Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Working With Multiple POVs and Timelines

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

And the January Q&A continues today with:
Q: My question involves multiple timelines. Right now my draft follows the protag and antag. The antag's storyline starts a long time before the protag's does, and they converge near the end. How do you decide when to switch POVs, if one of them gets significantly less screen time?
A: It all depends on the story you're trying to tell (which is the answer to a lot of questions, to be honest).

Any time you have multiple POVs, you run the risk of readers liking one POV more than the other(s). In a protagonist/antagonist split, the risk is even higher, because antagonists typically aren't the nicest people, and knowing what they're up to can hurt the suspense and lower the tension in the novel.

I'd suggest starting with asking why the antagonist needs a POV, especially if their story starts before the protagonist's. If the antagonist is a fully fleshed out character with a story arc, and seeing their story unfold sheds new light on the protagonist's story arc, then having the antagonist as a POV character could work very well. If the POV is only there to show how things got this way (extended backstory) and to explain why the protagonist is facing this problem, odds are the antagonist's POV isn't needed. You might also think about:
  • What's gained by showing the antagonist's POV?
  • Will knowing the antagonist's actions hurt the tension in the protagonist's story?
  • What are readers supposed to take away from the antagonist's POV?
  • If you didn't show the antagonist's POV, how does that change the novel? Does it change it?
  • Are readers supposed to sympathize with the antagonist?

An excellent example of a multiple timeline story is Kathleen Duey's Resurrection of Magic trilogy. Showing POVs and story arcs 500 years apart, one POV character's actions (the past) affect the present day-character's life. Readers also see how the antagonist became that way (but the story is compelling in its own right, not just backstory) and the bigger issues and stakes at play.

What makes this work so well is that:
  • Each POV and timeline is its own story arc, even though they eventually converge (the past catches up to the present).
  • Each POV has a sympathetic and compelling character to hook readers
  • Each POV has a compelling storyline with lots of conflict
  • The past POV changes how readers see the present-day POV's problems
  • The reader's need to understand how the past became the present is high

Ultimately, you'd have to decide if the antagonist has a story readers will want to read about regardless of who else is in the novel, and if so, how much of that story will they want to read?

If you decide the antagonist is indeed a necessary POV, you'd change POVs same as any multiple POV novels--when the story needs a switch (yeah, I know these kinds of answers are so very helpful, but it's a reminder not to overthink it).

Any scene break risks the reader putting the book down. Breaks are natural stopping points, which is why so many scenes and chapters end of cliffhangers, and why it's recommended never to end on a low note. It's even doubly so for multiple POV novels, because if the reader isn't as invested in the next POV's story, it's easy to either stop or skim ahead to the POV they're interested in.

I like to use scene breaks and POV switches to help control my pacing and the flow of information to the reader. A break is a natural pause point, so it's perfect for situations where:
  • You want to show time passing
  • You want to change locations
  • You want to change viewpoints
  • You want to leave readers in suspense
  • You want to stall revealing something

Of course, any time you break a scene, make sure you give readers a reason to keep reading--leave them with a question they want an answer to, be that a literal question or a sense of "what's going to happen next?"

(Here's more on what makes a good scene break)

I'd suggest looking at how you might break your story up and deciding how you want the information to unfold and at what pace. In this case, also think about what you want those antagonist POV scenes to do overall. For example:
  • Are they designed to work with dramatic irony and add extra tension during critical moments of the plot? If so, then you might switch over to the antagonist just after the protagonist has decided on the next move, and show clues as to what they're about to walk into.
  • Are they to show a snippet of the past that will affect how the protagonist's scene is understood by the reader? If so, you might switch over before the protagonist gets to that scene or makes the decision to go there/do that. Let the reader know beforehand that the protagonist is missing something important.
  • Are they to show that the protagonist has the wrong idea or incorrect information? If so, you'd have to choose if knowing this before or after the protagonist's scene will pack the most emotional punch for the reader. Perhaps knowing the choice or action is a bad idea when the protagonist makes it works better, or maybe realizing it after it's done and has triggered the consequences is more compelling.
  • Are they to reveal additional information that heightens the tension of the protagonist's scenes? If so, then you might switch at critical plot or character arc moments when the stakes increase or the risk is the highest.

