A reader asked me a great point of view question recently:
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?Transitions can be tricky at the best of times, but this has to be one of the tougher ones to handle. With third person, simply switching POVs per scene can feel like a POV shift or head hopping if the characters are all in the same scene. Here are some guidelines:
1. Stick to one POV per scene, even if there are multiple POV characters in a scene
Bopping around can confuse the reader, so you always want to be clear whose head you're in. The only time you'd use multiple POVs is if you were writing in omniscient. (and if so, you won't have a transition problem since you can be in any head any time you want)
2. Stick to the same POV style you've been using all along
If you've been using limited third, suddenly shifting to omniscient will likely jar the reader. Consistency is key. Establish what you plan to do and stick with it. So if you want to change POVs regularly, show that right from the start. Don't have five chapters in one POV and then start switching around.
3. Choose whichever POV is more relevant to the story
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)
4. 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.