Smooth Switches: Multiple POV Tricks and Tips

This month we’re looking at Fatal Flaw # 5: POV Violations. Fiction writers often violate POV “rules,” and have trouble seeing how this manifests in their scenes. This week editor Linda Clare explores how to make  smooth switch in POV and decide just who should be experiencing and relating the scene. (If you missed last week’s introductory post by Rachel Starr Thomson, read it here.)

As Rachel reminded us last week, knowing whose skin we’re in is key to developing and keeping readers interested and pulling for a point-of-view character. She discussed the perils of head-hopping (jumping from one character’s head to another in the same scene) and used some terrific examples to set us straight. This week, let’s talk about how to make a smooth switch in POV.

Who Will Tell the Story?

Many modern novels are told from more than one character’s perspective. While the technique adds interest and richness to a story, many novel writers don’t understand why they are telling a story from more than one POV. No matter how many characters “take the microphone,” writers still need to know whose story is being told.

Your story can be told by multiple voices, but it’s essential that one character be the one for whom the story matters most, who has the most to lose, or to whom the most important changes and challenges occur.

When you begin writing the story, ask yourself, “Who has the most to lose?” and “Which character is most impacted by the events in this scene?” Try writing a few scenes in different POVs if you aren’t sure who should tell the story. Ideally, you’ll come up with one main character at the center of the story.

Get Her on Stage—Quick!

If you are writing a multiple-viewpoint novel, you already know to switch POVs at scene or chapter breaks. You can either leave a blank line (with a # in the middle) or start a new chapter to alert the reader that a new narrator is now telling the story.

One problem I see regularly is a writer will break the scene or chapter, following the rule, but then go into an omniscient description of the landscape or surroundings before letting the reader know whose head they’re in. My mantra is always: Readers should always know when, where, and who they are. By putting us into the new POV character’s head immediately after a break, readers don’t have to worry about these three critical elements.

Go ahead and set the scene, but do so in the head (and voice) of the narrating character. Don’t wait for a paragraph or two of description or exposition before you let us know “who” we are. Little headings at the beginning of the scene (indicating that now we’re Sarah, for instance) aren’t always enough. Some readers will miss these titles completely. 

Third Limited vs. Third Omniscient POV

Point of view in fiction is usually limited to one character at a time. But as writers are urged to craft scenes in a cinematic way, how can they write scenes in which the main POV character is absent? This is a more advanced technique, but one that can be mastered.

For the bulk of scenes, you’ll stick with third person limited, meaning one character whose thoughts and emotions readers can know. It’s similar to a camera following the character around. But what if important action occurs out of that character’s experience, such as a murder or other important mystery? This is where third-person omniscient can be briefly blended into the story.

Readers would see the “other” character or characters, but not through the main POV character’s eyes. Think of it kind of like a camera staying in place.

Using third-person omniscient effectively depends on some big IFS. Use it . . .

  • IF readers aren’t confused or lost or hesitant to identify whom they are following. Readers who get confused can quickly become nonreaders.
  • IF the writer has already established the third-person limited POV strongly, after readers are committed to following that character’s journey, Third-person omniscient may add rather than detract from the story. This means you probably don’t want to switch to third-person omniscient until your reader’s a ways into the story and really cares what happens to the main POV character.
  • If the switch from third-person limited to third-person omniscient is brief, contains crucial story information that cannot be deleted, and drives the story forward.

Confused? Let’s take a look at a Before and After example of third-person limited to third-person omniscient and back again:

BEFORE:

The sun beat down on the mesas, rose-colored dust shimmering with heat. A dozen wild horses thundered through a dry wadi, alkali earth spraying from under their hooves, a high-pitched whinny here and there as the beasts rumbled across the desert. Hal and Owen were cousins in life but brothers in crime. Owen was ready to lasso any horses that tried to escape.

Hal stood at the narrow end of the wadi, where the horses would squeeze themselves into a corral. Hal used a cattle prod to spur the animals along. He said, “How much you think we’ll get?”

Owen fingered his riata. “Plenty, I expect. The BLM pays top dollar, I hear.”

Hal pulled his neckerchief over his mouth and nose. “What if them dumb injuns find out? Rumors are that Two Owl dude’s onto us.”

