For Authors

Using Alternating First-Person POV in your Novel

By: Ginger on May 3, 2024

Our Hidden Gems guest author for today.

By: Ginger on May 3, 2024


There are many ways to tell a story, and authors tend to write in the style that they find most comfortable. Yet there are sometimes reasons to select one style over another, aside from personal preference. For example, an alternating first-person point of view, with chapters switching between the perspectives of the main characters, can enrich storytelling in a variety of genres by offering a more intimate connection to the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings.

Ginger discovered success with this POV style years ago, and has been using it in most of his novels ever since. Through his years of experience, he has gathered an understanding of the mechanics, benefits and nuances that go into it, and he’s sharing that knowledge with us today. So if you’re unfamiliar with this technique but looking to give it a try, or even if you have some experience with it of your own, read on for some practical tips that will not only get you started, but help you master the alternating first-person POV that so many readers love. 

There’s a joke about a famous novelist and a successful heart surgeon playing a game of golf together, during which the heart surgeon remarks: “I think I’d like to write a novel one day. Grab a typewriter. Hammer something out. See if I can get it published or not.”

The novelist is incensed by this, and fires back: “You know what? I’ve always wanted to give heart surgery a try. Maybe I should throw somebody on an operating table, tear their ribcage open, and see if I can manage a bypass or not.”

The joke being, of course, that writing a successful novel isn’t quite as easy as the heart surgeon thinks it is.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to compare writing to heart surgery – but there’s a kernel of truth in the joke: Writing successful novels does take education, skill, and experience, just like surgery. If you ever want to be truly successful as a writer, you can’t just wing it.

(You shouldn’t just wing heart surgery, either!)

You actually need to learn the craft of writing, and then spend years applying it to your work. Nobody starts out publishing great books. It takes years of dedication, practice, and failure.

This is a lesson I’ve always taken to heart. Today, I’ve had my 30+ novels published on Amazon downloaded over 600,000 times – but it took a long time to get to that point! When I started writing novels, I was no better than the fictional heart surgeon who wanted to “hammer something out” and see if he could get it published, and my initial lack of sales and success demonstrated that! 

It wasn’t until I started learning about the craft of writing and experimenting with different storytelling techniques that I finally found success – and I’d written and published 11 full-length novels before I finally wrote one that was a bestseller!

I always considered the years before then my apprenticeship – during which I learned how to use all the different tools and techniques writers can apply to tell their stories better. It was also when I read dozens of the top-selling books in my genre, trying to discover why these writers were more successful than I was. The tools they used made a huge difference.

For example, I’d initially started writing romance novels in third-person perspective (a common choice for many aspiring writers) but I soon discovered that the most successful novels in my genre were written in first-person. Learning that, I switched writing styles just like a carpenter might switch from using dovetail joints to rabbet joints instead. 

I picked the style of writing that best suited my story rather than the one I was most-used to using, and in doing so changed the trajectory of my writing career practically overnight.

With that in mind, I wanted to use my blog post this week to explore that particular style of storytelling, and discuss the broader context of how the way you tell your story can sometimes be as important to your success as the story itself.

Choosing Alternating First-Person Perspective

The perspective from which you tell your story is just one of the different tools writers can use to make their stories more engaging for readers. 

There’s an immense amount of value to be found in researching the top-selling books in your genre and figuring out which perspective is most common. The style of storytelling, just like the cover of your book, should meet the expectations of your readers. It’s almost like a “dress code.”

During my own research into the Romantic Suspense genre, I found that most of the bestselling novels were written in first-person perspective, from an alternating point-of-view. One chapter would be from the heroine’s perspective, then the next chapter would be from the hero’s perspective. It was an almost ubiquitous feature of the top-selling books in my genre, and the fact that I’d been writing in third-person perspective until that point suddenly seemed like a major hurdle to winning over new readers.

So, I switched! And the very next book I published in that style outperformed all my previous romance novels. For my chosen audience, alternating first-person perspective storytelling was clearly the way to go.

