Timelines in a book are hard enough to keep track of, but when you start throwing in additional POVs, they can quickly become giant tangled messes of woe. Maybe your first POV’s chapter take place in the afternoon, but the next POV needs to take place at midnight, but oh no–the next one has to be that same day! There are so many ways to get tripped up when writing multiple POVs, but here are just a few situations we’ve run into and how we try to deal with timelines in multiple POVs.
Passage of time
When you’re writing a single POV book, a story can easily span any amount of time, from a few days to several years. But when you add POVs, you have to not only think about how much time passes throughout the book, but also how much time each character’s individual story takes and how that layers across the various character threads.
For example, if Character A is on a journey that takes 3 weeks, Characters B, C, and D must also experience those 3 weeks passing. But what if Character C’s entire plot thread needs to be completed in 1 week? Or Character D also needs to make the 3 week journey, but at a different time than Character A?
Sure, you could write it exactly like that, with varying amounts of time passing for each character. But that would be very confusing for readers since it’s the general expectation that time passes linearly across the book (unless of course the point is to explore a unique time structure).
Everyone’s going to have a different approach to how to address this problem. Maybe Characters B, C, and D have a separate subplot that will take them 3 weeks to complete while Character A journeys. Or maybe those characters are just hanging out for that time and you can write a quick paragraph recap of what happened during the weeks we didn’t get to see as we dive back into the main story. Or maybe you could do some rearranging so Characters A and D travel the same 3 weeks and Character C’s story actually takes place over a longer period of time.
But whatever you decide to do, be intentional about it. Keep track of how much time passes for each character, and make sure it makes sense across the length of the book as well.
Another timeline issue that crops up a lot in multiple POV books is when two scenes from two different POVs need to happen simultaneously. In a movie or a TV show, it’s very easy to portray this by cross-cutting scenes and interspersing them. In a book, it’s much trickier. Still, there are a few different strategies I employ, and others I’ve seen employed by other authors.
One strategy is simply to rewind time just a little. Write the first scene from the first POV, and then in the following scene or chapter, start back at the same point and show the “simultaneous” scene happening. I’m actually not a huge fan of this technique because I think it can be disorienting to the reader, particularly when these “simultaneous” scenes intersect at some point. Still, this option works well especially if you’re trying to achieve a specific effect.
Another strategy is to flip quickly between POVs. This is more similar to how it’s done in visual mediums–interspersing scenes that take place at the same time but in different locations. I think this can be done well, particularly during action-packed sequences, but be careful of going back and forth too much because, again, that can be disorienting to the reader. Multiple POVs is already asking a lot of the reader, so my philosophy is always to try to make each POV switch as painless as possible for the reader.
For most simultaneous scenes, I like to employ a “flashback” technique. Instead of trying to tell both scenes completely in-the-moment, I will pick one that will be told completely chronologically, beginning to end, and then the other scene I will begin more in media res and jump back to recount the parts that “happened” during the first scene. This technique has pros and cons of course, one of which being you miss out on some of the immediate emotional impact of a scene by telling it in flashback form (and also you usually have to deal with the past perfect tense, the least elegant of verb tenses). But the benefit is that you’re showing events to the reader chronologically–and an added benefit is that starting a scene partway through the action can hook a reader faster than if you started from the very beginning.
At the end of the day, when it comes to writing multiple POVs, the most important thing is to be extremely calculated and deliberate with all choices involving structure and time. Not only is it difficult to write from a technical standpoint, there’s also psychologically a different process of flipping between characters. If you’re not paying attention to how one chapter leads to another–even if they’re two separate characters in two separate points in their individual stories–it can easily feel disjointed and confusing for readers. Multiple POVs means you’re already giving your readers much more to keep track of, so try and be as clear and simple as you can with timelines, so they don’t have to keep track of that too! And good luck!
If you write multiple POVs, what are some other challenges you’ve come across? Or even if you don’t, what are some techniques you use to keep your timeline straight?