Owen spat. “You worry too much. Just do your job, and we’ll both get rich.”

Generations of Indians had witnessed these magnificent wild horses in their thousands. They’d tamed the horses and cared for them, only taking what was necessary. Now the horses fought for existence alongside parched sage and cacti, pushed ever back by the herds of grazing sheep. Soon the horses would be gone, and would the Indian follow? There was no chance for anyone in this ghostlike land.

Simon Two Owl stood at the entrance to his Hogan, watching the last of the wild ponies disappear over the ridge. His grandfather had told him of how white men would destroy the land, but that no one would listen. Simon wiped sweat from his brow and shook his head. These days the poachers stole the horses to sell in the marketplace.

Simon turned to Little Feather. “Another fence cut last night. Two more colts snatched from the mares.”

His wife stopped weaving and looked to the horizon. “Who would do such a thing? Don’t they know the wild horses are nearly gone?”

She was not even as tall as the upright loom where she worked, but that’s what he loved about her. Her lips formed a thin hard line whenever she spoke of the beautiful horses she loved. He smiled at her passion for wild things.

AFTER:

Simon Two Owl stood at the entrance to his hogan, watching the last of the wild ponies disappear over the ridge. Generations of Indians had witnessed these magnificent wild horses in their thousands. They’d tamed the horses and cared for them, only taking what was necessary. Now the horses fought for existence alongside parched sage and cacti, pushed ever back by the herds of grazing sheep.

Simon’s grandfather had told him of how white men would destroy the land, but that no one would listen. Simon wiped sweat from his brow and shook his head. These days the poachers stole the horses to sell in the marketplace.

Simon turned to Little Feather. “Another fence cut last night. Two more colts snatched from the mares.”

His wife stopped weaving and looked to the horizon. “Who would do such a thing? Don’t they know the wild horses are nearly gone?”

She was not even as tall as the upright loom where she worked, but that’s what he loved about her. Her lips formed a thin hard line whenever she spoke of the beautiful horses she loved. He smiled at her passion for wild things. Soon the horses would be gone, and would the Indian follow? There was no chance for anyone in this ghostlike land.

#

Owen was ready to lasso any horses that tried to escape, and he worried that Hal wasn’t up to the task. Hal and Owen were cousins in life but brothers in crime. Always the daydreamer, Hal stood at the narrow end of the wadi, where the horses would squeeze themselves into a corral. Hal used a cattle prod to spur the animals along. He was excited to catch his very first wild stallion.

He cupped his hand to his mouth and hollered at his cousin. “How much you think we’ll get?”

Owen fingered his riata. “Plenty, I expect. The BLM pays top dollar, I hear.”

Hal pulled his neckerchief over his mouth and nose. “What if them dumb injuns find out? Rumors are that Two Owl dude’s onto us.”

Owen spat. “You worry too much. Just do your job, and we’ll both get rich.”

In the Before passage, the setting is described but no one is narrating. We aren’t sure if we’re in Hal or Owen’s skin or POV. Then we go deeper into Two Owl’s POV and get the feeling he’s the true narrator. The POV jumps around, and there is no scene break to indicate a switch in POV.

In the After passage, we begin in Two Owl’s POV, and the reason for the scene becomes clear through his viewpoint. We see that the horses really matter to him and that poaching is a big problem. Owen is introduced as the second POV character, but only after we establish sympathy for Two Owl.

Your turn:

What do you think necessitates the story to justify going from third-person limited POV to third-person omniscient? Do you see why, in most scenes in a story, readers prefer close-ups to distances point-of-views? What other scenarios (besides murder or other mysteries) might benefit from a switch to an omniscient POV in order to best tell the story?

11 Responses to “Smooth Switches: Multiple POV Tricks and Tips”

  1. Kristina Stanley May 13, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Very well said. Having the writer ask specific questions about the POV when entering the scene about who has POV is a helpful way to pay attention to POV. I keep a spreadsheet of POVs and after my first draft is done, I sort on POV to check the balance and check the the protagonist has a larger percent. I also use it to check if there are characters with only one POV. Then I ask if the scene really needs to be in their POV, and if not, I change to a more appropriate character and reduce the number of POVs I’ve used.

    • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) May 18, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Sorry to answer so late–I was on a deadline last week! I think your questions are excellent. The fewer “voices” we hear from, I think the more readers can pull for the important characters. Thanks for commenting.
      Keep Writing,
      Linda Clare

  2. Douglas R Thompson May 13, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    I think historical fiction is an appropriate genre for the occasional omniscient POV, because the author is often adding historical tidbits that can’t always be told by one of the characters. One author that seemed to master this was James Michener.

    • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) May 18, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

      Douglas,
      James Michener is often cited as a reason to use an omniscient POV. In historical novels, I tend to like the ones whose characters experience the history more than the ones which step out to give me a history lesson. Just my two cents.
      Keep Writing!
      Linda

  3. Angela Duffield-Warren May 13, 2015 at 9:57 am #

    Thank you for this post. I have written my novel with various POV. It is challenging to determine how many
    POV’s you can have in a story. Should a writer be limited to only three?

    • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) May 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

      Angela,
      There isn’t a hard & fast rule on how many POVs you can use. But consider this: One character should have the most to lose and the story should be mainly that one character’s. This is because if readers have to root for too many or they don’t know who to root for, they can end up not rooting for anyone. Food for thought.
      Keep Writing,
      Linda

  4. Carrie Lynn Lewis May 13, 2015 at 10:31 am #

    Great post.

    I’m one of those “weird” people who loves third person omniscient. I think almost any story in almost any genre could be written in third person omniscient by the right writer.

    Am I that writer?

    I wish! Because I’m not, your tips on using omniscient POV occasionally are helpful.

    Thanks for tackling a topic that’s so frequently ignored.

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

    • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) May 18, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

      Carrie,
      You have identified a common attitude among writers. Maybe since we must know all our characters so intimately, we tend to want to include everybody’s story, everybody’s POV. But readers actually want you to manage their experience by giving them clear goals and a character who has the most at stake so they can pull for that character. Hope you find my tips useful and do Keep Writing!
      Linda

  5. Jim Steinberg May 15, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    This post puts a fine challenge to my current novel project. In writing “Third Floor,” I have four POV characters rotating chapters: twin brother and sister, mother and father. It is working well thus far, but your question “whose story is it?” has got me thinking. I have enjoyed giving it to all four, but now it seems to belong more to the twins and perhaps even more to the sister than the brother. I’m glad you caught me less than halfway through the first draft.

    In “Boundaries,” my novel about a lawyer and a client in a custody case, both are POV characters. Ben, the lawyer, has more chapters, but Sydney, the client, has the last one. Given the arc of the story, this seems natural. She is the one trying to regain custody of her child and in the end taking matters in her own hands when the court fails to deliver justice. Ben has the second to last chapter, so readers get a final glimpse of how what he has done to deliver justice outside the boundaries of the law will affect his future. But with four POV characters I have a bigger problem.

    I’m still attached to having “Third Floor” belong to all four, but you sure have me questioning how to do this and whether I should. If I decide to reduce, I will have trouble paring it down to less than two!

    Thank you!

    Jim

    • cslakin May 17, 2015 at 8:11 pm #

      I love to use lots of multiple POVs because I am fascinated by inner motivation for each character. Some novels call for lots more POVs than others, but it’s all about assessing who really needs to experience each particular scene. I choose the character who is impacted the most and whose reaction to the events is the one to reveal the important info and advance the plot. However, with multiple POVs, you want to take care to have at least 60% of all scenes be in the protagonist’s POV and all scenes have to relate to complicating the protagonist and her goal. The subplots are all there for this end, and it helps to have the protagonist’s scenes longer, bigger, and more important than any of the other characters’ scenes.

    • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) May 18, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

      Jim,
      I’m not saying 4 POVs can’t work. Many good authors have successfully pulled it off. Just know that as your POV list grows, so grows the complexity of the novel AND the complexity of the readers’ emotions as they try to follow along. In a first novel, I advise sticking to a single viewpoint, but go ahead and experiment. Just know that more POVs tends to muddy the “whose story” question even more.
      Keep Writing,
      Linda

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