How to switch point of view without confusing the reader

point of viewOne of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.

The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.

First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)

But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.

Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.

1 Stick with one POV per scene

Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.

gonetulip22 Imagine each scene is titled with the POV character’s name

Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.

Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.

3 Establish the POV pattern early on

At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.

point of view 24 Some first person, some third, some omniscient? No problem

Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.

Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.

But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)

5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?

Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:

  1. Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
  2. Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
  3. Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
  4. Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break,  so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life 

Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Andrew Toynbee on October 7, 2013 - 9:41 am

    My novel was originally written in Third Person POV, but I decided, a few drafts in, to change it to First Person for a more intense read. Only snag was, in the third-to-last chapter, my characters were temporarily split up, each of them battling to reunite with the other and learning a great deal about themselves and their abilities in the process.
    As the majority of the book is single-character 1st POV, it felt wrong to suddenly switch to the companion character for one chapter and so I employed device (a supernatural ‘shared-mind’ which had been building into a telepathic link in several of the previous chapters) where one character experiences the emotions – fear and pain – of the other.
    However, I’ve now been told that this reads as confusing as one character follows the trials of the other whilst drifting in and out of their own surreal experience. I’m still reluctant to revert to alternating 1st POV. Do you know of any other devices I might be able to employ for a contemporary supernatural story?

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 10:36 am

      Hi Andrew! I’ve changed POVs between drafts as well – although before I do I make a long list of pros and cons. For every advantage, there’s usually a SNAFU that requires rethinking.
      And you’ve got a good question here. You’re right to not switch into a different POV for just one chapter. You’re also right to take notice when readers tell you they’re confused. If they’re confused, they’re not involved. And I’m guessing it must be very hard indeed for them to sort between telepathic transmissions AND surreal experiences: that’s two levels of oddness and it might simply be too much.
      Prose has its limitations and you might have found them!
      I’m also guessing that you want the reader to experience both these threads simultaneously? It simply might not be possible because the reader can’t process it.
      Could you do it all from the first viewpoint? If the second viewpoint is essential, I’d try to find a plot device that gives you the excuse to present it as a discovery by the first – perhaps a supernatural equivalent of a letter, diary, recording etc.
      Otherwise, even though it contains nice material, you might be better leaving it out. As I said earlier, if you confuse the reader you lose their involvement – and you must keep that at all times.
      However, with our wonderful online world, this section doesn’t have to be lost. Did you see the post I wrote about a deleted scene? http://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/a-performance-dress-why-a-precious-scene-had-to-go-guest-post-at-creative-flux/ I reluctantly cut this scene from my novel, but then used it as an ‘extra’ for guest posts about the book. You could do this or maybe include the removed excerpt at the end as a bonus, or put it on your website.
      Does that help? Good luck with it!

      • #3 by Andrew Toynbee on October 7, 2013 - 11:53 am

        Roz
        Thanks for the pointers. If the reader loses the thread, then the whole point of the excercise – getting them to read – is lost.
        The events with the two characters are simultaneous, rendering the use of discovery or flashback impossible. In the original 3rd POV, the scenes switched back and forth between the female character (now the 1st POV for the majority of the book) coping with suddenly being on her own and a captive of the charming but sinister antagonist, and the male (angel) also captive elsewhere as a building burns down around him. It is at this point that he realises his full potential and uses his new-found abilities to escape and rejoin his love interest, rescuing her by engaging in battle with the antagonist – a battle that takes him half-way around the world in a few minutes – and, of course, separates the pair once again.
        Straightforward in 3rd POV, but sticky in 1st. *sigh*
        Her link with him does, however, inspire his victory even though they are separated – which is pivotal. She could not physically be with him at any time during all this because she could not survive alongside him as he fights firstly the flames and secondly the antagonist.

  2. #4 by mgm75 on October 7, 2013 - 9:45 am

    I tend not to mix it up within the same event / series of events if I can help it. Each scene will have one point of view. If I need another person’s pov then I use a break to denote that you are about to shift to another pov – just as you would if you were leaving the event to go somewhere else entirely.

