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The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Writing Multi-Pov Narrative

Photo by Sophie Masson

We writers know that point of view often comes instinctively, with one or maybe two characters insisting on having their voices heard. But what if a whole gaggle of equally interesting characters are clamoring for your attention? Then you have no choice but to have a go at writing a multiple-POV narrative, and see what happens.

I’ve done that a few times in the past. And I’m doing that right now, with my WIP, which is an adult novel set in an imaginary writers’ retreat in the very real and very charming Loire Valley village of Azay le Rideau, home to my favourite castle [1] in all of France. In the novel, I focus on no less than nine main characters—six writers from the retreat, including five aspiring writers and the writing tutor, who are all Australians, though of different ethnic backgrounds, and three French people, locals from the village itself. (Having French and Australian characters works well for me, as I’m French-Australian myself and know both cultures and countries intimately!)

And I thought WU readers might be interested to hear more about the process of managing all those POVs.

The issue

Nine main characters, mostly women, but all very different personalities, all very different backstories, and from a range of ages and backgrounds: crazy brave, eh? In fact this is the largest number of POVs I’ve ever tried to juggle in a novel (the most in the past has been 4). Within that gaggle of nine, I knew there’d be a few who would be demanding more than their fair share, and would mostly have to be reined in but occasionally needed to be given their head.

I knew from the start that this novel would have to be tightly structured and planned ahead, which is unlike what I usually do; I’m a pantser normally, with the beginning firmly set but not much else.

How setting worked its magic

One thing that made things much easier than they might have been was that the idea came to me while on a short visit in Azay itself in early September last year.

I could just see all my writer characters putting up at the very hotel [2] we stayed in, a lovely place of serene, friendly charm just a few short steps from the castle. I could see them wandering the grounds of the gorgeous castle, exploring its rooms and the extraordinary art installation that was being shown there at the time, going to the little restaurants scattered around the village, enjoying its unhurried pace at a time when most tourists had gone home but the weather was still beautiful. I could see them being inspired (I certainly was—not just with this novel but also with a brand-new short-story fairytale retelling!). I could see the local characters, too, so well; I knew what their houses looked like, their businesses, the kinds of things they did.

It was as if Azay itself was a major character, and from that one flowed all the others, the ones who knew it intimately, and the ones who were just there for such a short yet important time. The place would work its fairytale magic on them all, but as with all such spells, it would have its dark and difficult side.

And so, even before we’d left Azay to go on to my father’s place in the South, I’d already scribbled down a list of characters and possibilities. Back home some weeks later, I worked up a fuller document which as well as backgrounding the story and setting, listed and described all the main characters and a summary of their backstories, as well as a few peripheral/minor characters who wouldn’t be granted a POV megaphone but would have a role there somehow. I even created a brochure for the writing retreat, which was fun—but also useful, as you’ll see.

A question of structure

I wanted to introduce these characters and the reason they were all congregating in Azay in a way that wouldn’t be confusing for the reader. So I started first with the writers’ retreat brochure, inserted as a prologue (though not named as such). This meant I didn’t have to describe the idea of the retreat itself, just go straight into the story.

I planned the rest of the novel to be structured in four parts, which would be patterned to follow a two-week retreat plus the period just before and the three-day break in between each writing week(which is also important). I decided not to devote a whole chapter to each character, but rather to write each chapter with multiple points of view, yet not always in the same way.

The first chapter introduced each of the aspiring writers, where they all came from, and why they were coming. The second introduced both the Azay locals and the professional writer who was running the retreat tutor, a bestselling Australian author who’d come to a turning point in her career. After that, a chapter titled Arrival brought travelers and locals together; and a menu from a local restaurant, which hosted the Welcome Dinner for retreat participants, provided the perfect lead-in to part two and the retreat’s first week. Each subsequent chapter in part two was structured around a day in the week; while part three, labelled ‘Three Days Off’, brings puzzling or dismaying developments for several of the characters, which come to a head in week two of the retreat and part four of the novel.

It’s a controlled yet liberating structure that’s really working for me.

Pleasures so far

Pitfalls so far (or rather, things to watch out for)

Here’s hoping that things continue to work for this WIP—but right now, I’d like to hand over to you, and your thoughts on juggling multiple POVs.

What works for you, both as writer (if you’ve tried this) and as reader?

About Sophie Masson [3]

Sophie Masson [4] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [5].