Writing Posts

Tension and POV

Writers and readers!

My friends, my colleagues, my enemies (enemies?): I need your help. It’s nothing difficult, it’s nothing dire, but it is simply my curiosity that I hope you will help appease or at least indulge, for a moment. I’m stumbled upon a conundrum in my writing that I would very much like your opinion on, now that I realize this is something that people can (obviously, now that I think about it) have wide and various opinions over.

As I’m sure you can guess, it deals with tension and POV.

Darryn’s story is a trilogy told through multiple POV. Some are through some minor characters. Others are major players. Originally, when I was writing the book, I didn’t have a real purpose for having so many POVs. It’s just how the story was in my head, so that’s how it translated onto the page. Then, as I started editing and paying more attention to the nuances of the story, I realized that I really enjoyed having multiple POV because of the tension that it created. By cluing the readers into what was going on with Erebus, our main bad guy, or the Solomonarii, our omnipotent creatures, with information that Darryn, our protagonist, wasn’t aware of but really needed to know, there was this tension created that everyone knew what was going on except for him. So you became angry at him when he would act a certain way or not do something because you know that X is happening right now and he really should be doing Y but he’s as ignorant as all get out, so he’s over here still doing A, B and C, and readers are just pissed because WHY AREN’T YOU DOING X, YOU IGNORANT BASTARD?!

Or, at least, so I hoped.

I received some invaluable feedback from a beta reader on this trilogy. I obviously have a lot more work to do than I originally thought I did. But one piece of feedback really stuck with me and surprised me, especially when a recommendation followed: having so many POVs took away from the tension because the readers knew what was going on in every character’s head, so there was no tension created due to not knowing what was going on. Instead, I should rewrite to only incorporate two POV: Darryn, our protagonist, and McKenna, our hero, in order to increase the tension.

I think you can see my dilemma here.

As I started to think about this, I thought about the books I love so much that incorporate multiple POVs: the works of Brent Weeks, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, to name a few. And I tried to think about if I took some of those POVs, would I have been more invested, felt more tension, sat on the edge of my seat more than I already had? Of course, I couldn’t figure it out. When reading for pleasure, I’ve discovered I’m not analytical in the slightest. I just read and if I enjoy it, I enjoy it, and if I don’t, I don’t. Usually, I don’t really understand the reasons behind my emotional responses until I start writing the book review. And in this case, I’m already familiar with how these authors have written the books that own my heart and I already love them to the point where I can’t figure out which version would be more powerful and create more tension.

That’s where you come in.

I’d love to hear what you think on this matter. I’m not even looking for an answer for what I should do with my own work (though these answers will definitely be in the back of my mind whilst I’m editing, with my beta’s feedback in the forefront). I’m mainly really curious to get your opinion as to what you think the best relationship is between tension and POV, particularly multiple POV. Any and all comments, thoughts, musings or ideas would be so appreciated! Please leave them below so other readers can see what the masses are thinking and perhaps we can get a dialogue going! 🙂

Thank you in advance for your time and feedback! And please, feel free to share this post, if you’d like!


19 thoughts on “Tension and POV”

  1. Thinking back to some of the stories you cite; Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, Martin’s Ice & Fire series, one thing that strikes me is how each POV character is rooted in their own conflict. For example, when Tyrion is in King’s Landing, the story doesn’t also show the same conflicts from the perspective of Cersei or any of the others.
    I was actually recently reading a book called the Journals of Bob Drifter, which does have a few chapters from the POV of the antagonist, and I do think that reduced the tension.
    If you do want to keep all of the perspectives that you have, maybe you could reorder the chapters so that audiences still share the protagonist’s surpries when the villain attacks, and then switch to the villain’s perspective, rewind time, and share the villain’s part of the story.
    Return of the King is probably the most extreme example, but just imagine if the readers knew Frodo’s fate when the others faced the Mouth of Souron. Hope you find this helpful.
    If you need another reader, please let me know.

    1. I love the point you made about each one being rooted in their own conflict. I’m definitely going to have to remember that one. I personally love playing with time, but from that same beta reader, I got the advice to never go back in time when we’ve already moved forward in time. So I’ll be musing on that for sure. Thank you so much!!

  2. The essence of multiple POVs is to create depth. But in order to have depth, it’s not necessarily for all characters to look at the main character, but for each character to have his or her own arch. Part of this goes into a concept called plotting. Everyone is the hero in his own story, so when you’re in another character’s POV, what are that character’s motives? What is he trying to gain. Jordan did this with the Wheel of Time. Sure, the character learned a thing or two about the other characters, but when you were in a villain’s head, you were looking at that person’s objectives. Depth is good, but it requires length. Martin, Weeks, Sanderson, and Jordan all have HUGE books because they’re coordinating multiple through lines (individual character’s arcs through the story).

