Here’s one more example: Say you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, showing her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. The hero, whom she’s just met under unfortunate circumstances, is angry. You’ll show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him at that point (What the hell is going on here? he thought. What’s she trying to pull off, anyway?), but by what the heroine is seeing and perceiving—his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.
The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time.
So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?
According to Cynthia VanRooy, “When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief. […]
“Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that…they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”
And my advice is to take it one step further and make sure your character’s observations and reactions are written in the style that your POV character would use. If your viewpoint character is a 9-year-old boy, he’ll see and describe things around him differently than if it’s a 16-year-old girl, a 45-year-old man, or a 65-year-old woman. And I’m not just talking about their dialogue, which of course has to suit their age, background, social standing, etc. The narrative descriptions of what they’re seeing, hearing, and feeling
should be in that person’s words, to maintain the tone and mood and voice of that character. So in a scene that’s in the 9-year-old boy’s POV, don’t describe what’s going on around him with long, fancy words and complete, grammatically correct sentences.
Make sure each of your characters has distinctive speech patterns, and when you're in their point of view, describe their surroundings in those same speech patterns. That way the reader is able to really experience their world as they perceive it.
A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV.
Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.” Keep on writing!
© Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, March 2011
Resource for Part 3: “POV or: Whose Head Am I in, Anyway?” by Cynthia VanRooy http://romance.fictionfactor.com/articles/pov.html
Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/ and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/.
Posted by Maryann Miller who is always happy to be reminded about whose head she should be in.