Transitions and Shifting POV in Fiction

Illustration underscoring the idea of transition as chain

Think of transitions as links in the narrative chain, holding scenes together and allowing for a natural progression from one to the next.

So the title of this looks like I’m going to talk about something useful, but actually, I’m pretty much going to gush about Joe Abercrombie’s writing. I hadn’t read anything by him, but was at Confusion last January and had enough people recommend his writing (and watched a writer I admire go total fanboy when confronted with Joe) that I picked up THE HEROES to try it out and was immediately blown away.

So now I’ve worked my way through BEST SERVED COLD and am on the third volume of the First Law trilogy, which starts with THE BLADE ITSELF (and I can tell I’m going back to read both of the first two, in order to see better how they fit with the First Law trilogy). I’ve got to say, gee whiz, when Delany is talking about how you can only write stuff as good as the best stuff you’re reading, this is the sort of thing he’s talking about, because I know I’ve learned a good bit about the subject matter mentioned in the title from looking to see how Abercrombie does it.

The books have multiple POVs. A frighteningly large number of them, and I say that as someone who’s worked with them in a novel and seen how complicated and yucky and full of snarls that particular brand of yarn can be. In THE HEROES, the POVs aren’t restricted to main characters – sometimes the writing does things like dip briefly but deeply into the mind of a secondary character who’s about to get killed on the next page.

Where those POVs overlap, their collision creates additional meaning. For example, there’s a lengthy section in the head of Logen, a Northman, about how unnatural he finds the privies in the southern castle he’s visiting. A bit later, while in the POV of another character, we see him look upset at the possibility that an assassin might have crawled up through one of them, and because of that earlier section, that look takes on a deeper meaning, to the point where another character sees him still looking at the latrine door suspiciously, the effect is wonderfully funny.

Often the same encounter is seen through multiple eyes, letting us see where people go wrong. It’s a very powerful strategy, perhaps because it invokes a certain frustration on the part of the reader without getting TOO frustrating to the moment where you end up with a moment where you just want to scream at the characters, “WHAT are you thinking?” And characters thinking about each other and their relationship, particularly a relationship that keeps changing, works so beautifully, so wonderfully, for developing character and relationship and even plotline, that I’m in awe.

I’ve got to say that one of my favorite moments is in BEST SERVED COLD, and you should stop right now if you haven’t read it, because I really don’t want to spoil this for you. There’s a section where the POV is shifting rapidly back and forth between two characters, and we think they’re in the same place only to find at the end of the passage that everything the reader thought was, in fact, wrong. It’s gorgeous. If I were the jealous sort of writer, I think it would make me want to hit Joe and then go weep with despair.

Fortunately (probably for both of us), I’m not. Instead I’m looking to see how he does all this so I can steal freely. In fact, in the latest story I finished, I noticed a transition where one character is starting a thought and another is finishing it, that I’m pretty sure came from this reading.

So for those reading this trying to create their own transitions – here’s one strategy that Abercrombie seems to use often. Is there something – an object, a phrase, a circumstance of weather – in one scene’s ending that can be used in the next scene’s beginning? Some examples:

  • First scene ends with an observation about the snow; the following begins with an expansion on that.
  • First scene contains mention of a particular character; the following is from that character’s POV.
  • First scene someone wonders what a particular character is doing and imagines their circumstances; following scene is from that character’s POV and shows how wrong the imagining was.

Movies do this a lot. We close with a shot of one object; a similar shot begins the next scene. Someone says something to close a scene; in the next it’s repeated or answered. We close on a landscape at a particular time and open with it transformed by a different setting in time. These transitions give a feeling of completeness. Rather than separate pieces jammed together like a mosaic, they’re woven together, threads from one leading into and changing another. Transitions lead the reader along, let her/him swing from vine to vine like Tarzan, each one a new handhold on their journey through the narrative.

And with that tortured metaphor, peace out.

Enjoy this writing advice and want more like it? Check out the classes Cat gives via the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers both on-demand and live online writing classes for fantasy and science fiction writers from Cat and other authors, including Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and other talents! All classes include three free slots.

Prefer to opt for weekly interaction, advice, opportunities to ask questions, and access to the Chez Rambo Discord community and critique group? Check out Cat’s Patreon. Or sample her writing here.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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