In POV 101, I discussed the effectiveness of starting out your story in your protagonist’s point of view and staying there for most of the story.
But what if you want to show how other people are feeling? If they’re important characters, like the villain, a romantic interest, or a close friend or family member, you give them their own POV scenes, where you get into their heads and we see their thoughts, emotions, goals, aspirations and fears.
If they’re in the same scene as your main character, you show their thoughts, feelings and attitude through their words, tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Say you’re writing a romantic suspense or mystery, 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, since we’re still in the same scene. 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.”
Here’s an example of a viewpoint gaffe: Our heroine, Carole, is stirring the spaghetti sauce on the stove and talking to her husband on the phone. They’re discussing the fact that their son, Colton, is grounded. Suddenly, the author jumps into her son’s head and tells us about Colton sneaking by behind her back (his rap music is playing loudly in his room), and out the front door, then jumping on his bike and racing off. Back to Carole, who continues to stir the spaghetti and talk on the phone. What’s wrong here? We were in Carole’s POV, and she had her back turned so she wouldn’t know Colton was sneaking past, especially with all that noise coming from his room. And how would she know he’s riding away on his bike? Another jarring POV shift in the same scene would be if we suddenly started seeing her husband waving his secretary away because he’s in an important conversation. We’re in Carole’s POV in this scene, and she can’t see what her husband is doing at his office.
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, http://www.JodieRennerEditing.com, April 2012
Resource for POV 102: “POV or: Whose Head Am I in, Anyway?” by Cynthia VanRooy http://romance.fictionfactor.com/articles/pov.html In POV 103, we’ll discuss Deep Point of View, or Close Third-Person POV
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in suspense/thrillers, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as YA, historical and mainstream. Jodie’s craft-of-fiction articles appear regularly here and on 5 other blogs. For more info on Jodie’s editing services and for links to more of her posts, please visit www.JodieRennerEditing.com.
May 24, 2012 at 10:31 am
This is a super useful post – and it’s clearly written by an editor / writer for use by writers! Thank you.
May 24, 2012 at 10:45 am
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Jeffle!
May 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm
Great advice. I’m reading a mystery that’s using far too many POVs. The author waits to change POV in a new scene or chapter, but it’s still too much jarring to constantly switch back and forth. The author started the book with one character for many pages then switched to the “real” protagonist and is spending most of the time with him. We occassionally see the antagonist–that’s okay–but other minor characters pop in for a scene or two and they are not very interesting. I wish the author would just stick with the protagonist rather than trying to cover all the bases.
May 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm
Good information and I like the use of colored pens to help authors. Another trick is to write the scene in first person and then you know when you’re out of POV. As for asterisks to divide sections within a chapter, I was taught always to use them for three changes: Time, place and POV.
May 25, 2012 at 6:53 am
Thanks for your comment, Sally. I think starting your book with someone other than the protagonist is just too frustrating to readers, who start getting emotionally invested in that person, only to discover he’s not the one they’re really supposed to be rooting for. They feel cheated, like,”Why did I waste my time worrying about this guy?” Sometimes it works to start with the antagonist, but for debut authors, I strongly suggest starting with the protagonist, for greater reader involvement and satisfaction – and no confusion! And stay out of the POV of minor characters, unless there’s a really good reason for it!
May 25, 2012 at 6:56 am
Thanks for dropping by, Phyllis. I really like your idea of writing a scene in first-person first, to get the POV right. Then you can change it to third-person. This trick is especially useful for newbie novelists who are still having trouble with viewpoint.
Steven Kerry Brown
May 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm
Jodie, Jodie, Jodie, I know that it is popular to call changing POV within a scene or a paragraph “head hopping.” It is currently popular to rant against it. But if it’s done well then it is not jarring to the reader. As an example, pull off from your bookshelf the Summer of 42 by Herman Raucher and read the movie house scene. It is hilarious, and the POV switches back and forth, back and forth, and it works very well and I think you’ll find it flows smoothly and does not confuse the reader.
Or pull out Lonesome Dove by Larry Mcmurtry. He does it well but not, in my opinion, as well as Raucher. You can even change POV within one sentence. Here’s and example. “He wanted in, she wanted out.” You’re in his head and then her head and I don’t think that is confusing at all.
Just my opinion.
May 26, 2012 at 6:53 pm
I don’t really go by what’s popular, but more like what draws me into a book so I want to stick with it, not toss it aside. And it’s identifying with and bonding with and worrying about a likeable but flawed character that does that.Omniscient point of view is fine for historical sagas, but give me the intimacy of getting up close and personal with a character any time. Call me a voyeur! LOL
I haven’t read either of those books, nor do I have them on my bookshelf to pull out, but it’s easy to stay in one POV and still know what other people are feeling and how they’re reacting, by their words, actions, body language, facial expressions, tone, etc. And it’s enriched by “our” POV character’s reactions to these indicators. Then in the next scene or chapter, youas writer get to go exclusively into the head and heart of the other character if you want to, without confusing or irritating the readers.
May 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm
Leigh D. Muller, whom I met recently at the Tallahassee Writers’ Conference, expressed it so well in her comment to another post of mine, “Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction”. I had said, “it’s all about deeper characterization and engaging your readers more and faster.”
Here’s Leigh’s excellent comment: “Exactly. I couldn’t sleep last night. I tried reading several different novels, but none of them engaged me. I finally realized this was because none of them gave me a character to climb inside, someone I could experience the story through. The best writers write from an emotional viewpoint. Action happens, conflicts are won and lost, but it is the inner dialogue that captures and pulls the reader along because it is visceral. And the closer a reader can come to BEING the character, the better. Writers accomplish this by cutting out the layers of separation between the reader and the character, just as Jodie has explained so well.”
July 2, 2012 at 11:18 am
I agree completely. If I am not able to really engage with a character, then the book doesn’t keep my interest.
Nancy M. Griffis
May 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm
Reblogged this on Nancy M. Griffis and commented:
more good advice!
May 28, 2012 at 7:00 am
Great! Thanks, Nancy!