Point of View

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows that I am a POV purist—one point of view per scene. Some may argue that there are bestsellers on the market today that do not stick to this rule. Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia—these use multiple POV in the same scene. My answer to that is that these writers have a firm control and strong execution of POV so they can do what they want with it, and do it effectively. Their character POVs don’t flop around willy-nilly. Each switch happens with precision and for good purpose. Each character’s voice is distinctive and able to draw us into that character’s perspective—into their head.

New writers should learn POV technique, learn to control it, and learn to wield it with experience before trying to play around with different ways of using it. In the same way, a basketball player will first become proficient at making baskets before trying fancy moves with the backboard or bouncing the ball off someone’s head to make a basket. A pianist must learn to play the piano proficiently before tackling Mozart. A stunt cyclist learns to ride a bike before he begins flipping off buildings. If you try variations on the basic technique before you have even mastered the technique, it usually won’t work and will have your readers screaming, “head-hopping!”

There is no reason to avoid the one-POV-per-scene rule. It helps you immerse the reader fully into that one character for his or her scene, letting readers experience the world through his/her eyes. Readers want to connect deeply with your character as if they are living the story themselves. When you avoid tossing the reader around among several characters like a hot potato, they can let their guard down and sink into the character. Then when you have a need to switch, add a scene change and your reader will follow. She will also appreciate the warning.

A favorite book of mine that does a wonderful job of POV control is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Edwards wrote her book using multiple POV’s, but uses quick scene changes to show us both perspectives. Each character has his/her spot in the emotional spotlight for each event, but each POV sections is separated by back and forth scene swaps. Sometimes they are only a paragraph long and there are several per page. Readers always know when the change is happening because of the line breaks and faithfully follow.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a powerful and moving story about a couple falling out of love after a tragedy during childbirth. We the reader know how each truly feels, although the characters can’t bring themselves to confide in each other. And so we must watch them drift apart when we know that either one of them could save their relationship if they only had the courage to open up.

Another reason I preach POV purity is for reader intimacy. Each jolt caused by an unexpected swap pulls the reader away from the story. Each bit of distance wedged between the reader and the story keeps them from connecting with and empathizing with the character. Enough jolts and your reader loses faith in you and stops trying to connect with your character. Then you have to work that much harder to gain them back.

And don’t even get me started on multiple first-person POVs!


August 20, 2013 · 1:17 am

2 responses to “Point of View

  1. Yes, I’ve noticed this problem a lot with self-published work. An otherwise great story becomes sloppy and confusing, and you end up putting it down.

  2. For me, it’s always painfully obvious when I read something that 9 times out of 10, the author doesn’t even realise they’ve head-hopped. Whereas when a POV change is done deliberately and carefully (even mid-scene if the author has learned their trade), it can be very effective.

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