Two: The Woodcutter's Discover (Scene: The Grove POV: Woodcutter) - The woodcutter sets off to ply his trade in the forest and notices something unsual... a woman's hat. As he picks up the hat, his attention is drawn to the horrific scene of the murdered Samurai.

Chapter 3: The Inqery (The Court, POV: The Judge) - Chapter Two transitions into the Woodcutter's discovery and sets up the trial that is being told in chapter 1. The "Judge" is the audicence who asks questions the other characters can hear, but not the audience (intending the viewer to "fill in the role". In the film this is shot with all characters talking directly to the camera and the witness sitting in the foreground with the monk and woodcutter sitting in the back ground, one on either side of the witness (except when they themselves testify). From this point forward, all chapters will begin with this perspective, shift to the titular character's perspective for the flashback, then return to the judge's perspective, then the Traveler's perspective. The return to the judge allows the witness to establish the nature of their testimony outside of their POV and return to how they act. The return to the gate allows the traveler and monk/woodcutter to discuss the implications.

Chapter 4: The Monk's Testimony - (Set The Grove. POV: Monk): The Monk establishes that he was the last person to see the Samurai alive, who was traveling with his wife at the time, having met the bandit along the road sometime prior.

Chapter 5: The Bandit's Tale (The Grove POV: Bandit) The Bandit testifies that he did encounter the Samurai and proudly boasts about tricking him by offering to sell so weapons and then tying the samurai up... he then took the wife and raped her. After this, what happens is disputed by all the witnesses including the Wife's response to the rape, whether or not the Samurai and the Bandit started a sword fight that the Samurai lost, the weapon used to kill the Samurai (either the Bandit's sword or a now missing ornate dagger carried by the wife) and who left the scene and with whom did they leave.

Chapter 6: The Wife's Tale (The Grove POV: The Wife)- The Wife tells her tale which refutes the Bandit's and she claims the Bandit didn't kill the Samurai, she did.

Chapter 7: The channelled Samurai (The Grove POV: The Samurai/Medium?) With two witnesses admitting to the crime, yet contradicting each other such that neither's story shares a similar detail, a medium is called to channel the Samurai. Surely he would settle the matter on who killed him. But the courts find that the Samurai not only refutes both just as equally, but even claims that it wasn't a Murder, but Suicide to restore his honor having lost it being so easily defeated by the thief's tricks and failing to protect his wife... while he agrees with his wife on what weapon was used (the dagger), the fact that it wasn't there is explained by him being alive enough to feel it pulled from his body, but not enough to open his eyes to see who pulled the dagger.

Chapter 8: Why did Everyone Lie (The Gate POV: The Final Witness) - The Monk and Woodcutter finish the tale informing the Traveller that the case was dismissed from the court with no finding of guilt as there were too many contradictions between the story. They are all three puzzled about who would gain from lying to a crime they would commit and discuss the motives each of the three suspect would lie and admit to a crime they did not commit to save face and what the case says about human nature. They discover a baby left abandoned in the wrecked gate house and this prompts one of the three men to say something that reveals there's more to the story... this character, the Final Witness is also lying, as he saw the incident in the grove just after the wife's rape

Chapter 9: Who is Telling The Truth (The Grove POV: The Final Witness) The Grove Scene plays out for a fourth time, again different from the three previous testimonies (though in a twist, at least one element from the three previous testimonies does occur in this story... though it occurs in a way that is less favorable to the character who claimed the element happened). Additionally, while the final witness never claims to kill the Samurai, he isn't an innocent bystander... when the fight ends, the Final Witness removes the Wife's dagger from the scene and sells it.

Chapter 10: Can You Trust The Liar: (The Gate House POV: The Monk) The three men react to the new information now out in the open, with the two innocent men disgusted but to different degrees and the final witness ashamed of his actions. The harsher critic leaves before the rain stops, unwilling to stay in the company of the liar, while the less harsh critic stands in silence and holds the baby until the rain ends. When the Witness moves to hold the baby the Critic snaps at him and assumes a bad motive... only for the Final Witness to explain his motive for stealing the dagger... he was trying to feed other children in town, who he deeply cares for, and was offering to find the abandoned baby a home and family that will care for him... he's well suited for the task after all. The Innocent Man realizes that while the Final Witness did do something wrong, it was not motivated by selfishness... of course, given the debate the three had ("Is humanity good, if humans are so dishonest they will lie when it's in their interest to be honest") the viewer is left to decide: Is the Final Witness telling the truth about his actions Or just telling a good lie that everyone wants to believe?

It's not as simply broken down in the film, but each scene has a different POV and depending on how invested you are in the role of "judge" there are scenes where the POV could be more than one character in an "Inception Style" since this is told Flashback within a Flashback style... Essentially, The Gate rotates the POV between the three characters in the scene, but the story proper is the POV of the Traveler, Being told the story of the Trial from the Monk's POV who is intern told the story of each Witness from the their POV. It's complicated to follow, as not only does the film shift POV frequently, but also Narrative Voice (with a first person/2nd person in the form of the judge and unreliable first person narrators and a third person limited at various points. But it was the film that gave the Academy Awards a reason to create "Best Foreign Film" after it couldn't qualify for anything beyond an honorary award... and it was much better received in the United States than it ever was in it's native Japan.

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