What is it with all the point of view and timeline changes in novels today?

I want to apologize ahead of time if this post ends up sounding like a rant. I don’t mean it to but I do want to ask for your opinion on the subject. Here’s my question to you: when was the last time you read a book that was written in the past 10 years that didn’t involve a constant change of point of view (POV) or a shift in the timeline? Is it just me or is every novel being written today structured this way? And why, oh why? Would you ever tell a personal story to someone that way?

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinAs a fast reader, I find nothing more distracting that having to shift point of views every few chapters, or even worse, every chapter. The story may be told in the third person, but first you’ll see it from the mother’s point of view, then the father’s, then the children’s, and so on. Yes, Jodi Picoult, I’m talking about you! Every book that I read from her was written that way and it got old pretty fast. But it’s not just Jodi Picoult. Actually it seems to be almost everyone. As much as I liked The Night Circus by Erin Morgensten, the timeline shift got old by the end. The shifting point of views in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn didn’t trick me. 30 pages into the book, I had figured out the “big twist” and the story was only disappointing after that. The ONLY point of view shift I found that was used brilliantly was in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, because it actually made the story’s twists reveal themselves very neatly. By the way, if you haven’t read this book, you should put it on your to-read list. It’s very, very good.

I’m now reading Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet by Jamie Ford, and as much as I’m enjoying the story, it constantly shifts between the present and the past. Yes, the story is about remembering something that happened in the past, but why can’t the writer start with the present, go back to the past to tell the whole story, and then come back to the present? Is it really that hard?

So what keeps me interested in reading? A good story that doesn’t rely on the constant POV or timeline shift. A nicely threaded story with a continuous timeline tends to keep me on the edge more. Finishing each chapter with a little suspense will make me want to start the next chapter rather than put it down. I have no problem with a story that starts in the past to establish a past event, then shifts back to the present and stays there. The Green Mile by Stephen King is a great example of that. It contains tons of cliffhangers, as only a few writers seem to have mastered, and keep you turning the pages, even though the book is over 500 pages long.

The book thief by Markus ZusackOf course, there are other ways to keep my interest as a reader. An unusual narrator will also do the trick for me. Both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Lying Games series by Sara Shepard use a character that has been murdered as the narrator. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak uses Death itself as the narrator for the whole story. That was so unusual to me, and I personally found the idea brilliant, especially because of the violent and depressing World War II setting.

I only have one explanation for this trend of shifting point of views and playing with timelines: technology and the many distractions it brings. In today’s world, we’re used to talking on the phone while watching TV and browsing the web, texting while driving and listening to the car radio, talking with someone face to face while checking our voicemail or email. So here’s my theory: today’s writers think we’re so “good” at multi-tasking that the only way to keep our interest is to use this constant shifting, otherwise we may get bored.

Distracted driving

Image courtesy of the Sinnamonlawyers blog

All I can say is, I hope this is just a trend, and just like other trends, it shall pass and good storytelling will come back. Storytelling that doesn’t rely on this constant shifting to keep us interested but actually tells the events in a captivating way. If so many writers have been able to do so until recently, why can’t newer writers do it too?

I guess I’ll stop my rant here. Now I’d love to hear your opinion on the subject. Do you like shifts in points of view and time in novels? Do you think they add to the story or distract? Do you prefer a first person or third person point of view? What’s your favorite type of storytelling of all?

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19 responses to “What is it with all the point of view and timeline changes in novels today?

  1. I don’t have a blanket opinion on the subject. Some authors manage shifts with finesse. Others are more like riding with a driver prone to jackrabbit starts and stops – it’s jarring.

  2. I normally prefer one POV character unless it’s a thriller, then I’m fine with more. But usually no more than two or three. For thrillers you sometimes need to get into other characters’ heads or it can make the story-telling difficult. Your main protag can’t be everywhere at once.

    My first novel was told in a single POV. The one I just finished is in three POV (two protags and the antag). I really felt I needed all three voices to make the story work, but I don’t head hop within chapters. I rotate among the characters.

    The novel I’m now starting I hope to do all in one POV.

    I probably prefer 3rd person, but I’m okay with 1st person, too. As for time shifts, not a fan either. Didn’t like it in either The Night Circus or The Secret Keeper thought I really enjoyed both of the books. The stories and writing were good enough to make me overlook the time changes. But it is frustrating to get caught up in one thing and then have to shift gears. I don’t find it as difficult to shift gears for different POVs. In fact, sometimes it gives me a breather.

    Great topic!

    • Thanks for your opinion! Time shifts can be really difficult to pull off without losing the reader. I think what bugs me about Jodi Picoult’s books is that she uses the same method for everyone and I keep wondering, can’t you try something different? I like thrillers with one POV if they keep you guessing about the other people. Sometimes, it’s a lot more tense that way. I can’t wait to see how your new book turns out!

      • Thank you. :)

        I’ve never been able to get into Jodi Picoult’s books. Read one of hers; it was okay. Read another, and it seemed almost the same. But people love her. I think it’s just too much emotional angst for me.

      • They are very similar and if you like that genre, I can see the attraction. I have plenty of drama I don’t need in my life, I don’t need to read more of it, haha!

  3. I don’t mind shifts in POV and time periods. It makes it more of a mystery trying to figure out how it will work together in the end. Of course, some authors do it better than others, and there have been time that I was bothered by it enough that I’d pick up another book to read until I was ‘ready’ to read the other one again.

    • Wow, you’re very kind to those writers if you give them a second chance after a break. The only way I was able to get through The Secret Keeper all its constant time shifts was to scheme through it after the first 100 pages. Of course, it didn’t help the pace was extremely slow and not much happened overall.

  4. I don’t mind it so much in a mystery, but otherwise I don’t like it. I gave up on Cloud Atlas partly because of this!

  5. That’s an interesting point about technology creating short attention spans in the way we read and write these days. I don’t like all the shifting around either, but then I don’t have a cell phone so I’m not as used to that sort of thing. A lot of the classics also use the omniscient narrator POV, which started to get a negative reputation but if that’s used then the writer doesn’t have to resort to 3rd person POV shifts. I’m reading Janet Evanovich’s books now for some fun. Those are first person POV with no shifting around and they’re incredibly funny.

  6. I hope it is just a trend too. We live in a crazy world moving so fast, catching up feels like worse than a elliptical work out. I agree, there’s so much distractions and multi-tasking. So much change in the past 10 years, life, work, global events, technology, views of people and all. I can only wish things are more simple. Have a great week.

    • I really hope one day people will tune off more than tune on. Technology is supposed to help us, and it does in many ways. But it’s been developed to the extreme in such areas, making us dependent on it, and that can’t be a good thing. I hear more and more stories of people walking away from our crazy world, and I hope we start being selective in our use of technology for the good of all. As usual, thank you for stopping by!

  7. Rant away! I am complete with you on this. I get dizzy reading books that change POV every other chapter. Just tell the story!

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to be irritated by this trend. I feel it can be a lazy move from the writer who may not have much of a story and uses different POVs to stretch things. And I think it explains why so many of those books have a very slow pace. Not much happens and it could all be told in half the words.

  8. Interesting observations! I think I need to start reading with a more analytical eye!

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