Monday, April 29, 2013

Handling Scene Transitions With Multiple Point of View Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Choosing how and when to switch between point of view characters can be tricky.

Scene transitions can be challenging at the best of times, but juggling multiple characters and points of view is one of the toughest transitions to handle. How often can you switch? When should you switch?

Or as this reader asked me:
Q: My WiP is a novel with multiple third person POV. While I am not finding that mode problematic generally, I am struggling a little with the transition between POVs. It's trivially easy if the main character is not interacting with another character through whom the story is also told, but what happens when they're in the same chapter? Ought one give both POVs when they are together? Choose one which is more relevant to the narrative? Or pull back and have a more distant, omniscient voice?
There's a lot to handle here, and plenty of opportunities for trouble. Let's first look at some basic guidelines on handling multiple points of view:

Stick to one point of view character per scene, even if there are other point of view characters also in that scene.

One character will have the strongest goal, and have a reason why this scene is told from their perspective, and not one of the other point of view characters. It's their scene, even if other characters are there.

Stick to the same point of view style you've been using all along.

If you've been using limited third person, suddenly shifting to omniscient will likely jar readers and feel like a slew of point of view shifts. Consistency is key. Establish what you plan to do and stick with it, so if you want to change point of view characters regularly, show that right from the start. Don't have five chapters in one point of view character and then start switching around.

Choose whichever point of view is most relevant to the story in that scene.

The reason to have multiple point of view characters is to show the different perspectives and

Often it's the one with the most to lose, but it might be the one who offers something new and interesting to the reader. You could also use another POV character to hide information if being inside a different character's head would reveal something through internalization you don't want revealed yet. (Use this sparingly, as tricking the reader all the time tends to make them angry)

Don't add a POV just because you need to show something your main characters aren't a part of

This frequently means the scene is either A) infodumping or telling, B) explaining a coincidence or contrivance that won't work unless the reader knows why it unfolds like that, or C) something that doesn't actually affect the protagonist's decisions but will be something sprung on them at a later date. More times than not, this type of scene is for the writer's benefit, not the reader's.

Now to the real meat of this question: how to transition with multiple POVs in the same chapter. There is no single way to do this, but there are some tricks to make it easier for the reader to stay with you.

1. Break the scene when you change POVs

This is the easiest, and a simple scene break shows the reader something has changed. However, simply breaking in the middle of a conversation will probably jar the reader, so you'd want to...

2. Have an obvious reason to switch POVs

If you're switching POVs there's a reason for it. You can no longer continue the story in the same POV and vital information is needed in another POV or the story won't work. Show or at least hint at that reason. A change in goals, contradictions between how two characters think or feel, one POV putting the other in conflict (either intentionally or unintentionally). Handoffs are critical here. How you hand the story over will determine how smoothly that transition goes.

I like to leave off with something hanging that makes the reader want to know what the other POV is thinking or how they'll see the current situation. If readers want to switch, the switch feels natural.

For example, in my current WIP, one POV character answers her door to find the other POV character standing there. She doesn't want him to come in because he might see things that would get her killed. The chapter ends with her noticing that something is wrong with him. Chapter breaks and picks up with him, and he notices something is also wrong with her. Then the new chapter begins.

What makes this handoff work is that readers already know why POV-A is worried about POV-B being there. They'll be curious to see if POV-B sees the clues, or figures out what's wrong. POV-B is offering information only he knows (and the reader is also curious about,) and seeing POV-A's reaction when she finds out will be more interesting because readers won't know for sure if she's being truthful or just pretending. Changing POVs raises the tension.

A handoff like this works nicely because it shifts the reader focus from one character to another. It's like turning to someone and asking, "So what do you think?" Focus shifts and the conversation continues with another person. It can also be helpful if you...

3. Change locations when you change POVs

Even if all the characters do is walk to another room, a switch in location gives you a chance to re-set the scene with a new POV. Movement signals the change. Which brings me to...

4. Make it very clear you've switched POVs in the first sentence

Unless it's been established that every scene break is a new POV, readers are going to expect the next scene to be in the same POV they were just in. Let them know right away that they're in a new character. Call the previous POV by name, say something only this POV would ever say or think, use a character trait, whatever says "this is X character" to clue the reader in.

However you switch, remember that there should be a reason to do so that moves the story forward in the best way possible. You want the switch to help build tension, advance plot, reveal new information about a character or situation, etc. If all the switch does is tell the reader something they "need to know for X to work" or anything similar, odds are the switch is for the wrong reason and you might want to rethink it.

No contests for the next couple of weeks, but they'll be back as soon as my To-Do List is a little smaller.


  1. This is a great post, Janice. I'm dealing with some of the same stuff. Good info.

  2. Thanks for the clarity. Any opinions on adding a "flourish" sqiggle or triple dots or double space between POV paragraph changes? Personally, I like them, provided they aren't too large/distracting.

    Also, a step I take in one of my self-edit passes is to make each POV a different color text. Helps with consistency in scenes and voice, balancing between POV stage time and recognizing where POV is neutral.

  3. I write third-person omniscient, the POV that comes most naturally to me. I write it the way I've read it, a simple transition between characters. Since that's what I'm used to reading above all else, it doesn't bother me to be in several characters' heads during one scene. That's part of what makes third-person omniscient so awesome and personal.

  4. This was helpful, thank you! One WIP has two POVs for the sake of dramatic irony. I have an advantage, though, because one of my characters is using an alias. Any scene that calls him Carter is from the other guy's POV; any scene that calls him Hartley is from his own.

  5. That was fantastic, Janice. Thanks so much for responding. My dilemma is now much less dilemmary!

  6. Brilliant advice, Janice. You always do have great posts but loved this one in particular - I'm dealing with 3 POVs and it's not easy, but oh, so satisfying when it works. :)

  7. "If readers want to switch, the switch feels natural."

    Perfect! I have added this to the list of rules I write by: make the reader WANT the switch.

    That isn't as hard as it sounds - the whole thing is about creating an experience for the reader.

    But I would also postulate that the reader likes to be left hanging. A bit. Not all the time. But just often enough - if past experience in the story is similar - to know that the writer will then follow up with a wallop.

    This makes getting the perfect last line for one scene, followed by the perfect first line for the next scene, really important. An unanswered question in the current scene - followed by dragging the reader into another scene and another question before fully answering the previous scene's question.

    That what I aim for; achieving it is sometimes tricky.

  8. Cat, thanks! I love getting questions from readers. :)

    Myka, I use *** in my own drafts, but the book designer will do what they want when it's published. So do whatever you like :)

    I like the color coding idea. I have friend who does something similar with highlighters on hard copy (but for other aspects, not POV). Scivner lets you color code sections as well, and I've started doing that.

    Carrie-Anne, and so hard for some :) That's great that it's your voice and comes so naturally to you.

    Rachel, interesting. Fun way to clue the reader in.

    Margaret, oh good! Thanks for asking the question. Made for a fun post.

    Sheryl G, thanks! So true. One of my crit partners does a lot of three-person POVs. You can do a lot of interesting things with it :)

    Liejabberings, sure, it's all about using the right ending, and you do want to mix things up to keep it interesting. Tricky, but like Sheryl just said--oh so satisfying when it works :) Worth the work.