TV Shows and Alternating POVs

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Jack has fallen in love with two women and has to choose between them. Liz has revisited every past boyfriend and decided she might as well settle for the guy she can’t stand because fate keeps throwing him in front of her. And Kenneth has been told he can’t turn down a promotion that will send him to L.A.

Those were the plotlines for the season finale of 30 Rock last week, which was hilarious — and which got me thinking about plotlines.

Admittedly, I don’t watch enough TV to really know how typical this is, but the few shows I have gotten into the past few years (The West Wing, The Office, 30 Rock) all do this the same way: they divide the episode into roughly three plotlines following three different sets of characters, and they alternate scenes between those plotlines until they’re all resolved.

And it seems so normal for TV shows to do it that way that I hadn’t even thought much about it until now.

So what I wonder is . . . why is it so normal for TV shows but much less the norm in novels, which (at least in YA fiction) seem to tend toward single viewpoint?

I wonder about this question especially because I’m writing a novel with alternating viewpoints and I’ve heard comments from readers who say they can’t stand the format. They want to be firmly set in one character’s head.

Why is that? Do they feel the same way about TV shows? Would they have complained about Liz’s and Kenneth’s plotlines last week and demanded to see the episode only from Jack’s point of view? Think how much we would have missed out on, like the Somali pirate groomsman or Matt Damon as Liz’s pilot/destiny.

Does it all just come down to conventions? We’re used to TV being that way, and some readers are more used to strict single-POV books? Is it a difference in audio/visual material versus text-only, where because we don’t have the faces and voices of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to tell us immediately whose plotline we’re glimpsing now, we might end up feeling confused by the words on the page?

Just something I’ve wondered about.

For me, I feel like the viewpoint(s) a story is told from should fit the story. Multi-POV fits well with large-cast sitcoms like 30 Rock but also dramas like West Wing with multiple main characters. It’s also fit some of my favorite books like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series, David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, etc.

But then I can think of plenty of novels I’ve loved that made more sense from a single viewpoint, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jacqueline Kelly’s Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Octavian Nothing

So as much as I love multiple POV, I try to go with the flow and see how the format matches the story.

Any insights? Do you have a preference for single or multiple viewpoints? What favorites do you have of either type?

Leave a comment!

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8 responses »

  1. I have favorites in both categories, but I admit I get frustrated whith POV shifts in books. I think it’s because I’m so completely submerged in the story, far deeper than with a movie or television program.

    In a book, I share thoughts and feelings with the protagonist, and it’s very intimate. POV shifts boot me out of the mind meld, and it’s jarring. It takes me a while to settle into the next POV, and as a result, I’m annoyed.

    Of course, my mom always told me I got to into my books, so maybe I just have a problem. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the perspective! I hadn’t thought about that being the difference between TV/movies and books. Maybe I just don’t get intimate enough with the narrator when I read. 😉

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  2. I think part of the reason that people like it better in TV shows is that it’s shorter clips from the POV. In most books, the POV takes a chapter or more so it’s more disorienting to shift back and forth when compared to the short segments in TV episodes. In Queen of Attolia, whenever it shifted away from Gen’s POV, it was almost always a very short shift and often still focused on Gen. So it didn’t feel like a huge shift away.

    Also, if it’s a romance, I’ve noticed that I often prefer it to have both POV’s.

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    • Shorter does help. Right now I’m reading The Help which switches roughly every THREE chapters and totally left me hanging three chapters ago on one of the viewpoints! I liked how Wicked Lovely switched about three times PER chapter. And I totally agree about romances, like in Shiver or Impossible—so great to see the guy’s point of view!

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      • I had trouble with some of the sections in The Help too. I’d have to go back and check to see who it was who was talking all the time.

        I’m glad you like the frequent switching—I might be doing that in mine!

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        • I’m pretty easy going as long as I like where the story and characters are going and find each viewpoint interesting. I’m excited to see what you end up doing with it!

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  3. I love alternating viewpoints when they are written well but that can be difficult to accomplish. I will admit that I am a bit more persnickety than the average reader and that has caused me to find fault in books that everyone else seems to really enjoy, so I kind of lose out. Writing interestingly for multiple characters requires the author to inhabit those characters and to try and block the other characters personalities out. This is also required of the reader which is why I think that some authors lose people with that format. When you get attached to someone and then have to switch gears it can take away some of the magic.

    But writing from one perspective has its challenges too. How do you keep it interesting? No person on earth can believably be interesting on a constant basis.

    In the end I think it just depends on what the story is. Sometimes it is the characters story and that is why they need to tell it, other times it is the story’s story and multiple pov’s are what suits. I normally write in third person with at least two or three voices but I am currently writing from a first person perspective and it is really challenging me on an editing level. How much needs to be said and what can be implied through action… oh, writing.

    I think that the multiple story-line is imperative for visual mediums though. I am always impressed by shows like 30 Rock or Scrubs or House or Glee that can intertwine two or three seemingly different storylines into a symbiotic conclusion. Once upon a time I dreamed of being a writer for a TV show… which is another reason why I love 30 Rock. I like to pretend I am Tina Fey.

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    • Yeah, Tina Fey is dang cool. And that’s exactly how I’ve felt about cool TV shows: what you said about different storylines and symbiosis. So I’ll just copy you on that. “What she said.” But yeah, all your comments are spot on. There are challenges either way you tell a story. I feel very very limited when sticking to only one viewpoint. It’s tough to tell the whole story that way, I think. But at the same time, it would also make my life easier because balancing multiple narrators is dang tough too.

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