5

As the title says, I'm looking for advice on how to handle changes of scene from one character to another, each in different places, but experiencing the same event.

This story is about a bushfire (in particular it's based on the 1967 Hobart bushfires in Tasmania, Australia), and I want to write it around four or so different people in different parts of the town/surrounding area as they all experience the same fire. These characters are:

  • A young housewife who lives in the foothills of the mountain behind the town and her struggle to help neighbours and herself save their houses and escape after the fires have taken hold of the area.
  • A young man and his co-workers who work in the telegraph office and struggle throughout the fires to spread possibly life saving information.
  • A man who leaves work and has to battle through the blaze to get home to his wife and children, never knowing until the end whether they are alive or dead (perhaps tying this into the first character, ie. she's his wife).
  • A teenager girl who, after being sent home with her younger siblings, is left to escape with them on their own after not being able to make it home through the fires.

Now, my problem with this is how do I switch between these characters without it being jarring for the reader?

Do I just write a few chapters on one character then switch to another for a few chapters, and then another again? What about the passing of time as what each of these characters are going through is all happening at the same time?

2

how do I switch between these characters without it being jarring for the reader?

Short answer: you don't. There will always be a moment, when switching from a PoV to another, when the reader will feel his connection with the character, hence his suspension of disbelief, interrupt momentarily. When the PoV changes, the reader is reminded that he's not in the head of the character - and after all, he's just reading.

So it will be jarring, at least a bit. Now this isn't a problem: a lot of authors do multiple PoVs fine. A famous - and maybe overused - example is George R. Martin in the Song of ice and fire series. In every book there are multiple PoVs divided by chapters. Some events are then narrated from different viewpoints, giving the reader different insights.

Now, from a minimizing-the-jarringness standpoint, there are a few things to take care of.

Do I just write a few chapters on one character then switch to another for a few chapters, and then another again? What about the passing of time as what each of these characters are going through is all happening at the same time?

Both ways are viable, having their pros and cons.

A different PoV for each x chapters (with x being between 1 and 3, roughly):

  • Pro: You get to show what's happening everywhere roughly at the same time
  • Pro: It can suit you well, since you can interleave stories neatly (for example, passing from a chapter with the woman to her husband). The idea should be that each PoV will "pass the baton" to the following one.
  • Con: You are constantly switching back and forth, so the jarring effect is maximized unless you doing it well.
  • Pro/Con: you are also maximizing suspence, since no one of those singular stories reaches its end before the others.

Stick to a PoV and switch to another once it's finished:

  • Pro: You minimize jarring, giving a coherent PoV until needed
  • Pro: Each PoV is, in a way, a sufficient, self-contained story about the bush fires
  • Con: PoVs may feel "disconnected" one from the other, apart from the common theme
  • Con: You have to "rewind time" each time you switch to a new PoV

As I said there are both viable. It depends on what you're aiming to get. The first method tries to build a single story out of 4 PoV, where the second builds up a collection of short stories.

3

I think you have a good premise.

It is worth asking some rhetorical questions about why you would (and would not) want to shift POV with an ensemble cast.

"good" reasons:

  • Keeps the pace and tension strong. There is always something interesting happening somewhere. You have eyewitnesses at different strata of the event, and no one has a complete picture.
  • The protagonists are "everymen". They are normal people in an extraordinary situation. They are all relatable and recognizable, solving problems as they come.
  • The broad character motivations are clear, but each character has to resolve a series of escalating conflicts and obstacles, meanwhile their escape options are steadily reduced. The situation has inherent tension.
  • There is no cartoon villain scheme to conveniently lead the plot, instead the story is a slow burn (pun intended) of "yes but…; no and…" situations which force them all to change course. An ensemble can show different reactions to the same inciting event, with each character acting in plausible ways which ultimately leads them deeper into trouble.

"bad" reasons:

  • Cut the scene at dramatic moments to create "cliffhangers" and other narrative tricks to maintain suspense. (Your situation has plenty of danger, it can "earn" the tension legitimately.)
  • Some will live, some will die, but the reader won't guess who. (The genre is adventure: "man against nature", not murder mystery. Again, the story can earn the tension legitimately, no need to "trick" the reader with red herrings and misdirection.)

The POV will not be confusing because each protagonist will diverge into their own "voice", and even though this is not really a character-driven story each will have a unique character motivation and experience level. Stress allows us to see the core person. On the surface, characters will all have the similar concerns about survival, but how they act under stress, how they approach problems, how quickly they abandon one plan to go to another, and how they assess their own (untested) abilities will make each character a unique person.

One way to define them is a surface personality "A" and an underlying heroic personality "B". Stress will push them from their normal "A personality" to their "B personality" which is actually a bit more interesting, but it doesn't always work to their advantage. The "A personality" is introduced first as their normal day-to-day reactions, while the "B personality" is revealed like a hero with fatal flaws that emerges as stress increases.

I'll play with your characters, but these are just suggestions:

A young housewife who lives in the foothills of the mountain behind the town and her struggle to help neighbours and herself save their houses and escape after the fires have taken hold of the area.

