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The way I am currently designing a story with three distinct POVs. An issue I am running into, however, is that one of these has much more to do in the first third than the other two while having less to do later.

Because of this, I am considering not running the POVs chronologically next to each other, even though they do (peripherally) interact.

Is there any good advice on how to do this, or why not to do it, and examples of published books that have pulled this off either well or badly?

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It is not necessary to run different character arcs chronologically synchronized. However, it is important not to create a false impression that these arcs are synchronized.

For example in "A Song of Ice and Fire" (which I refer to quite often) first 3 books George Martin tried to run all chapters chronologically. Next book was split into two ("A Feast for Crows" and "A Dance with Dragons") which runs concurrently (but chronologically within individual books).

For every character arc, you either make it clear from the very beginning that they do not run at the same time, or at some point, the readers should discover it to their surprise. If you choose the latter, treat this discovery it as a plot twist. Maybe a small one, but it should be pleasant ("Aha, I know what's coming next!") rather than unpleasant ("What?! When this all happened? I'm confused.").

  • All ASOIAF books overlap chronologically too. – curiousdannii Jul 4 at 0:16
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I believe the importance of chronological POVs is directly related to the tension of the story.

My first attempt at a thriller required me to have everything in strict chronological order because there were three different characters/heroes (and POVs) working on three different levels of the story. The success of the heroes as a whole depended on each independent character being successful within a set time frame.

Jumping from one POV to the next created the effect of ticking clock and constantly left the reader wondering if they'd be able to do what they had to do despite the different set backs they were experiencing.

So, respecting the chronology added to the tension.

However, at the same time, I was reading a thriller that required the opposite approach. The tension was added by the fact one didn't know what the other character was doing. So you had a single POV as much in the dark as the reader and simply hoping someone else would show up at the right time. Being in the dark alongside the character added to the tension. When we finally got to the point of 'this is it - will someone show up or am I dead?' we went back to the second character and followed their fight against time. We already knew the first MC was waiting and would die if the second failed. All we needed to find out was if the second MC would make it there.

So, look at your story and see which approach will heighten the tension.

I see no problem with having an MC's POV occupy most of the first half of a book, then to change to another for a few chapters and end on a third POV for a few other chapters. It isn't the quantity of chapters within a certain POV that matters, but whether those POVs help the story progress and add to the tension and climax.

  • As to your last paragraph: I would prefer to switch POVs often as each has a distinct tone to it. I feel the variety of tone caused by jumping more often could be useful by itself. – Weckar E. Jul 4 at 12:27
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I don't think it is too important. I read a story (can't remember the name) in which two POVs were presented, one from like a century ago, and one in the future! The early POV was an ancestor of the later POV, and his descendant was unraveling a mystery about his ancestor, while the early POV was actually about the circumstances that led to this mystery, which were entertaining as well. In a way they proceeded somewhat in parallel, the later POV discovering clues (and getting confused, etc) about what we just read the earlier POV was doing.

I think the thing to worry about non-chronological adventures is killing suspense for the early POV by revealing something in the later POV (which obviously might know the future or fate of the early POV).

You need both POV's to be interesting until the end of their respective times. If your later POV is mostly in the last half, then giving too much information about what happened in his past could be a spoiler for what is yet to happen in the early POV story. But that is just something to be careful with, not a reason to not do it.

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Here's an example of multiple timelines done in a way I found not just confusing, but random and unnecessary. Chronological can mean in order by date and time, or it can mean that the different POVs line up with each other (even if each story is moving forward). My example is more of the former but also contains the latter. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, contemporary fiction about an American family.

The grounding thread of the narrative is the wedding of one of the daughters. Scenes from these few hours run strictly chronologically, with a short chapter near the beginning of the novel and others throughout (randomly and not marked as separate).

The vast majority of the novel consists of scenes told from the point of view of different family members: the above daughter, the son, and the mother (I can't recall if there are more).

Imagine a box of photos with the family gathered around. Close your eyes and pick a photo out randomly. At least one person recognizes the time and place of the photo then one family member tells the story. It really is that random to POV and time, with the addition that this isn't a family telling stories to each other, but a narrator relating different people's stories to the reader.

