Methods for Switching Between POV characters


Apr 26, 2017
I have 5 pov character and need help on how to switch between them.
Before i give my way of doing it, to make things easy to follow and understand im going to label each character a letter: Character 1 = A, Character 2= B, Character 3= C, Character 4= D, Character 5= E

this post might get confusing, so i will try my best to explain my situation lol

These are the two methods im struggling between.
Now the 1st method that i was going to do was:
Then i was gone start all over (A B C D E). What i like about this method is that im able to tell what everyone is doing at the same time instead of jumping back and forth in time. The problem with this method is by the time im finish writing POV "E", readers would forget or think it takes to long to get back to POV "A".

The 2nd method i was thinking was:
I was gone keep switching back and forth between POV, so that the reader wont spend to much time away from one pov. The problem with this method is, from that example above is "Time". I'll be moving back and forth between time. So when one POV character story is moving ahead, another POV character has yet to get there. For Example:
A - 2:00 pm
B- 2:00 pm
A-2:30 pm
B-2:30 pm
C- 2:00 pm
B- 3:00 pm
D: 2:00 pm
A- 3:00 pm
You see how some characters are moving forward in time while other characters has yet to get there. It'll be like some character POV will be taking place during the night and others will still be taking place during the day.

I know this may seem confusing but if anyone has any input/suggestions, please help me here. I seriously need it.
Hi @Anonymous and welcome:)

Okay, so sometimes a lot depends on the story when it comes to structure. There are situations when using one of those methods you've mentioned would work, but in general terms (and apologies if you already know this)...

Organising POV sequentially by character (A-B-C-D-E-A-B...) is less common, I would say, than following the natural path of the story. That might mean you have a couple of chapters with the same POV before changing, or it gets out of sequence: A-B-B-E-A-D
Following the story chronologically as it happens may be an easier option rather than changing to the next character POV regardless of what's happening.

I'll be moving back and forth between time. So when one POV character story is moving ahead, another POV character has yet to get there.
A lot depends on what the characters are doing (and whether they're together at the time) but switching back and forth in time can often be confusing for the reader, and 5 POV characters may make this more so.

My advice if you're struggling would be to follow the story chronologically - write the chapters that starts at 2pm first, then the ones that start at 2:30, then 3pm, etc. Where 2 POV characters are doing things at the same time, write one then the other before moving on; don't be afraid to skip hours or days if nothing's happening (plenty of books summarise the passage of time between chapters with something like "3 days later he reached the top of the mountsain" for example). Don't worry at this stage about some characters having more chapters than others. This will probably be the easiest way to write and get that first draft done. Once you've finished, you'll have a better idea of how it all fits together and can always reorganise the chapters.
Hi. :)

It might be you've already considered this, and you know you need all these POV characters, but I have found that often I don't need as many POV characters as first thought. Information can be carried back to another character: a letter, or by word of mouth, for instance. A character that is not in POV could explain what's happened elsewhere to another POV character. This way you could reduce the amount of POV switching about.
Have you read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying? As I recall, 4-5 viewpoint characters. As I recall he dealt with the time problem by finding ways to allude to certain actions. For instance (and not an exact memory of the story; it's been a while since I read it), one of the characters is a carpenter putting together a coffin. In one character's chapter the coffin is already made; in another character's chapter he can hear the saw cutting into wood outside the window.

Randy M.
A few thoughts:

1) Moving back and forward in time can work in a story, but in general its going to fail unless its a cornerstone of the narrative; because unless its integral to the telling of the story the jumping around in time spots is going to drive most readers to distraction and risks losing your average reader.
Note in most stories you can get away doing this once or twice without a problem; its a unique event and thus easy to highlight to the reader. Continual shifting around causes the confusion.

2) Time jumps or events happing at the same time tend to also work when there's a hard barrier between characters. For example you could have characters in different countries so that the events that happen to both can easily happen at the same time without the writer having to repeat events over and over from different viewpoints (not a problem if the story sticks to point 1 but can run the risk of getting boring). The barrier also helps highlight the shift in viewpoint to the reader; it gives htem a prompt to realise that they are happening at around the same time.

3) As said earlier; most writers follow the timeline and the narrative. They show varying viewpoints as they are needed and us character as and when they are required. This can mean that blocks of events can focus on a couple of key characters; then things shift and another few rise to the fore more so.

It sounds like you are planning the structure a little too early and then trying to fit the story to the structure. Structure is good; but sometimes you have to get the story together and start to work out how you're going to deliver it and then let the structure start to emerge. Then once you've got some rough concepts down you can start to build the structure up and then attach the story to it. Structure first sounds sensible; but it can also make your story rather forced as you try to stick to structure without good reason. Eg your first example of going ABCDE etc.... can work; but it you impose it on the story before having a reason to do so you can run the risk of having chapters forced in where they are not needed etc....
[Mods: Shouldn't this be in General Writing Discussion?]

I have four POV characters in the WIP, who are usually in different locations. I decided to do one full "cycle" of chapters before moving on to the next cycle, so that the first three chapters might run like this: ABCD, CABD, ADBC and so on. Each character has one chapter in each cycle, although the order of the chapters might vary. For special emphasis I have occasionally left out one chapter in a cycle, largely where characters have been incapacitated.