Housewife is a natural hero. Her B personality is to put others ahead of her own safety, and it's easy to understand how that might put her in danger. Her situation can become more complicated as she takes charge of more people than she can actually save. She would not be able to leave an elderly person behind, even when they are hostile to strangers.

Her A personality could be a contrast. Perhaps she's had previous run-ins with these neighbors. Maybe she is a little acerbic or sarcastic, or a bit aloof as she is better educated than her rural neighbors (maybe that's just how they see her).

(You could flip these personalities around. The A persona is too-nice and meek, while the B persona reveals a strong and charismatic leader. It is interesting either way.)

A man who leaves work and has to battle through the blaze to get home to his wife and children, never knowing until the end whether they are alive or dead (perhaps tying this into the first character, ie. she's his wife).

He is an anti-hero. He is doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. His B personality rushes towards danger. Instinctively he doesn't have faith that his wife and kids will get themselves to safety, and he certainly doesn't have faith in the many authority figures telling him to turn his car around.

His A personality might be a protective husband/father who has tried to shield them. Maybe he has a long commute or lives on the road – maybe he works extra hours to move them out of an urban environment. The irony is a: Nature puts them in danger, and b: he is not there to save them.

His A and B conflicts arise every time he passes up helping someone else because he is headed in the wrong direction. He may miss crucial information because he is avoiding the main roads. Maybe he rescues people who are glad to get a ride, but not so glad when they realize they are going the wrong way.

A teenager girl who, after being sent home with her younger siblings, is left to escape with them on their own after not being able to make it home through the fires.

Teenager is a reluctant hero. She didn't ask to be the default babysitter, it means sitting around and doing nothing when she could be with friends. Her A personality might be resentful about her annoying siblings, and the burden of being the responsible one. "Just go home and wait. Ugh!" I suggest they get to the house and wait for Mom, as instructed.

Her B personality, her hero aspect, is more than just overcoming teenage self-centeredness. As a child she did as she was told, but she's now old enough that "because mom said so" isn't the only reason. While she is curious to see the fire herself, she also knows she has to tell her brother "no" because he would go do something dumb. Little Bro is still a child, but Teen Girl is neither a child or an adult. The fire seems to be getting closer, and Mom still hasn't returned. Now what?

Remember there are 3 reactions to stress: fight, flight and freeze. A very normal reaction is to do nothing, especially for people who have never had authority. Baby animals are left under a tree or hidden in tall grass, their defense is to do nothing and let danger pass them by (sometimes while Mom leads danger away). What Teen Girl has to decide is when to stay put (like a child) and when to take action (like an adult). They stay at the house too long until access is cut off, but can she get them over rough ground to the highway? Her younger siblings are simultaneously depending on her ingenuity and self-reliance, and also threatening to tell mom on her, giving her child/adult struggle a literal voice.

A young man and his co-workers who work in the telegraph office and struggle throughout the fires to spread possibly life saving information.

This guy is not a character, he is an infodump – but lets force the same heroic struggle onto him. (I do not know the historic incident, so pardon the melodrama, it is just an example.)

He is what I call a Science Hero. He may at first have a rigid (narrow) understanding of his tools and how they should be used (during an emergency or otherwise). His heroism is having the vision that his tools can be used in a whole new way. He may also have a better sense of the terrain than his superiors but lacks authority to persuade them, or his actions are in someway antithetical to his job (telegraph offices are to turn a profit, not coordinate rescues). The conflict may not be a power struggle at all, just a race to coordinate a system of reliable information.

This leads to a showdown within his office, where he breaks the rules, oversteps his authority, or otherwise jeopardizes his job – potentially removing him from his position to help others. At any rate you still have an A personality to start, and heroic B personality that emerges under stress. He may be too eager to help and tell people the wrong thing, thus his information can hurt people before he gets it under control.

The important trick is to make everyone's heroic personality a double-edged sword. These people are not professional heroes. Their B personalities are untested, and they will make big mistakes by doubting their instincts and also through inexperience.

When you frame each protagonist as a different "heroic archetype", and understand their "heroic paths" as separate but equal journeys, each character's voice and story beats will make more sense, both to you and the reader.

What about the passing of time as what each of these characters are going through is all happening at the same time?

Chronological time is presumed to move forward everywhere in the story world, even when we are following other characters. Use the shift in POV to skip over things that are dramatically unimportant, such as straight travel or a long section without a change in character or conflict. When you return, the reader will assume at least the same amount of time has advanced for these characters too, unless you explicitly say otherwise. Give a timely in-scene cue as you would in any scene, especially if the time gaps are inconsistent or need to overlap.

See more of this answer here: https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/39554/23253

2

Would it be possible for you to stagger the narratives? For example, someone might actually witness the start of the fire, and realize with horror that it is heading for the town where he lives. Then over to a person driving in to town, who notices the smoke and brings it to people's attention. Then to a person who gets warned and starts trying to get her family out. Then to another who is asleep and doesn't hear the phone ring. Etc.

That way you can have all viewpoints sort of simultaneously but not run the risk of the reader groaning "oh not again, I have already read about this fire twice already..." which is one thing that irritates me when I read any story where the narrative goes over the same events more than once.