Here are some tips and advice for employing this kind of storytelling in your own novels.

How to Write in Alternating First Person Perspective

The allure of first-person narration for romance readers lies in its intimacy. It allows an author to burrow deep into a character’s psyche, letting readers experience the story through their thoughts and perceptions. I’ve already written a guide to embracing the first-person POV, but in the case of stories that employ more than one point of view, there are some differences to consider.

In Romantic Suspense, for example, the narrative generally demands two voices, not just one – and there are other successful novels that execute this trick to weave a richer tapestry of perspectives, and offer a multifaceted (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoint of your plot. 

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a great example. That novel features an alternating narration between Nick and Amy Dunne, which keeps readers guessing about both their characters and the truth behind their fractured marriage. It really helps build up the tension in the story – something Gillian Flynn achieved through strategic planning and a keen understanding of character development.

Here are some things to remember when writing alternate points of view.

Tip One: Establish Distinct Voices

The biggest challenge in writing stories that feature the first-person perspective from more than one character is in differentiating those characters’ voices. Otherwise, you might confuse readers who roll from one chapter to the next and get a couple of sentences in before they realize that they’re reading things from the viewpoint of a different person.

In Romantic Suspense, you normally start each chapter off with the character’s name right under the chapter heading – but that’s not something all readers notice! (After all, how often do you actually read the bit that says “Chapter 23” or whatever?)

Getting this part right goes beyond simply announcing which character is narrating each chapter (although that’s a start.) You should also make sure the voice of each character is distinctive and different. Here are some ideas on achieving that:

  • Internal Monologue: First-person allows you to delve into a character’s internal world.  Think about their background, personality, and worldview. How do they think? Are they prone to sarcasm or self-deprecating humor?  For example, compare the cynical musings of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the introspective narration of Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Sensory Details: How characters perceive the world around them can reveal layers about their personality. Does a character focus on sights and sounds, or are they more in tune with physical sensations?  For instance, compare the lush, descriptive prose of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Liz in Eat, Pray, Love, to the pragmatic observations of Paula Hawkins’ Rachel in The Girl on the Train.
  • Word Choice: Vocabulary selection reflects a character’s background and education. A seasoned detective might use technical jargon, while a teenager might pepper their narration with slang. Consider the clipped, clinical observations of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs versus the whimsical, poetic narration of Cholly Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

If your character voices are so distinctive that a reader can tell which character is narrating within just a line or two, you’re onto a good thing.

Tip Two: Structuring the POV Shifts

Now that you have distinct voices, how do you decide when to switch perspectives? Some authors change perspectives depending on the needs of their stories – with two or more back-to-back chapters narrated by one character, before switching to a chapter from the other character to best suit the plot.

However, I’m not a big fan of that approach. I think you should develop a predictable cadence to shifting the POV, so a reader can notice the shift instinctively, just like you achieved by creating strong and unique character voices. Here are some options:

  • Chapter Alternation: This is the most common approach. Each chapter is narrated from a single character’s POV, giving readers a deep dive into their thoughts and experiences. See this in Victoria Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, where chapters alternate seamlessly between Kell, Lila, and Alucard’s viewpoints. It can be a little more challenging to keep the plot rolling this way, but it’s definitely the approach readers appreciate most.
  • Scene Breaks: Within the same chapter, you can also switch perspectives at scene breaks to offer a contrasting viewpoint on the same event.  This technique can build tension and highlight different interpretations of the situation.  For instance, Rainbow Rowell employs this technique in Eleanor & Park, where readers witness their first encounter from both characters’ perspectives.
  • Internal Monologue Overlap: For a more nuanced effect, consider layering internal monologues during a shared scene. This allows readers to experience the emotions and thoughts of multiple characters simultaneously, intensifying the scene’s impact. Donna Tartt masters this in The Secret History, where readers are privy to the dark thoughts swirling within a group of privileged college students.