The individual stories are well-written and engaging, but it does take a while to learn enough about the characters (we don't know them like the writer does!) to make sense of what they're telling us. Sometimes one character will tell a story another one did several chapters back (which I liked).

So far it's not a terrible approach. The author did put each POV and time period into its own chapter, at least. As the book goes on, you get a sense of the family dynamics, what the family secrets are (and who hasn't told anyone else s/he knows). It's choppy and hard to follow at times, but it kept me reading. A solid 3 out of 5.

Then the author did something inexplicable. Almost at the end, she added a new POV character! The father. We now get several chapters (not just an epilogue style one, but dozens of pages) going through the entire timeline of the family more or less chronologically, from his point of view. While it adds something to the story to hear his thoughts, the way the author did it completely threw off the pacing and narrative.

So, yes, absolutely, you can run your multiple POVs chronologically or not, or you can run each individual one chronologically but not have them in sync with each other.

What you need though is intention. Do it in whatever way you choose because it makes the story better, not because it's easier to write. Balancing out the POVs through the narrative might be important, because they come together at the end, or for other reasons. So in that case it might work well for one character's scenes that take a few hours be spread out such that they interweave with another character's scenes that take a week. Or one character might need to tell randomly timed stories from the past in order to move forward in he present.

3

I can think of a TV example where the timelines are not synchronous and it was a big part of the surprise at the end of S1.

On Westworld, you have human-identical androids (called "hosts") who are not sentient. The androids' attempts to become sentient is part of the season's arc. One host, Dolores, spends a lot of time with one thirtysomething human (called a "guest" because Westworld is a theme park), William. In a separate part of the park there's a different sixty-something human just called The Man in Black. TMIB attacks Dolores at one point. He goes around attacking a lot of hosts, because he's searching for something. He's apparently played the park a lot and now just wants to get to the end.

At the end of each game round, the hosts are brought back to HQ and their memories are wiped... supposedly. Whatever kindness or brutality they have experienced, they aren't supposed to remember it.

Dolores gets flashes of memories from previous game rounds. She tries to go to one section of the park where there should be a church, but it's an empty lot.

We find out near the end of S1

that TMIB is William in the present. William and Dolores's storyline happened thirty years prior. Dolores, being an android, never ages, so SHE doesn't look thirty years older. The two arcs are about the same character, William, but in two different times.

I thought it worked quite well for a twist, but other viewers' experiences varied.

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Similar to Amadeus, I think the goal isn't to balance the protagonists' "on-screen" time but to take care of the dramatic pacing, character arcs, and somewhat less tangibly the lingering effect on the theme.

You might signal to the reader the 1st protagonist's arc is "on hold" where they are in a situation that is stable but unsatisfying. They compromise themselves, or must settle for something they don't deserve. Their story has a partial wrap up (not a cliff hanger) that feels like it could be their ending, like they have exhausted their options and the character bows out of the story defeated. This could be a personal emotional arc, something outside the main plot, maybe even something with emotional depth that would be boring to read, like caring for a elderly parent, or deciding to step back until the kids are older – even going away to learn a new skill set or following a desperate red herring or going to jail. The reader understands the character is stepping back. Even if it's for story/plot reasons, give them a character reason.

When they return, they have either renewed their drive, or have been beaten down, or maybe they had avoided the call to action to play it safe, but now the situation changes and they must re-commit to the fight. We should be glad to see them again, but we also might need to adjust to some new aspects of their character. They don't "just" vanish from the novel for a long stretch, when they do rejoin the story they have changed a bit from their experience – whatever it was.

Since the characters interact, I think it's slightly more important to tell a coherent chronology, Although you can still delay information and emotional reveals until they are appropriate. For instance the 1st protagonist may be framed, or have personal reasons for leaving that aren't revealed until much later after their return. A plot twist could recontextualize their earlier predicament.

I'd look for narrative ways to signal to the reader that character will be out of the game while they should focus on these other characters, rather than chopping up your chronology to fit an arbitrary quota of scenes-per-character. If it feels like it has a narrative reason (and a payoff) the readers should just take it as part of the story.

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