I am writing a novel wherein there are many characters whose thoughts are key to telling it properly. In an earlier draft, I attempted to have any given chapter told from the point of view of exactly one character, but that turned out to be problematic. Usually it led to chapters I found uncomfortably short, or I would wind up writing mostly about nothing as I forgot that character was no longer important for the current scene.

In my current draft, I decided to go with a pseudo-omniscient narrator to solve these problems. It could only step into one character's head at a time, but it would be able to switch characters mid-scene, if necessary, rather than waiting for a section or chapter break.

Some of the transitions from one character to another have felt a bit awkward, though. Most of the better ones I have involve dialogue; it's easy to switch the frame to another character naturally after that character has just spoken. Are there any other techniques that can make these transitions flow better?

  • Well, don't do it for a reason ;) Honestly, if you use a technique which is known to be doomed, you have to make it right within your special context. If there were a functioning general rule, it would be done more often. Could you add more details, or are you afraid to reveal too much? Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 18:59
  • 2
    I'm not entirely sure that this is a "doomed" technique...
    – StrixVaria
    Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 19:02
  • It is doomed, but that does not mean, that it cannot be done. You can always play against the rules ;) What I want to say: you must play a special trump for your special scenario. You need your own special scene technique. Don't give up, try and try again till it fits. Good luck! Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 21:47

7 Answers 7


Well, first off I would try to avoid that if you can, but that's not always possible, so here's one thing that I've found worked for me in the past.

I had both characters looking at something and thinking about it (and in this case, each other). I started with one character's thoughts, then moved to a mix of both of them as they overlapped, then finished in the other character's head. It took a couple tries to get it really working.

My real goal with this was to make the reader only realize that things had changed after it had happened, they would just find themselves naturally in the other character's mind and not question it. Though I admit it took a few tries to get it working.

  • Usually if I massage the words enough I can get it to be how you described. Just like you said, I want the reader to not realize he's in someone else's head until after the fact. I will try this out if the opportunity presents itself.
    – StrixVaria
    Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 19:08

I would highly recommend section breaks, even if it is happening mid-scene. This isn't an alien technique - many authors have used it. All you really need is a double character return. The reader barely notices it, but it's at least an indicator that we're changing character viewpoints. If you don't use the double return for anything else in your story, then the reader will quickly become accustomed to seeing it and knowing what's happening.

However, if you go for long stretches in one character's head, and then you decide to jump around a bit, and then you go for long stretches again without doing this, it will probably seem somewhat sloppy. You'll probably want to try and dedicate a fairly even amount of time (as much as possible) to each character - or at least divide up the scenes into even chunks, even if you revisit certain characters on a more regular basis.

I highly recommend checking out Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoints - he addresses this very topic, and he does an absolutely magnificent job describing the strengths and weaknesses of various viewpoint options, as well as how to use them most effectively.

  • 1
    Since one of the OP's complaints was overly short chapters, I like the idea of considering them as sections instead. Commented Dec 5, 2010 at 17:54
  • Especially if the new POV is highlighted immediately, e.g., "...but he could never tell Jane this.¶¶Jane knew that John was holding something back..." Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 23:04
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    While I agree with the principle, I'm not sure the mechanics suggested in this answer are the best idea. Rather than double carriage returns, I'd offer that a horizontal rule takes less space and is more easily recognized by the reader as an intentional perspective shift rather than a possible typesetting error.
    – jmbpiano
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 2:56

Character jumping can be done gracefully, but it's important to master the concept of one character perspective per scene first. It's tempting to jump around, but you will find that your writing gets better when you slap a constraint of no head jumping mid-scene. The writing is better because you're forced to build intimacy with the current character instead of trying to show everything at once.

Head jumping jars the reader naturally because you're breaking the intimacy with the current character, and forcing your audience to understand the situation through a whole new perspective.

For your specific issue, try picking the most important character in the scene so it doesn't fall flat. The issues you ran into by staying with one character (short chapters or no impact) seem like a core issue in the approach toward the story. When the story requires so many characters to tell their thoughts in one scene, imagine the potential for reader confusion as they try to relate to the concepts.

  • 3
    You can also do the opposite: if you have two characters whose perspective you want to visit, visit them via a third character. This is more challenging because you'll have to convey their thoughts via action and dialog. Still it's often a better way to build a character than just dumping their internal monologue right out there on the page. Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 23:04

Try describing a scene, an environment in order to introduce someone else. I usually write in 1st person so when I'm writing I'll say, "I started...", "I thought about...", I wanted to..." or "I really needed to..."

But then the challenge for me was figuring out how to take my interaction (or interactions) between two or more characters, put it off to the side and introduce a third character involved in another idea, in another place, at another time without saying, "I, I..." Otherwise the reader may still think, "Oh, he's talking about the first character he introduced" when I'm actually now talking about someone completely new.

This is why I thought of using environmental elements to establish additional scenes. Other things to use for breaks can be used too, things like emotion or thought: "Fear is one of those..." or "Trying to understand how to..." and then moving to someone different.

What if I did all of the above correctly and then, wanting to introduce something else I instead say, "A breeze of cool air rushed down the halls of "blah, blah, blah..." and then I commence with, "Alan, Jackson, Sierra, blah, blah, blah..."

In this way the reader will know to put the first scene on pause and jump onboard with the new one I'm trying to form. I'm basically jumping between scenes, fulfilling the present concerns and long-term goals of my characters either in part or in full while remaining true to how a story should actually be told. It's not what you write but how you write.

Life is told in scenes. Books, especially film shouldn't be that different if for the sake of being real, right?

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    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 14, 2019 at 16:00

This is definitely a high wire act. I had to do it for one scene a novel where I had two lovers who were both misunderstanding the other's motives and actions. The only way to make full sense of what happens in the scene was to be in both heads. Whether I was successful in pulling this off remains to be seen. But these are the rules of thumb I made up for myself to guide me as I wrote. Whether they are either necessary or sufficient has yet to be established.

  1. You have to have been in both heads before, however briefly.

  2. The reader has to want to go into each head. It we could understand what was going on fully by watching the external behavior of the characters, that is where we should stay. But the strength of the novel form, as opposed to movie, for instance, is that it can delve into things that cannot be revealed by external actions alone -- and there are many such things with tentative lovers who are often concealing things from each other for fear of the reaction they will get. So if you are going to go into two heads, it has to be because the reader will want to go into both heads because otherwise they won't know what is really going on.

  3. Don't jump more often than necessary.

  4. Advance the story significantly at each jump. If you are jumping back and forth but the story is not advancing, that is likely to be confusing and dull.

  5. Get out as soon as you can.

  6. End in the same head you stated in at the beginning. I'm not entirely certain about this one, but intuitively it seems right to me.

  7. If the reader cannot understand the actions of each character without going into their heads, it follows that the other character can't understand them either. Make sure that that misunderstanding is portrayed effectively.

  8. Prefer narrative interjection over head hopping, but make it anecdotal, not analytical. In other words, rather than hop into a character's head to express their confusion, tell an anecdote about them that will explain why they misunderstand the situation.

  • Can you provide an example fo #8? I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean. Commented Sep 14, 2019 at 23:04

I'm going through the same thing now.

I've had excellent responses from readers and negative responses from my editors. My editors want me to use the traditional section break or just write from one character's POV per chapter.

I thought about that but decided to stick to my style of head-hopping. Ultimately, I am responsible to myself, my story and my readers. To me, it's all about message and audience. So far, my test readers love the story. To me, that's all that counts.

It's not easy breaking rules. You have to understand and respect the theory behind the criticism, before you decide to disregard it. Most importantly, if you're going to break the rule, you better be damn good at it. I am. I have technical reasons for head-hopping and I've had great reader response. If something was missing or just not working, I'd relent and rewrite as per my editors.

I've found that head-hopping works best for me when it's limited to 2 characters at a time (usually no more than 3, although in one scene I jumped into the minds of 5 of my characters - and yes, I rocked it). I find it works well with he said/she said and inner/outer dialogue.

Life's short; do what brings you joy. If that's how you want to tell your story, then do that. Test it out. Find some readers you trust. What do they think? Is it working for them? Is it working for you? If so, then good for you succeeding! If not, then good for you for trying!

I hope that helps. :)

  • 1
    Can you add some details about what types of positive and negative feedback you received about this technique. I would like to know why editors oppose the idea.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 20:43

Stephen King does this well in The Dark Tower Book 2. He has four POVs, two of them in the same head.

He's helped by extremely well-defined individual voices but also does not shy away from short chapters. If I remember correctly, he has more than one chapter of just a single word. Perhaps not everyone could get away with that, but chapters of just a few paragraphs shouldn't be a problem and would likely help if the work is complex.

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