Tip Three: Maintaining Reader Engagement

Writing from alternating POVs adds depth to your stories. However, it’s also crucial to maintain reader engagement as you switch from character to character. You don’t want to get into the situation that some readers have complained about with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, in which you occasionally roll your eyes and sigh: “Oh, great, we interrupt that previous chapter about the character I love most, to suddenly see things from a boring character in a difference place.” 

Obviously you have to respect the narrative of your story, but you also want to give readers a fun and engaging reading experience. Here are some tips:

  • Cliffhangers: End chapters with cliffhangers, not only to build suspense but also to prompt readers to eagerly anticipate returning to this scene after reading a chapter from the next character’s perspective.
  • Foreshadowing: Using subtle foreshadowing in each POV creates a sense of interconnectedness and hints at future events from another character’s perspective. It’s kind of cool to encounter “Chekhov’s Gun” in a chapter narrated by one character, then see that gun fired in a chapter narrated by a different character.
  • Pacing: Consider the pacing of your POV shifts.  Don’t switch too frequently, as it can disorient readers. Conversely, long stretches in one perspective can make your story seem stagnant, and make readers forget about what’s been going on with the other character.

The Challenges of Writing Alternating First-Person POV

While alternating first-person POV offers authors some great storytelling opportunities, there are challenges to consider. Here are the ones that I think are most important: 

  • Keeping Track of Information: With multiple voices, ensuring consistency becomes paramount. Some characters will know things the others don’t, so make sure to keep track of what they might have seen or experienced. The good news is that one character knowing something the other doesn’t presents a lot of opportunities for storytelling conflict.
  • Reader Confusion: We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth reiterating. Make clear who is narrating each chapter or scene. Utilize chapter titles, character names, or distinct voice cues to avoid confusion. You want the reader to be able to tell whose head they’re in within a few lines.
  • Balancing Character Development: In romance novels especially, it’s important to give both characters equal billing. Strive to give each character with a distinct POV an equal chance to shine. Don’t relegate one character to a sidekick role through unbalanced narration.
  • Maintaining Narrative Tension: Shifting perspectives can sometimes interrupt the flow of the story. Ensure each POV shift serves a purpose, propelling the plot forward or revealing crucial information. Gone Girl is a great example of how to make a story more compelling by letting it unfold from the perspective of two characters with very conflicting experiences and motivations.

Mastering the Multitude

While I made the decision to switch to alternating first-person POV because of the genre I wrote in, there are many reasons why authors might choose to experiment with this style of narration. Switching between the perspectives of two different characters offers a powerful tool to create depth and complexity in your story. 

By differentiating voices, structuring shifts strategically, and engaging your readers, you can make your story unfold in unexpected, unpredictable, but ultimately extremely satisfying ways. Just remember that successful execution of this technique requires planning to make the shifts flow right, and a commitment to developing each character’s unique voice. 

If you do it right, however, this approach can transform your story by offering a richer and more immersive reading experience – and you don’t need to take my word for it! See for yourself by reading some of these books, below – each of which made smart use of alternating first-person narration.

  • Circe by Madeline Miller:  This retelling of the Greek myth allows readers to experience the story through the eyes of the sorceress Circe, contrasting her perspective with that of familiar figures like Odysseus and Telemachus.
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler:  This darkly comic novel explores the complexities of family through the alternating voices of multiple family members, each grappling with a shared, unsettling event.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas:  This powerful young adult novel utilizes alternating narration between Starr Carter, a teenager witnessing police brutality, and her deceased childhood friend, Khalil. This dual perspective deepens the emotional impact of the story.

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About the Author

Our Hidden Gems guest author for today.

Ginger is also known as Roland Hulme - a digital Don Draper with a Hemingway complex. Under a penname, he's sold 65,000+ copies of his romance novels, and reached more than 320,000 readers through Kindle Unlimited - using his background in marketing, advertising, and social media to reach an ever-expanding audience. 

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