    It could be a good idea to take a couple of steps back in time when switching character. I can’t think of any specific examples but imagine writing a car accident. The first character’s narrative ends with the collision (but that person might have been distracted and possibly didn’t see it – only hearing the smash and then turning around to see the pile up). Then you switch character and bring it back a couple of minutes… the second character looks on horrified as he watches the car spin on the ice, swerve across the road and into the path of an oncoming lorry. That also gives the reader adequate breathing space to realise that they are changing point of view.

    • #5 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 10:39 am

      Hi mgm! That’s a good approach. I often think of POV as the reader’s ‘camera’. What can they see and what can’t they see? And sometimes it’s important to do a brief rewind to reorientate – nice point!

  3. #6 by Author Jessica Bell on October 7, 2013 - 10:27 am

    Fabulous post, Roz! Going to share …

  4. #8 by anastaciamoore on October 7, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    Thank you for your great pointers. I sometimes find myself having to go over my novels with a ‘fine tooth comb’ to make sure with multiple characters in one scene, that they are not all ‘narrating’ at one time.
    Reblogged your article with a link back @ http://anastaciamoore.wordpress.com/

    • #9 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 1:28 pm

      Thanks, Anastacia – and what a good point. I sometimes find I’ve used slightly impossible viewpoints, and have to watch out for them on the fine edits. Sometimes it’s just a nuance, but it makes a big difference to the reader’s journey.

  5. #10 by tomburkhalter on October 7, 2013 - 1:41 pm

    I like the idea of “heading” a scene with a character’s name to establish POV. Another helpful device is a date and place reference if your characters and events are widely separated in space and time. This can also help establish pace; in historical fiction, for example, when one might reasonably expect the reader to be aware of a significant date, and your characters go day by day towards that.

    • #11 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 7:13 pm

      Hi Tom! Ah, historical fiction adds extra complications of its own. There are probably purists who would say you shouldn’t need labels because it should be clear from the text. Others might argue just as strenuously that there’s nothing wrong with anything that helps the reader.
      I did rather admire Deborah Moggach’s use of the headings, though – especially being able to take the ‘voice’ of a storm or an eye above the city. She really used it to good effect. It also gave the novel a fable quality.

  6. #12 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 7, 2013 - 1:55 pm

    My trilogy uses first person for the main character and close third for all others. I started writing this way on Book One because I wanted to show several important events that involved the main character’s love interest, but I didn’t feel comfortable writing a female perspective in first person. I expended the concept in Book Two by adding two more perspectives: the villain’s and one other.

    To avoid reader confusion, I made the following rules for myself, and I stuck to them:

    1. I established a character POV “hierarchy.” If the main character is in the scene, it is told from his perspective. If the female lead is in a scene without the main character, it’s told from her perspective, and so on.

    2. I never switch POV within a scene. If I switch POV, I start a new chapter. Multiple, consecutive scenes in the same POV may be put into the same chapter. (In Book 2, I experimented with making each scene a chapter, but I don’t think I’ll do that again.)

    3. The lead character’s POV is always in first person, and everyone else is in close third.

    4. Limit the number of POVs to no more than five. So far, I’ve been able to keep it to four. Not every character has a perspective that needs to be shown. I try to pick the secondary perspectives that serve the story best.

    In Book Two, the start of each chapter indicates the POV and the location of the scene for that chapter. Some beta readers liked that and others thought it was unnecessary. Since no one actively disliked it, I left it in.

    I’m working on Book Three now, and I’m staying with these rules so the trilogy will be consistent. I’m not sure what I’ll do in the future. I’ve had several readers say they like the first person POV parts best, which is interesting considering that I’m writing Swords & Sorcery fantasy (typically a third-person genre). My next work will be a contemporary paranormal fantasy, a genre that is first-person-tolerant, so I may write the story completely in first person POV.

    One thing is certain, I’m thankful to you and to Victoria Mixon for telling me that it was okay to mix first person and third when I was contemplating how I would handle POV for my trilogy back when I started Book One.

    • #13 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 7:17 pm

      Hi Daniel! As always, your systematic approach is interesting and helps pin down some useful insights. I like your idea of hierarchies and limiting the number of POVs. Like limiting the number of main characters, it ensures you don’t end up with an unwieldy cast who have too many similarities.

      My short answer seems rather a poor effort compared to your long comment – but thanks!

    • #14 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 8, 2013 - 1:12 pm

      “My short answer seems rather a poor effort compared to your long comment.”

