Writing with multiple POVs

One of the main differences in format between prose and screenplays is that writing multiple points-of-views (POVs) is more difficult to write well in prose, but much easier to write well in screenplays due to differences in format.

When writing multiple POVs in prose, the audience are likely to be confused, and the writing style itself may be initially unclear. Which means that, if multiple POVs are going to be used, this must be established as soon as possible using a narrative device that indicates to the audience that the story has multiple POVs, which must be then used consistently in order to denote when this is happening. Prose is just description for the reader to imagine, and every reader will be interpreting a prose story in their own way, which means that they’ll need to know if they should be aware of the multiple POVs being written.

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One of the main differences in format between prose and screenplays is that writing multiple points-of-views (POVs) is more difficult to write well in prose, but much easier to write well in screenplays due to differences in format.

When writing multiple POVs in prose, the audience are likely to be confused, and the writing style itself may be initially unclear. Which means that, if multiple POVs are going to be used, this must be established as soon as possible using a narrative device that indicates to the audience that the story has multiple POVs, which must be then used consistently in order to denote when this is happening. Prose is just description for the reader to imagine, and every reader will be interpreting a prose story in their own way, which means that they’ll need to know if they should be aware of the multiple POVs being written. Stories are, ultimately, a manipulation of space and time – the worst thing a prose writer can do is to write two parallel stories taking place in different time-zones, because then it will create the impression to the reader that they’re switching between two stories constantly, rather than following the one. Everything within a story must be contained within that story, because otherwise it all spills-over and becomes confusing. Plus, multiple POVs must feel relevant to each other in order to complete the story. Ironically juxtaposing two character POVs is a good way to do this, because it creates drama, and that creates more story. Whereas simply switching between characters might not feel fully justified in the long run, and that can make the reader wonder if the story’s really going anywhere. However, one of written storytelling’s advantages is that the story received isn’t the story as first written – scenes can be revised, added and omitted. If multiple POVs are going to be used, just write them, and if it doesn’t work, you’ll understand why afterwards, when you can change it all.

Whereas writing multiple POVs is different in screenplays. Screenplays are rarely even published for public consumption, meaning that the closest the public come to the screenplay is the motion picture based on the screenplay. This means that the screenplay isn’t asking for the reader’s interpretation, but rather what becomes of it. Watching a motion picture is like looking at real life, with different faces and voices. This means that writing multiple POVs in a screenplay is instead expected. The spectators don’t need an indication of different POVs, because it’s obvious on screen. Rather, the screenwriter’s responsibility is to make the different scenes connect to each other within the narrative (unless it’s an art film, in-which case, do literally anything). Few films rarely follow a single protagonist’s POV completely – though one film that does is Lady in the Lake, by Steve Fisher, which is shot by director Robert Montgomery in a consistent POV visual style (why has nobody directed a Doctor Who episode like this, as seen for the whole episode through the Doctor’s eyes?). The difference here is that the point-of-view shot was a directing style, rather than a screenwriting style, though the story itself follows only protagonist Philip Marlowe. And if a screenplay does feature parallel story-lines in different time-zones, all it takes for this is to include the time-zone at the end of the slug-line in brackets. A thinking audience will be able to understand, because the time-jumps will be denoted by a changing production aesthetic. Screenplays are a visual medium, which makes ambitious styles more likely to be accepted on the basis of cinematography, which simulates perceivable reality, being easier to understand than a writing system, which requires the reader to hunt symbols and consistently interpret them within a context unique to the writer. In screenwriting, the ability to easily use multiple POVs and know they’ll be understood makes storytelling more convenient; exposition to the audience no longer needs to be forced into a protagonist’s cone of experience, but can be shown to the audience as it happens by switching to the character involved in that moment. This means that an antagonist’s actions can be shown to the audience before the protagonist is aware of them. And it’s that advantage that can be the difference between 90 pages and 150 pages of script for a feature, and can make an episode fit its time-slot. Though, as always, the same rules of written storytelling applies to scripts: drafts can be edited in the same way as prose.

Generally, the greatest difference in writing multiple POVs in prose and screenplays is that writing multiple POVs in prose is something that requires a lot of ambition and written communication skills to make work, whereas writing multiple POVs in screenplays is an expected technique of the format, which can be just as much an advantage as it is a disadvantage.

Author: the Purple Prose Mage

I'm not Batman, but I wish that I were.

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