Writing POV Changes

download (1)Over the weekend I taught several workshops at Wordcrafters a fabulous writing conference held in Eugene, Oregon. With keynoters Kevin O’Brien, Nancy Holder and Gail Tsukiyama, a few of my classes had small but enthusiastic participants. One was a basic class on Point of View (POV). I thought I’d reprise some of the class here.

Writing Tip for Today: How should writers implement POV changes and why is it necessary to follow guidelines for them?

POV: Do You Get It? 

Some writers grasp point of view easily. Others struggle. The main question to ask yourself as you write is, “Whose skin am I in?” You know what YOU are thinking, feeling and doing, but you don’t get access to anyone’s else’s mind unless you’re Mr. Spock from Star Trek and do a Vulcan Mind Meld. How do we normally guess what others are feeling or thinking? We look for clues to their motives by observing BODY LANGUAGE, DIALOGUE and ACTIONS. Your POV character must do the same unless you are in the Omniscient (God’s Eye) POV. Today’s readers generally prefer to be very close to the POV character, so omniscient POV fell into disfavor for the last century or so. Third Person Limited (using he or she or they pronouns) is much more popular, as is the “I” voice of First Person.

Rules for Head Hopping

The standard advice is against head-hopping, or switching POVs in the midst of a scene. Readers want to “be” someone, and if you head-hop, they may be confused as to who they are following in the story. Yet many successful stories break this rule. Third Person Omniscient is coming back into favor and it’s more freeing. You can follow the Main Character closely, yet you can also write scenes where she isn’t necessarily present.  MY rule is to learn the “No Head Hopping” rule and be proficient with it before you break it. If you include more than one POV in a single scene or move into Third Omniscient for a time, hold off on it until the reader is well-grounded in the story and cares about both/all the characters.

Right Away, Smooth and Consistent

If you have more than one major POV character in your story, it’s most important to make those shifts as soon as possible, smooth and consistent. Identify the new narrator at the first line of a POV switch. Don’t describe the surroundings for long without alerting the reader that he’s seeing the landscape through different eyes. Most writers switch POV at the scene breaks or give a different POV character his/her own chapter. Labeling the chapter may also help, although some readers will probably miss the announcement at the beginning of the new scene or chapter. Above all I think the most important lesson about POV is that you refrain from confusing readers. A confused reader is a reader who may very well close your book.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

8 comments on “Writing POV Changes

  1. You had me at the black cat. This article truly helped me. I try to see things from anthers POV. I learn so much about myself and others. I just wrote a short flash fiction from the POV of a demon that was locked up in the abyss. Not what I usually write about; however it truly made me think. I would love to take this workshop. Thanks again for luring me in with the cat.

  2. Great article. I’m in the middle of writing a novel as part of Camp Nanowrimo. I haven’t even thought about POV yet, so may have to figure out if I’m only using one POV or switching between many. Will focus on this when I get to the rewrite and revise stage. Your post gave me some great pointers though. Thanks! And I have a black cat too! His name is Charlie.

  3. Linda, I’ve written a mystery in which I use multiple POVs in order to carry on a sub-plots without the main character’s knowledge. I don’t believe I have a problem with transitioning from one head to another. The draft has been read by numerous beta readers and a solid critique group. However, today I got thrown for a loop when an agent asked me how many POVs I had in the book. I said I didn’t know for sure and guessed at five. She said that was not going to work for her. I said maybe it was three and that I would go back and check. Most of the book is written in the POV of the main character and the impact character who is trying to change the main character. When I got home, I looked and discovered that I actually had written numerous small vignettes and the total number of POVs was 11. Most chapters are in one or two persons POV but there are a few where it goes back and forth. Again, the transition is clear. No doubt who’s head we are in. How about some advice on the numbers of POV that are permitted in this day and age. Thanks in advance. Jim

    • Hi Jim,
      I doubt there is a solid rule as to the number of POV changes “allowed,” but think about this: the more POVs you include, the more of the reader’s sympathies, focus and interest are at risk to be diluted or even lost. Readers want to see how one (possibly two) main characters’ lives will grow, change and meet the obstacles set before them. No matter how many POVs you include, it should be SOMEBODY’S story and that somebody should be (ideally) a character with the most to lose or at stake, an everyman who is larger-than-life yet emotionally connecting with the reader. If I were you I might ask myself why this POV and if the answer is not vital to the plot, consider doing some composite characters or streamlining your plot. Readers like a puzzle but I think it’s risky to set them into a panopoly of people who are not essential to the main story.
      Hope this helps!
      Keep writing,

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