How to Know When to Switch

by Alys

Question: So I've noticed this question gets asked quite a lot, so you're probably just done with everyone asking. But when you change POV how should it be done? In my planning, I can't decide how or when. I just know that when it's mostly centered on my main character it'll be in the past while when it is focused on my MC and others it'll be present. Is there a certain list of Do's and Don'ts? How often is too much of changing that it hinders the flow of the plot? Sorry to repeat a question and thank you for your time.


Answer: I'm not sure from your question whether you are asking about changing POV characters or staying with the MC's point-of-view but switching from an event in the present to one in the past.

If you are switching to and from the MC's past, then you have to consider when the reader needs to know certain things about the MC's past in order to make sense of his/her behaviour or attitude in the present. There are different ways it can work.

You may show the present first, to create a mystery, and then switch to the past to solve the mystery. For instance, at the start of Casablanca we see the main character Rick keeping everyone in his life at a distance and being upset when a woman he used to know walks into his bar. The audience wonders why. Then the film cuts to the past and reveals how he once had a love affair with this woman that ended when she broke his heart. That explains everything.

On the other hand, you could show an event from a character's past - perhaps a time when he was betrayed by his mentor. Then you might flip back to the present when he encounters the mentor once more who asks for the character's trust and help with a certain problem. Knowing about the past helps the reader understand the emotions the main character is feeling in the present.

You have to judge for yourself what makes the most impact in your story.

What can disrupt the flow of the story is when you are frequently jumping back to the past and either ...

1) The story in the past is not interesting, because it has no dramatic structure to it.

2) The story in the past does not shed a necessary light on the events in the present.

In such cases, the reader can get impatient with the flashbacks interrupting the story.

If you are telling the story in chronological order, but switching POV characters, then you have to think in terms of cause and effect. If there's an event that matters because it is the cause of the next key plot event, but the main character cannot find out about it in any logical way (for instance, if he's not there to witness what happens) you may need to switch to the POV of another character who can observe the event.

Of course, this gets more complicated if you have several story lines running throughout the novel, told from different POVs. You may want to map out the sequence of events for each story line separately (to make sure it hangs together and is complete). I prefer writing each event on a separate index card. Then you have to play with arranging the cards/events in different orders until you find the flow of events that makes the best sense chronologically.

(This should be done before you start messing about with telling the story in a non-chronological way.)

The key is that each event should be a necessary part of a dramatic arc (either main plot, subplot, or some other throughline) that helps create meaning in the story.

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Plot Invite.


 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook


NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles


"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards



"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero