Monday, June 11, 2012

Writing in 140: A Story with a View... or Two... or More

When’s the best time to shift point of view (POV) in a story? There is no hard and fast rule to this, but writers need to think about how POV shifts affect the readers’ immersion into the story and characters. Some writers think shifting POV at the beginning of chapters is the smartest move. Others are fine with shifting POV at the beginning of scenes. Some people are even OK with shifting POV at the start of a new paragraph. What about shifting POV within the same paragraph, nearly the same sentence? Do writers run the risk of jarring readers out of a story?

Although shifting POV can be a pet peeve, cause a manuscript to be rejected, and disconcert readers if handled improperly; writers still shift point of view.

What say you about when to shift point of view?


Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. Her second mystery, Into the Web, was released April 2012, and recently, she's been published in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. The analogy I use when I'm teaching POV is that of your book as a journey and your protagonist(s) as a vehicle. Sometimes it is best to take a train (or two) then switch to a bus (or two) to get to your destination. That can make the journey interesting, or it can make it annoying, or even tedious. But my personal preference is for a single point of view (or at least a single point of view for decent lengths of the book). This is like getting in your car and driving the reader to the destination. It allows the reader to get nice and comfortable in the head of the protagonist. But some readers may also find such a journey tedious.

  2. Thanks for raising this, Shon. The rules about POV are most important for beginning writers to help develop a sense of how to manage this aspect of writing, casual "head-hopping" being a not uncommon mistake of newbies. In the end, though, the only thing that matters is whether the shifts--or single-mindedness--in POV work for the reader. Changing POV only at narrative boundaries--chapter, scene, and the like--is the safest because it waves a flag at the reader. However, with careful phrasing, clear tagging, and adroit choice of words, a third-person narrative can get by with rather rapid POV switches.

  3. I prefer writing one scene per POV, but if an author can make the transitions clear (Suzanne Brockmann comes to mind), then it should work. The danger is having readers start to empathize with a character, and then they have to regroup.

    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. It takes a very skillful author to handle POV changes within scenes. I generally use one POV for each scene, and don't like to change too often. Most of the time, I do the change in a new chapter, but once in a while, I'll dare to be different, depending on the circumstances of the story.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. I use multiple POVs when I write and help writers smooth and clarify these changes when I edit. Chapter or scene beginnings are easiest, I think. However, different POVs within the same scene work if they're handled in a way that doesn't pull the reader out of the story, if they avoid the confusion of head-hopping that shouts omniscient POV, and if they don't create a bump in the road that Elle mentioned.

    Great post, Shon!

  6. Having endured a number of earthquakes, I'm not a big fan of too many shifts back and forth. ;)

    A carefully placed change in POV can liven things up, though. Let you see what the other guy thinks of the same event.

  7. Head-hopping in mid-paragraph drives me nuts! Mary Higgins Clark did this in a very recent publication and I almost couldn't finish the book. What was her editor thinking? Come to think of it, I should have stopped reading. The book was disappointing at best.

  8. An editor once told me that changing POV in the middle of a scene is okay if handled well, but not every author can handle it well. All of my novels have different POVs, but for the most part I switch for chapters and new scenes.

    In One Small Victory, however, I did do a few scenes where I switched within the scene from one POV to another. These were two major scenes between the two central characters, and I thought it was important for the characters to react to each other and the situation. My editor did not object, and so far readers have not. (smile)

  9. If you've got to headhop within a paragraph or a scene, I think you should consider writing a short chapter, instead.

    One of my books/series hops from character-to-character, but I tried to handle it like The Poisonwood Bible, where you go from person-to-person along the way, moving the story along.

    I think headhopping mid-scene or mid-paragraph is just immature writing. Over time you just learn how to not even think that way. That's my experience, anyway. When you've got a lot of characters trying to have their say, what does it hurt to put them each in their own chapters and then clean it up on the edits?

  10. I do it either at the beginning of a chapter or I leave a line break.

  11. My historical mysteries tend towards 'ensemble casts' rather than leads and supporting characters. This means I write from several POVs - but never more than one per scene. However, whatever happens in that scene could be experienced through more than one character's eyes when the POV switches.

  12. Thanks all for the comments! I think POV is one of the sticklers I often see in my clients' works, especially when there is a bevy of characters and all of their stories seem to be important to the overall story.

  13. That's a great analogy, Elle. I'm usually a fan of getting "nice and comfortable in the head of the protagonist" too.

    Thanks, Larry. And I think more needs to be said to help writers in understanding the "careful phrasing, clear tagging, and adroit choice of words" you speak of.

  14. I write character-driven stories with deep POV so I usually stick to one, whether writing in first or third person. Because of this, if I changed POV during a scene, it would be so jarring I might as well introduce a line break and be clear about it—then pick up with the new POV by pulling back a bit, to survey the larger scene, before tightening in.

  15. I love shifting POV when it's done right. Shifting in nearly the same sentence -- and even the same paragraph -- would definitely throw me off. If I don't expect a novel to shift POV, it can throw me off the first time no matter how it's done.

    I like shifts at the start of a new chapter, or at least after a scene break.

    The biggest problem with shifting POV for me as a reader is I can prefer some POV characters over another. There are a lot of books where I actually prefer a secondary character over the main character.


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