    I can understand what your beta is say if the only thing I learn from one character was what the other character needed. There’s an element of tension there, but it can annoy a reader fast. I once read a book where every POV element told me the same thing. It bogged down what was honestly a great idea.

    What I recommend you do is determine who the story is about. POV does a lot to take us around the globe. But I wouldn’t use it just to taunt the reader with what the MC wishes he knew. What function does each character have in your story? Why does he have to be there? What NEW information is he giving the reader? In The Journals of Bob Drifter, I wanted to reader to have a clue as to Grimm’s objective.

    This gets into another aspect of POV that people don’t often consider. If the only function one character has is to react to another character. The first character needs to go. People do things. They have goals. True, people are going to react, but if the only thing I learn while in the mind of one character are his or her thoughts on a different character, you lose sympathy AND mystery.

    I think tension is best achieved through conflict. I use POV for depth and to give the reader information he or she couldn’t otherwise obtain from whatever character I’m with at the moment.

    My blog has a post on the types of Narrative for some other pros and cons. Feel free to check that out too.

    Lastly, two POVs SOUNDs odd to me. There are some who did a great job. The type of tension your talking about was probably best achieved by The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness. It’s a sequel. But it’s a very unique twist on POV. That might help you see how limited characters with conflicting viewpoints and objectives can create tension. I’d argue the tension was still achieved not by the contrast in information, but in the contrast of goals and objectives.

    I hope that helps.

    1. Matt, this is going to seem insincere because my response is so short whilst your explanation was so long, but honestly, THANK YOU. That was ridiculously insightful and gave me a lot to chew on and I really appreciate you taking the time to offer your insight!

      1. I really appreciate the compliment. I sometimes feel bad because there’s only so much time in the day, but he honest truth is I love talking about the craft so much I can’t help but jump at the chance for discussions like this. I’m glad you thought the information was helpful, and I’ll always make an effort to stop by the page and see what projects you’re up to.

      2. I really need to start reading more of your posts about craft! I definitely could use some brushing up surrounding it, obviously. And your tips are so logical and helpful. Thanks for sticking around and seeing what’s up. 🙂

      3. Why thank you! I’d also encourage you to look at Quintessential Editor and North of Andover. I think we each have a different splash that I find when combined make for a surprisingly well rounded education on a lot of subjects. They’re good individually as well. You’ll get to where you want. The trick is to believe.

  3. I think multiple POV can work brilliantly to increase tension when done correctly. For instance, I hated Jaime Lannister to begin with. Then when he became a POV, I found myself getting really invested in him. I still hated him for what he did to Bran, but I loved the depth of his character. Without spoilers, G.R.R.M has left the end of A Dance With Dragons where pretty much any faction could end up coming out on top. I know the plans of some of the antagonists, and I feel REALLY tense.

    1. I totally agree! I’d love to be able to have the same effect in my work, but I think I am a lot farther away from achieving that than I originally thought. So now time to corner Martin and ask how he does it…:P

  4. Ugh this is such a tough one! I think it really depends on the situation (what a cop out, right?) because I can think of a couple of books I’ve read where you reach one character’s POV and I’ve just skimmed it because I didn’t want to be taken away from another character. Depending on the writer and how they’ve done it, it can actually be really frustrating to be made to swap POVs when you’re really invested in one character. Even with someone as successful as George RR Martin, I still found occasions where I was like ‘omfg why am I reading about this person right now? I don’t want to read about this person!”

    And speaking of Song of Ice and Fire, the thing that I would argue is that the requirement to span such time and distance allows multiple POVs, but also creates massive books. Like freaking. And even then, you won’t please everyone because some people (like me) will be jerks and find some of the POVs annoying.

    It’s a really tough one because I think it can really add depth to a story when done well: but the thing is, if it’s about providing more context/understanding to your protagonists journey, than I feel like that can be achieved by just showing more of what’s going around/to/because of that character in that one POV: showing cause and effect might do the same thing. Are you writing in first person? Because I think that makes a big difference in the POV question too!