(Here's more on working with multiple POVs)

Consistency of POV Switches

Since switching POVs can jar the reader, it's a good idea to establish the POVs early and set the rules for how and when you switch. For example, going 100 pages in one POV and then suddenly hopping to another is probably going to yank the reader right out of the story and make them wonder what the heck just happened.

If the second POV happens less frequently, it's even more important to establish the switch right away. That way, the readers knows the POV will change at various points in the story. Roland Smith's I, Q series does a good job here, showing the antagonist's POV first, and even putting those scenes in italics. Structurally, readers see the antagonist's view at the major plot points of the novel, ramping up frequency as the book nears the climax. Overall, there are only nine scenes from the antagonist's POV, but they work very well to raise the tension.

I'd suggest deciding where the antagonist's POV scenes are necessary, and treat them the same as any other story arc so they have a sense of beginning, middle, and ending. That way, they won't feel stuck in, but like an integral part of the story that's unfolding and affecting the protagonist's story.

(Here's more on switching POVs)

Cliffhanger Endings

Ending on a cliffhanger seems like the obvious answer when switching POVs, but I advise caution here. If readers are heavily invested in what's going on in a scene, and you break it at a critical cliffhanger moment, you're also breaking the tension at the worst possible time. The risk of the reader skimming ahead to find out what happens is much higher, as is the risk of them losing the excitement you've built. If every scene ends with a cliffhanger (or a lot of them do) and the reader frequently has to wait to learn the resolution, they'll likely stop getting excited about it and those cliffhangers can actually sap the tension, not heighten it.

(Here's more on the perils of cliffhanger endings)

Ultimately, no matter who's POV the scene is in, the same basic rules apply: show the scenes that best dramatize the story and change scenes when it will have the strongest impact. There are no set rules on when or how, as it all depends on the story you want to tell. But if you keep the story in mind and choose scenes that continually move that story and offer the reader questions they want answers to, readers will stay hooked throughout the book. Choose scenes and breaks that serve the story and move the plot, not just scenes that convey information or backstory.

What advice or examples would you give this writer? How would you handle the POV switches in this situation? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. It is the most helpful post on POVs I've ever read!I added the books you suggested to my (huuuuge) TBR.

    1. Thanks so much :) I have the TBR pile myself. They never seem to get smaller, do they?

  2. Thanks, Heather, a great post on multiple points of view.
    In my opinion, although it might seem to make things even more complicated, I think three points of view is preferable to two in general. As you say, as readers we have our favourite characters, but when this is split between only two viewpoints, we tend towards loving one and hating the other – that’s fine if that’s what you want but it doesn’t necessarily make for rounded characters. With more than two we don’t tend to have this black-and-white splitting.
    I think the antagonist-protagonist split can work well if you want to play around with the idea of who is the goody and who is the baddie. Harriet Lane does this in her novel Her (although I think it makes for too much repetition
    I think there’s a big difference between multiple points of view to show different perspectives on a central issue and multiple characters with quite separate story arcs that don’t connect until later in the novel. I think it’s very difficult to do this well without the reader asking herself just what’s the point?
    You’ve certainly set up a great debate!

    1. Good thoughts to consider! I think it all depends on the story and what the author is trying to do. I've read novels where two POVs were one too many, and ones where ten POVs worked just fine.

  3. Timely advice for me, as I'm writing a novel with 2 POV, and am about to introduce another important character, who is an antagonist to one of the other: the eternal triangle... Any suggestions for books to read?

    1. Sadly I don't, as I see I have no books on my shelves that use an antagonist POV (I don't think it's as common in fantasy/YA, which is most of what I read). You might try looking at some thriller/suspense novels for some ideas. You do tend to see antagonists POV in that genre more frequently.

  4. ANother great post, Janice. Came here today to find another blog..and read this one too. Thanks for all you provide for writers!