I am deliberately vague about timing unless the characters are essentially in the same room as each other. Where characters come together to do the same thing (ie are in the same team), time effectively passes twice as fast in the book, because two of the four POV strands are telling the same story, instead of each character following their own story.

Given the tightness of your story, where hours rather than days matter, I don't think it would be wrong to say what all the characters were doing between 2-3pm, then to start at the beginning of the cycle and say what they did between 3-4pm, and so on. But I find it hard to visualise: I'm not sure that I've read a multi-POV story with so tight a time-scale.
You might be over-thinking this; unless the story itself revolves around some sort of mystery story or puzzle that is resolve by the sequence of events. And even then, depending on what your final goal in the story might be, you might just need to determine who's point of views unravel the puzzle.

You might in fact use the POV as a means of obfuscation where you might be reaching out to construct a conundrum. That might be where each POV that has the same scene might only see a piece of the puzzle but not the whole picture and can draw the wrong conclusions. and the one missing piece is in a POV that has yet to be told. So you can make the multiple POV work for you.

However if some of these POV don't overlap then it shouldn't be a problem, unless one POV character has internal reference to something that happens to another POV character that hasn't been covered yet in that POV; in which case(if you have to show that happening) you would want to have those sections close to each other or make some reference at the beginning of the paragraph that lets the reader know that you are rewinding back one hour or one day or something like that.

Usually if you show something happening to a character in one chapter and the next has another POV character who gets informed at the end of their chapter about what happened in the last chapter(as if it's happening right then); most people can follow that without a score card reference.

You really only have to be careful about confusing the reader when events start to overlap and that might to some extent dictate how you are going to write that scene and when you will utilize the POV at each step.

Then you just have to decide whether you want to put them in separate chapters or separate scenes within the same chapter.

I wrote one of my books with a chapter where one character walks into a scene to meet another and at the end of the scene the second character takes the next scene into the next room where the next scene takes the POV of the character they meet. One reason for doing this was that they were all going to be in the last scene together and they were all important characters and I wanted the reader to expect to hear more from all three during the rest of the book.

That's just some thoughts.

Though I also agree with the notion that where possible try to minimize the number of POV characters.
My WIP has half a dozen POVs and their sections of the story generally take place at different locations, but at the same time. I let the reader assume this rather than spell it out. However, I occasionally include an incident from one POV thread in passing during another if I think the reader needs a (hopefully subtle) prompt.

My previous novel was told from the POV of 26 characters and was much easier. The bulk of them were often in the same situation, so it was merely a case of choosing the best one for a particular scene, or jumping from one to another during the course of the scene. I broke up the story up into short and long chapters headed by the POV character name.

I love writing with multiple POVs, but it can get tricky, so I try to focus on the story and not the mathematical permutations. I'd rather sort out the issues when I have a completed manuscript than get tied in knots during the process.
I'm not sure if there's a definitive answer to the OP question, but I faced a similar dilemma in the trilogy I'm writing. I began by trying to get all four of my POVs cycling equally, but that lasted for about ten chapters. Then I just let them tell the story in whatever order they felt like, which often resulted in AABDADC or similar, but I made an executive decision to stop worrying about it.

During editing, I discovered that the time overlap didn't work well, because I'd have character A tell a bit of story, then character C would pick up the thread, but I had overlapped the timescale so character C was retelling some of the story that A had just told. That helped me draft the story, because it got me back into C's POV nicely, but it took the reader forwards and backwards too much and just held up the tension. So I went back and edited out all thise overlaps until I had (hopefully -- it's with a wonderful developmental editor currently!) a seamless timeline, moving smoothly from one POV to the next*.

In doing this, I found I could reshuffle and combine chapters until I was much closer to the ABCD-ABCD structure I'd wanted initially. I found it much easier to juggle POVs and chapeter orders after the novel was finished. Trying to do it as I went along seemed like a steep downhill path to insanity, but maybe that's because I'm a complete panster. :)

*This a writer's-eye perspective. It's quite possible that I've actually created a monster.
As Kerry has said, I don't think there's an empirical answer to this, and I won't echo all the good advice said upthread.

I had a similar problem and decided I'd fix it if there was an issue when I'd finished draft one. My issue wasn't striclty POV related but amount. My story is an epic supernatural yarn with five distinct time periods from the Middle Ages to present day. There are at least two POVs in each era but the book is not written in strict chronological order. That is to say, the time periods per chapter are chronolgically but it would be more like ABCDEABCDEABCDE as the story inches forward.

The problem (might) come when I've finished draft 1 as I could end up with APOV1, POV2, B POV1, POV2, C POV 1, POV 2 etc, etc, etc. which could get mightily confusing.

However, each section is headed with the date so I'm able to cheat a little.

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Personally, I have written the same scene in both my books from nearly every point of view of every character in said scene. The only exception is Taffy in Hand of Glory, somehow he didn't want someone else muscling in, in his big scenes. I have done time over lapped scenes and found that they slowed the action, so I edited them to points where it felt right for one character to hand over the narration of the scene to another character.
The point being, write out the scenes as you feel they need to be written. Once the story is done, edit them.

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