    Honestly, writing is hard :p We deserve cake! xo

    1. That’s awesome that you said that, because I’m actually the exact opposite. In the moment, I get so pissed when they switch to another character, because I was so invested in Character A. So I seethe for a bit, but then I become invested into Character B. But then, they switch back to Character A and suddenly, I’m seething again! Until I realize that I actually wanted to know about Cliffhanger X and then suddenly get invested again, even though my heart is now yearning for Cliffhanger Y. When this is done well, I think this is masterful writing. So I LOVE seeing that you actually have the opposite opinion.
      I’m actually writing in third, but you’re right, the tense definitely makes a difference. Thanks for all of your thoughts, Ana. I agree: writing is hard and we deserve so much cake. Perhaps we can find some when you are in town? 😀

      1. Haha yeah, I know what you mean: it can be an absolute rollercoaster! I do agree that when done well, multiple POVs produces exactly the effect you describe above, and then you’re heavily invested in everything that happens… I just don’t think I can handle that kind of complexity myself right now :p I feel very simple!
        Hearing that you’re writing in third makes me happy! Don’t get me wrong, I love first person… But somehow feel that there are limited occasions when I enjoy reading it :p
        Nicole… There will be all the cake. There is no doubt of that! 😀 ❤

      2. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to that sort of complexity in writing, but it really just makes me so happy when an author does it so deftly, I don’t even realize it until I’m done and raving about it in the review. I can only aspire to be half as creative, complex and talented as some of my favorites. If I achieve that, I will be more than content.
        Yeah, I’ve always written in third. I’ll probably take a crack at 1st eventually, but it isn’t my natural cup of tea. YES. ❤

      3. I feel that every time I read a good book D: I’m like “I will never be this brilliant!” Yeah, I can understand that… I find it easier if I’m writing about something more real, if that makes sense!

  5. You’ve gotten some great advice here! First, writing with multiple POVs can get pretty complicated. I liked that you wrote from the antagonist’s POV, and I’ve always enjoyed stories where the antagonist’s POV is introduced, and as the reader, we haven’t quite realized yet that s/he is the antagonist. I enjoy sympathizing and getting to know the antagonist.

    Like Weech said above, I have to second their statement of not sticking in so many POV’s just to frustrate the reader about the protagonist’s (blissful) ignorance. Unless you’re writing a comedy, but I’m not under the impression that you are. Multiple POVs tend to double, even triple or quadruple (or however many characters Martin had now, it’s been so long since I’ve read GoT) the length of the book; and strictly on personal opinion, it can get exhausting. A reader will oftentimes favor one or two MC’s, and care less about the rest of the cast.

    That being said, I do love the added tension from multiple POVs. Just not from so many POVs that it becomes almost comical. And the tension has to be manipulated well by the author for it to not appear forced or contrived.

    I also tend to read strictly for enjoyment and am not able to analyze it simultaneously, but I’m definitely aware when a story isn’t working, or when it falls short. Since my initial attempt at critical reading a couple years back, I still don’t analyze a good book; however, I find myself analyzing only when the story isn’t up to (my) par. So maybe reading a “bad” book with multiple POVs could be beneficial. For me, seeing the errors is more helpful than reading about how to do it the “correct” way.

    Best wishes!

    1. I know! I’m just now working my way through responding to everyone. I super appreciate your feedback on this. I especially liked when you said you “tend to read strictly for enjoyment and am not able to analyze it simultaneously, but [] are definitely aware when a story isn’t working, or when it falls short.” That makes so much sense and I don’t want readers to have that impression on my work simply because I love writing stories from all the angles. Thank you so much!

      1. Always, Nicole (: You’re an awesome gal and your passion for writing just makes you all the more awesome.

        Being that you like to enjoy writing the story from all angles, that makes me go hmm. If you just yeah, went ahead and wrote the story from all angles in your first draft (because the first draft is basically you just getting the basic story out onto paper), but then condensed those angles into a more suspenseful but smaller set of angles? Give the “knowing” character a little more special insight, or a bigger role in the story.

        I’m no expert reader or critic, I’d like to think of myself as a rather kind (ie oblivious) reader, so it takes a really really badly written story (*coughtwilightcough*) for me to notice such a dud. But I have no doubts in my mind that your story is far from those horribly-written stories. Your blog posts alone are mint! We are our own worst enemies, I know you know this, so please don’t be too critical on yourself. ❤

      2. YOU are so awesome!
        I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that trilogy yet. I have one beta whose about to start book three and once I get her feedback on that, then I’ll reevaluate and see what the best route is for that story!
        I’m the same! I give so many five star reviews on Goodreads and that might make people mad, but honestly, if I enjoyed the hell out of a book, I’m going to appreciate it. Sorry I’m easy to please. Now though, I wonder if those simple needs as a reader has translated into my own writing…hm….
        Thank you, you gem! ❤

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