Jumping Perspectives

Question: This doesn't have to do with a specific story I'm writing, but it's always been something that I've been confused about. I'm not sure how to word this question properly so I'm going to come up with a hypothetical situation.

The setting of the scene is in a city that is being invaded by the antagonist's forces and the main character, I'm going to call him Bob, is part of a resistance force who was taken by surprise by this sudden invasion.

Suppose that a large chunk of the scene is from Bob's perspective as he and a few other resistance fighters try to climb up a clock tower to try to save the town mayor. But on the other side of town, Bob's sister, Anne, is pinned down by enemy forces in an abandoned building. And another supporting character named Steven is in another part of the city.

Suppose that after a long narration of Bob's situation, I want to quickly jump to Anne's perspective and show how the resistance member next to her suddenly jams a gun in his mouth and offs himself to emphasize how terrified they all are. Then I want to jump back to Bob for a while to show him and his allies hiding in the tower's basement, planning out an attack strategy. Then I want to jump to Steve who just saw his brother have his leg blown off and is now debating whether to risk the lives of his men by insisting that they carry his brother with them or risk stashing him by himself until the event blows over.

Is there a way for me to keep a close third person perspective on Bob while every now and then going into a quick perspective switch to help detail the situation?

Thanks for your time.

Answer: If you were writing a filmscript, this would be much easier - but you probably already know that.

The challenge with a novel is that readers take a little time to get into the head of a character, so brief shifts in point of view can be disturbing. This is especially true if the shifts happen several times within a chapter.

One approach would be to tell Bob's story, up to the resolution of one event, such as his coming to the decision to climb the clock tower. Make that the end of one chapter. In the next chapter, jump back in time and tell the sister's story, up to the point where her friend commits suicide and she decides what she will do next. The third chapter might tell Steve's story, up to the point where they whether or not to carry the body. The fourth chapter might jump back to Bob for the next installment of his story.

So, in each chapter, you will use close 3rd person narration, but with a different point-of-view character. This gives the reader a chance to get into the head of each character, to develop empathy with that character. By the time the chapter break comes, the reader is hungry for more of that character's story.

Of course, you probably want to limit the number of POV characters. More than three, and there is some risk that the reader will feel overwhelmed by the number of characters and the start to feel less connected or involved with them. Also, at some point it might help to see these storylines merge - assuming the characters are all involved in one overall story.

I suspect alternating chapters will be more effective than shifting POV several times within a chapter.

If you decide to experiment with shifts within a chapter, make sure you put a section break (extra dividing space) between sections. Try to create a somewhat different style for each POV character and give enough clues to quickly orient the reader in the new perspective.

A third option is to use an omniscient narrator who can more easily move about the battlefield. However, the downside is that the reader loses the depth of connection with the characters.

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