Sunday, 31 July 2011

On writing: alternating chapters as a plot device: rotating POV

If you are writing a book from a single viewpoint, then this blog probably isn't for you. But if you have different characters and points of view (POV), using alternating chapters can be a good device to maintain tension and drive plot, keeping the reader turning the pages. The device is also used to a great extent in film and TV series (e.g. Heroes being an extreme example), but beware - it is much easier to hold a viewer's attention with scenes shifting between different characters and their viewpoints on film, than it is to do the same thing in a book. This is because with film/TV you see the characters - there is no need to 'bring them alive' off the face of a page, as there is in a book.

But it can be done really well and to effect. The most straightforward approach is ABAB. This means that in chapter 1, it is from character A's POV, in ch.2 from B's POV, then back to A, etc. A good example of this in Science Fiction is Iain Banks' book 'The State of the Art'. Reading it sets up a powerful rhythm, and the climax of the book is magnified by this structure. Would it have worked as AAABBB? Maybe, but the writer risks losing the reader when the switchover chapter happens. The reader has invested a lot of time in character A, and suddenly B arrives and 'takes over'. What if the reader doesn't like or sympathize with B? Also, the reader may feel like their 'psychological contract' with the writer has been violated: "You told me for half the book this was about A, and now suddenly B comes up?" It can be done, but there are risks.

What gets interesting and more challenging is when there is a cast of characters whose POV are necessary for the story. I try and write space opera and mystery-based Scifi where I need a number of sub-plots merging towards a single climax. In my book The Eden Paradox, there are four main characters. If I did ABCDABCDABCD etc., how many people would bother to read it? It would be tiring, right? You'd lost the details of chapter 1 by the time you'd have gotten to chapter 4.

So, what I did was as follows:
Chapter 1: A & B (using section breaks in one chapter)
Chapter 2: C
Chapter 3: A
Chapter 4: C
Chapter 5: A
Chapter 6: C
Chapter 7: B - this character comes back, and from now on appears about every four chapters.
Chapter 8: A
Chapter 9: C
.... Mainly A & C
Chapter 12: D - the fourth character is brought in, but then disappears for about six chapters
... Mainly A & C
Chapter 29: B is killed. D starts to appear more regularly now.
Final 4 chapters: A, C, and D are all involved in the climax and the denouement. The POV in each of these final chapters is chosen for maximum effect.

So, even with multiple POVs, it's important to let the reader settle in and get to know a couple of main characters in depth before introducing another one. If one character gets killed off, that leaves some more space for one of the other POVs.

Sounds complicated - why bother? Well, several reasons. Here's six:

1. If you have a complex plot taking place in different locations and with different characters, you can use other narrative styles, but an individual POV allows you to go inside their heads so we get to know them better (an advantage over film and TV). The more involved a reader is with a character, the less likely she is to put it down.

2. Fiction should mirror reality, even if it is science fiction. Our lives are more complex than they used to be, and aside from superhero stories, if a protagonist wants to achieve anything major, e.g. bring down an unjust corporation, she can't do it alone. We also live in a world less black and white, so that villains have a story to tell, too, and sometimes there are no out-and-out villains, just shades of right and wrong. Good fiction can show this, and multiple POV allows us to see why someone did something, even if we don't agree with it.

3. Alternating chapters builds up a rhythm, and pace can be better-managed towards a crescendo. For example, if we need some back-story or slowing down with character A, we can sequence such a chapter just after a real cliff-hanger chapter with character B: readers will tolerate the slowing down of the story because they know the one after is going to be important.

4. A neat trick is getting characters to talk about other characters, e.g. in a character 'B' chapter, this character makes some disparaging (or complimentary, or insightful) comment on character A. This saves having to give boring narrator-led description about each character. It also leads to a deeper appreciation of the character by the reader: for example, in a series of chapters I have four astronauts, and each one of them occasionally 'has the floor', i.e. the reader sees from their POV. Occasionally they make references to each other, and the reader sees the same character traits described, but with subtle nuances not allowable from a single POV. This is like gaining a 360 degree view of a character.

5. In any book there is often what is known as the 'sagging middle', where the book seems to lose momentum, and the reader may lose interest. At this point, if the plot needs it, a new character, with a new POV, can give the novel a push out of this 'dead zone', keeping the reader going until the natural pace of the plot accelerates again.

6. A final benefit of this approach (see also David Brin and Jack McDevitt for this style of writing), is that when characters, for example, A and D, who only meet at the end of the novel, finally meet, the writer will pick one POV only, and maybe not the one the reader is expecting. Such 'meetings' can add a freshness for the reader, who for example is used to hearing A's POV whenever A is in a scene, and suddenly sees A through D's eyes. I did this in the last few chapters of the book, and it is not an easy choice to make, but always leads to interesting results.

Of course there are disadvantages, and here are six to counter-balance the 'pros':

1. Some readers hate 'head-hopping'. It's just not for them.

2. The reader can get confused between the characters, particularly if the narrative 'voice' of each POV is not distinct.

3. The reader can lose the plot, or at the start, actually wonder if there is a plot, as they have three or four chapters introducing different characters in different locations or even different time-frames.

4. Multiple POV stories tend to be longer. [My own book is 420 pages, and for a first time writer, most publishers want it less than 300 for paperback economic reasons].

5. It is harder to write, and harder to edit, because the writer has to become a little schizophrenic, moving in and out of different characters' heads frequently.

6. The plot has to be compelling, for all the main characters - they must have strong motivations and for some of them, also major obstacles in their path. There is a danger with too many POVs that the motivations, and in particular the obstacles may seem to be 'contrived',  so that the plot starts to seem far-fetched, or at worst, farce.

Despite these pitfalls, I have to say that personally I seek out multiple POV fiction, especially science fiction, because in a good writer's hands it is richer and ultimately more satisfying.

The Eden Paradox is available from here and from here
See also


  1. I googled this topic and your blog came up. I am writing a historical YA from 2 POV's in alternating chapters. AM wondering if there can be overlap in time between the chapters or does chapter 2 have to start where chapter 1 left off? what is your experience with this? Thanks.

    1. They don't have to follow on directly from each other. However, you need to be careful not to confuse the reader, so give a clue early on as to the relative timing (some authors do this in the title of each chapter,e.g. One month earlier...). You also need to ensure you as the author don't get tangled up or have 'consistency problems' such that characters get ahead of what they are supposed to know. However, if there is a reason to do it (and a historical novel can have a good reason), and you can bring it off, such novels can be fascinating. In my second book I have alternating chapters with characters at different parts of the galaxy - the reader is not sure if events are happening in 'correspondence' or not, but every now and again I give clues to show how events are synchronizing toward the climax (the characters all meet up in the last few chapters).
      Hope that helps, and good luck!

  2. I am currently in the middle of writing the first book in my planned series and it's a bit different from you are talking about yet it swaps between 2 characters each chapter. One aspect of the story follows a detective as he searches for clues regarding a crime committed at the beginning of the book while the second character is framed for the crime and is forced to run (not the main part of his story but anyway). The two characters never really cross paths until the third book in my series. Will this style of writing still work even if the characters only hear snippets of each other throughout the book?

    1. Hi Larry, I think it can work as long as there are clear section breaks when switching POV; I wasn't sure if there were both POVs in each chapter, that would be a little repetitive after a while, better to have one POV each chapter and maybe shorter chapters. Three books before they cross paths is a bit of a stretch, though, but not impossible. Each book should have a clear end even if it feeds into the next one. But if the writing is good enough, you can get away with murder, LOL. Good luck!

    2. Hi, having no luck with this today
      Thank you for your help though!
      Yes I am planning on swapping character between each chapter and I understand what you mean by having 3 books before they cross paths being a stretch, but the reason for this is how long the series is actually going to end up being (it isn't actually going to be a crime series). I feel like bringing the characters together too early will make it seem rushed. But as I introduce more characters I don't want to have only one perspective of what is going on (like a first hand view of the events), because I want to be able to show people on the other side of the world and how they are being affected by these incidents. Would the same POV swapping still be effective even if the characters have no knowledge of another persons existence for about a year in the timeline of the overall plot?
      Sorry to keep pestering but you were a great help earlier and I feel like you would be able to help me again.

  3. Hi Larry - one idea is to have the two characters cross each others' paths incidentally in the first book - they just happen to be somewhere where they barely notice each other. If they cannot be co-located, have another way for one of them to see each other or hear about each other. This sends a clear message to the readers that they will for sure cross again. You can also then use it as a hook at the end of the book, by having one of the characters trying to remember someone they saw once somewhere... I think what you're trying to do is interesting, good luck (if you get time, read Iain Banks, State of the Art, you'll see why.


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