      I disagree! Your post offers suggestions that would help any writer. My approach would only be helpful to writers who want to handle POV the same way I do.

      My writing process is in a constant state of refinement (warning: INTJ at work), so I enjoy reading about the process of other writers. I share my own process (which is strongly influenced by the lessons I’ve gleaned from NYN over the past couple of years) as an exchange in kind. FWIW, YMMV.

  7. #16 by Camilla Kyndesen on October 7, 2013 - 6:14 pm

    Great tips, thank you! I’m beginning to brainstorm a story idea for NaNoWriMo, and I was worrying that it would be too much to have both a first person and third person POV in one story. Thanks for showing me it can be done – now it remains to be seen if I can do it :)

  8. #18 by Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99) on October 7, 2013 - 6:45 pm

    Hi Roz,
    Narrator and POV are topics which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with. I know that, as a reader, it is extremely irritating to have a sudden head-hop in the narrative. As a result, I am extremely careful in my own writing attempts to be consistent. It does not help that there are many published novels out there which have glaring POV slips in them. I do wonder how these are missed by editors.

    • #19 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 7, 2013 - 7:20 pm

      Hi Yvonne – nice to see you here! Yes, as you say, some traditionally published novels are not as strict with POV as they should be. And there are gradations of slippage – from the outright impossible to the slightly off. As for how editors are missing them? Perhaps they’re not being given enough time to edit them properly, or they couldn’t convince the author that there was a problem or explain how to fix it…
      Thanks for stopping by!

    • #20 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 8, 2013 - 1:27 pm

      I agree completely. I have never read a work by *any* author who was skillful enough to perform head-hopping within a scene and have it turn out well.

      I’m reading a novel series right now that suffers from POV problems, and head-hopping is just one aspect. The other problem is that the author establishes a close third person POV and then lets the POV character observe things that he/she can’t possibly know (like what another character is thinking). I suspect that POV violations like that are much easier to miss if head hopping is in the mix to begin with.

      I’m continuing to read the series because I know the author and the stories are good, even if I think the execution is poor.

  9. #21 by Debbie on October 8, 2013 - 8:39 pm

    And yet I can think of two or three mainstream novels put out by big publishers that head-hop. And nobody seems to mind or even notice. maybe it’s a case of having to knwo the rules before you can break them?

    • #22 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 10, 2013 - 12:17 pm

      Debbie, do you think it was deliberate? Or editor error? Sometimes the editors who are used for traditionally published books are not – shall we say – people I’d hire myself…

  10. #23 by Jackie Cangro on October 10, 2013 - 8:28 pm

    You’ve done a great job explaining headhopping and how to avoid it. I teach creative writing for beginners and find that this is the concept students have the most difficulty understanding. I’ll direct them to your informative post. Thanks!

  11. #25 by deerayson on October 13, 2013 - 1:48 am

    Thanks, Roz. This is an excellent post. When I wrote the first novel “Arkrealm The Apprentice”, I wrote several versions. Firstly, I tried first person, (Sandy Miller’s POV) but found as my story switched between Earth and the ethereal world of Arkrealm that it limited what I could show of the two worlds. Then I went to third person using Sandy again. As I neared finishing the story I decided I needed to share the POV of one of the male characters also, so I created specific chapters for this, so that the reader had a deeper understanding of the male character’s emotions. Personally, I don’t like using omnipresent because I feel it makes the story feel distant and can pull you out of the character you have become invested in. I feel like I have become the character when a writer works their POV well.

    • #26 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 13, 2013 - 8:35 am

      Thanks, Dee. Isn’t it interesting what different POVs can give you? They can be totally different stories. So long as you can create a framework that makes sense, your solution should work. Good luck!

  12. #27 by adameverhard on October 13, 2013 - 6:47 am

    Reblogged this on The Living Dead and commented:
    I’m going to try again to put the finishing touches on my novel and put it out there as an e-book. Maybe this is my year! I’m going to read back over it, looking for POV confusion, just to be sure. Even though I’m not selling it for profit (any money I make will go to the AIDS project in my state) I want it to be the best it can be.

    • #28 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 13, 2013 - 8:33 am

      Thanks, Adam! It’s a good idea to do a pass looking specifically for this problem. If you have let the POV slip and you correct it, you’ll make a smoother read.

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