Transitions between scenes, between acts, between storylines, are an important part of storytelling. They ease the reader from one place to another without making their eyes stop as they pause to try to puzzle out where the hell they are.
But in multiple POV storytelling, transitions are vital.
Who? What? Where? When?
Those four questions have to be answered at every transition from one POV to another.
Because transitions orientate the reader. They tell them: WHOSE head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE it is happening, and WHEN it is happening.
The biggest problem with Multiple POV storytelling, and the reason why they tend to be longer stories than those using a single POV, is the transitions. You always have to reset the scene if you are using scene-breaks between POVs.
You can’t just switch and hope the reader keeps up. Clarity, always clarity, who/what/where/when needs to be absolutely clear at all times to the reader.
You don’t really want to confuse your reader with the simple stuff, do you?
If you are using POV shifting or Omniscient-head-hopping then the Where, When, and What are taken care of by the initial Transition into the scene, but you still have to be absolutely clear about Whose eyes the reader is behind.
Think of it like speech attributions. When writing dialogue you have to attribute the lines to a character. You can sometimes do away with the attribution if it is obvious who is speaking, but it does have to be obvious.
It is the same with POV transitions, you can avoid the attribution of a POV but only if it is obvious and it is rarely that obvious. Err on the side of caution and let your editor tell you if it is unneeded.
Don’t go commando if you’ve forgotten to put your jeans on too.
With the more usual (these days) technique of using scene-breaks between POVs, you have to reset the entire scene, every time.
Even when using fast-cutting techniques, in a battle-sequence for instance, the reader still has to be told where on the battlefield the character stands, what is happening immediately around the character, and when all this is occurring.
There are dodges and tricks you can use to avoid too much set-up. It is a fast cut after all. You can avoid the When portion by having a scene every so often that orientates the reader in time, which avoids having to say, ‘three minutes later’ and other clunky phrases.
But clarity is everything. Clarity is the only real rule in writing. Be clear, don’t leave the reader guessing; unless of course you intend to leave the reader guessing, but don’t be ambiguous by mistake. Readers really don’t like that and your book might well make a nice dent in their wall if you irritate them too much. (Ah eBooks, the joy of throwing a crap book across the room will soon be gone from human experience. Shame that, I think its good for the wallpaper, it’s certainly good for the soul.)
Transitions should ideally take place in the first paragraph of a new scene, or as close as possible to it. And the first thing the reader needs to know is WHO. That is a vital bit of information because it orientates readers to the plot. If they know whose head they are in, then they know the back-story, they know that character’s (apparent) role in the story, and therefore they don’t have to think about this stuff.
They can think about all the other good stuff you are putting into the
story scene instead.
After Whose head, the reader needs to know Where and When. If the scene is taking place in the same location as the previous scene then you just have to make sure the reader knows it is the same location. If it is happening immediately after the previous scene then, again, you just have make sure the reader knows this.
But if the location has changed or the time has changed then you have to orientate the reader. You have to tell them Where and When. This is like the establishing shot in a film. Is it a room, a moor, a bridge? Is it dawn or night, or day? This stuff is why multiple POV stories are longer, because this is description and no matter how efficient you are at description it takes up words.
Then there is What. This is not about what happens during the scene, because that is the purpose of the scene. It is about what is happening when the scene opens. Is it in the middle of a fight, a love-scene, somebody having a cup of tea. The scene will play out from there, but there is always an initial What, that helps to set the scene.
The easiest way to do this, and this is about as clunky as it gets because it’s an example, so it is deliberately obvious, is:
David thought about Mary while he walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the moonlight.
David thought = David’s POV or Who. David is thinking about Mary = What. Blackfriars Bridge = Where. Moonlight = When.
Then you can slot all the descriptions and so forth into the scene as usual. The reason that Multiple POV takes up space is because you have to describe it all as the POV character sees them. You can’t go on what another POV character has seen because the reader doesn’t know if this POV character has seen the same thing.
Another reason multiple POVs take up room is because you can’t keep using lines like the one above. Some writers do, some successful writers do, but I’d hardly call it craft. That’s like nailing four roughly equal lengths of wood to another wider piece of wood and calling it a table. It’ll do the job, but it is hardly crafted with loving care.
The glimmer of the moonlight shone into David’s eyes, reflected from the surface of the Thames, but he hardly noticed. Mary. What should he do about Mary? He turned right onto Blackfriars, the steel cold beneath his hands, when he stopped and stared out over the glimmering river. Did he have the right? Should he do this? Mary. What was he to do about Mary?
Neither is that to be honest, I just knocked it up for this blog. But after an editor has got hold of it, after I have revised it a few times, then it will be crafted with loving care and then — if I’m lucky — it will sing.
Transitions are incredibly important, so make them sing from the page, make the reader barely notice that they are reading a scene-shift.
Because another thing about scene-breaks is that they are where a reader will put the book down and go off to do something else before returning to the book. Scene-breaks and chapter-breaks are like opening lines, so make them sing, but make them into transitions too.
(If you are writing in the Literary Genre, where stories are supposed to be ‘difficult’ and hard to read, just ignore all this. This ain’t art; this is craft. Leaving the reader constantly guessing about all this stuff might well win you a Booker, so go for it — just don’t think writing crafted novels is easy in comparison, it’s the exact opposite.)
PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.