Transition Between Storylines Without Losing Your Reader (Sky Village and Lost Mission)

Note:  Thanks for all who entered the neuropublishing jokes contest.  Winners will be announced on Saturday.

Presenting multiple storylines with different point of view (POV) characters is tricky. It’s hard to ask the reader, who’s already invested in one narrative, to start again with a new one. I find that if I’m looking for a reason to stop reading, I often do so at a storyline break.

Many novels use a clean break (new chapter or section) between storylines. While that works, I’ve seen some books attempt smoother transitions. These transitions tend to be plot specific, so they won’t work with any book, but I’ll describe a few here as brainstorming fodder. I find that a good transition keeps me interested for the following reasons:

1) Keeps the momentum: There’s less of a psychological break between sections.  Sometimes a good transition will also introduce a hook that motivates me to read the new storyline.
2) Plot refresher: If we’re returning to a previous storyline, the transition makes it easier to reorient myself. I don’t have do the work of remembering what happened and where the plot is.
3)Emotional refresher: A good transition will remind me why I’m interested in going back to that other storyline -- why I care.

The first example is from Sky Village by Monk and Nigel Ashland, which Peta Andersen lent me to help with POV changes in my own manuscript.

Sky Village begins with the story of Mei, also called Dragonfly, who goes to live with relatives when her mother is captured. She has a book, called the Tree Book, that her mother used to read from. When Mei opens the book, she finds that the stories her mother read to her, about a boy Breaker and his sister Riley, were real. What’s more, she realizes she can speak with Breaker through the book and learns that Riley has been captured by demons.

“I can’t believe this,” she said, her finger still tingling. Somehow, all this time, the Tree Book had been sharing stories about real kids. But why? And would she be able to talk to the others?
You’re really her, Breaker said. You’re dragonfly.
Mei was speechless. Finally, she asked, “Where’s Riley? Is Riley okay?”
After a moment of silence, Breaker responded. She will be soon.

The next chapter launches from Breaker’s point of view, starting from a point in time before Riley’s capture. Because of this transition, I'm invested in Breaker before his section even begins.

The storylines switch back and forth in a similar way throughout the book. At the end of a character’s section, Mei and Breaker talk, and we transition into the other character's story. As a reader, I found it helpful because it reminded me where we were in the other narrative.

For example, here’s another transition.

[Mei speaking] “Morning Man says my mother was able to communicate with the birds. But why is this happening to us? What if we can’t control it, Breaker?”
[Breaker speaking] In a few hours, I have to conjure a demon for the first time. So I guess I’ll find out.

[Start of Breaker's chapter]

As a reader, I remember, “Oh yeah, last time, Breaker was trying to conjure demons.” It’s much easier to rejoin his story that way.

What if characters from two storylines don't communicate? Athol Dickson uses a different approach in Lost Mission. He has several related narratives, some of which take place in different centuries. He transitions between them by means of an omniscient narrator. Here is one such transition between the story of an 18th century Franciscan friar to a present day woman in Mexico.

But let us be more patient than the friar, for this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Ricon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres mountains of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.

I have mixed feelings about this approach. It was fine for a few switches, but after 345 pages of this , I got a little annoyed. However, these transitions did manage to keep the momentum going better. It’s almost like, since there wasn’t any white space between two sections, the eye just keeps going.

Would anyone like to share good ways of transitioning between storylines?

Note:  I received Lost Mission as a free review copy.


  1. Enjoyed the post. Working on book with two main POV characters right now and found the information helpful. Thanks for this post!

  2. I have 2 MCs in my novel as well. I keep the scenes short so I can switch pov often and hopefully the flow works. Time will tell :)

  3. I've avoided the whole switching narrators thing by keeping my first book to only one point of view. Maybe in the next one I'll try 2.

  4. I've been thinking about this for a few days, and I can think of a few ways to do almost seamless transitions--but they'd require a lot of skill, most likely more than I can manage.

    1. Parallel actions
    e.g. one character ends a scene opening a door. The new POV character would start a scene opening a door.

    2. Parallel emotions
    Similar to 1., but more difficult to write. Getting deep inside X's head could lead to thoughts of Y and vice versa. Y's feelings about the cupcake store's closing could lead into X's feelings about body issues.

    3. Third Character POV segue
    Isobelle carmody does this in the Legendsong trilogy. First there's Glynn's POV, then a segue through an unseen narrator, putting her POV in a greater perspective, and linking it to Ember's. Sometimes, the narrator shows snippets of other characters whose lives mirror Glynn's, Ember's, or both. The effect is a little disturbing, but I think it's meant to be.

    4. Magic device
    X looks in her magic mirror, sees Y, and we fall into Y's POV.

    I'm not sure which ones work best, if it all. It'd be interesting to contrast text examples, though. 1, 2, & 4 are pretty common in tv and movies, I think.