It also keeps the narrative flowing; any time you go back in time to revisit the same events (unless you're in a time travel story :) it is disruptive and often frustrating, but with a small overlap it would still feel like the story is moving forward.

If possible, you might have a boundary/transitional event for each of the scene changes. For example, at the end of one character's scene, an oil tank explodes. Another character hears the explosion and runs toward it. You might even have him see the first character, possibly even interact with him/her. Maybe the second character's scene ends when he is overcome by smoke inhalation. That picks up with the third character who is trying to help people, and comes across #2's body and drags it out to the paramedics. And so on. They don't all have to meet, but creating a transition event might smooth out the POV switch. It might also give a nice sense of closure to the other character's scenes and lead to the possibility of a blended finish.

1

In the Babysitter's Club series by Ann M Martin, there is a special collection of books. This special collection of books may have all the characters in the babysitter's club go on trip to somewhere, and each chapter is one character's point-of-view. You know you are reading from a character's POV, because the chapter's name is that character's name, handwritten to match the character's personality.

Maybe you can do a similar thing in yours.

  • Animorphs uses this better in it's Chronicle titles and Megamorph titles (as well as a few main series titles where the shift is needed, particularly #19 from my memory) where the character's name is given as well as a picture of new narrator from the cover art. K.A. Applegate, the author of the series Ghostwrote several Babysitter's Club books, so I suspect she picked up the idea from there, if not introduced it outright. – hszmv Oct 23 '18 at 16:15
1

Can you give it a frame story that gives a coherent overarching narrative that these all stories fit into organically? For instance, the POV characters all meet up in a temporary refuge after the fire, and share their experiences? Or, conversely, a reporter comes to interview them, years later?

Although the frame story might just serve to structure the main stories, it could also interact with them. For example, perhaps the teenage girl becomes your main narrator. She meets the housewife early on, when they both make it to a church being used as shelter for people displaced by the fire. The girl keeps searching for her mother. Later, at another shelter, she meets the housewife's husband. She is able to put the pieces together, and reunite that couple. When they make it back to the first shelter, the girl's mother is also there.

1

Yes, just do a different POV every chapter (or two if you must).

You can handle the transition with chapter titles and sub-titles, or an identical opening on a particular day: Pick something like a Saint's day, there are several for any date. This doesn't have to be a religious reference exactly, it can also be the anniversary of something being touted on television. Or somebody on a morning show mentions it is "St. Aurelius" day (July 20).

In any case, whether directly or indirectly, the Chapter opens like

Linda Smith
July 20, 1983, 8:00 AM

And all that changes is the name at the top of each chapter. Or, like I said, use just the name, and in the opening line, repeat the opening.

Linda turned on the TV to catch the weather report, and waited a minute. The weather girl came on, "It should be a clear Saturday morning, but we could use some rain today. We have reports of brush fires in the south, we'll have some video this hour, I am told ... "

The point is, every chapter, for each character, opens with the same exact line from the same weather girl. You don't have to give an exact date or time, readers will pick up on the fact that this is all the identical time. Each character can react differently to this, and you can cut off the weather girl after the first opening with a thought or action from the character.

LINDA: Is that girl really a meteorologist?

MIKE: Mike's phone rang, and he muted the TV to answer it.

You can vary everything, but somehow get the first sentence of the weather girl in, and the time is established.

0

I have been facing somewhat similar challenges as you are facing now. Heck, many of my asked questions are about story arcs and scene switching. So I recommend checking those out as well.

The main things I have learned from them are that it is important to frame your scenes in bitsized pieces, or tell them all seperately with a climactic ending where all the story arcs meet.

Each of these frames should make clear at the very start, mostly the first sentence, in which PoV this scene is.

How to make it less jarring for the reader? I am not sure yet myself. You are breaking immersion each time you change character. However, I found that if you end a scene in a certain theme and you start with something that follows up on that theme it helps the reader stay interested somewhat.

Of course this is all based on my own findings and exceptions can be found to any rule or finding. I hope this helps though, good luck.

0

I'll give some examples from what I've read.

Introducing a fifth character who serves as the connecting narrator. It may be a detective investigating the incident getting different clues and meets witnesses. You can slowly unravel what happened along the way.

If there is some kind of connection between characters then you can use it to build their initial profiles. For example: The wife feels distressed and thinks about her husband. Then you can write, But she has no way to know that her husband was also facing similar problem. Then slowly switch to husbands POV.

You only need to do that for first quarter of the story. After characters and tension in the story were sufficiently buildup, readers don't mind even if the transitions are abrupt.

  • No, not the same scene multiple times, but the same event. I DON'T want to repeat the same points in time over and over. In my question I said what they're going through as being 'at the same time' because they're all going through the same event which goes on for hours (real leadup being days), but that doesn't mean I want to go from start to finish with one character and then re-wind to do it all again. As I said in the question, I would like advice on how to handle not just the switch in POV, but also the fact that time is MOVING FORWARD throughout all of these switches – s.anne.w Oct 26 '18 at 4:37
  • I see, seems like I misunderstood. – xax Oct 26 '18 at 4:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.