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.