Point of View

pov.jpg The debate rages on — should we or shouldn’t we shift Point of View in the middle of a scene? I admit to being something of a “POV Purist” — I believe that a writer should only switch POV at a scene, chapter, or part break. Here’s why:

First, there’s no compelling reason to “head-hop.” Usually the arguments for shifting run along the lines of “I just feel like it — and my writing is so intuitively brillliant, don’t stifle my creativity with no stinkin’ rules.” The other argument is that “Ms. Big-Name Author shifts POV all the time, and she gets away with it!” I would argue that she gets away with it precisely because she is already a Big-Name Author for other reasons, and that her books are good in spite of POV shifting, not because of it.

The reasons not to do it are far more compelling:

Shifting POV in the middle of a scene, especially when it’s done more than once, is called “head-hopping,” and every time you do it, the reader is jarred out of the story for a second to figure out, “Oh, now we’re in his head.” You never want technical aspects to interfere with the reader being caught up in the story. 

Another problem is that when you shift POV this way, it dilutes the emotion. We want to get into a character’s head and heart, to feel emotions right along with that character. When you shift POV, many different thoughts and emotions are quickly scanned over, so we don’t get to really feel any of them very deeply.

The way to fix these problems is to decide at the beginning of each scene whose POV it will be in. This is usually the character who has the most to lose in that scene or who will be most impacted by it. Then stay in that character’s POV for the whole scene, shifting only at a scene or chapter break.

It follows that during that scene, we can only know, see, hear, smell, feel what that particular character knows, sees, hears, smells, feels, etc.

Point of View may seem like a boring minor technical detail, but it is actually one of the biggest reasons why editors reject books. It is also one of the biggest, most glaring mistakes I see in editing the books of beginning writers. 

So I shall remain a POV Purist. If an author wants to head-hop, she’d better be sure she knows what she’s doing. And she’d better be doing it for a particular reason, not because she hasn’t mastered this important writing skill. 


3 thoughts on “Point of View

  1. I gotta say that I am probably a POV purist, as well. I hate it when there is head-hopping because, as you said, I have to stop and think whose character’s POV I’m in and that takes me out of the story.

  2. I don’t head-hop, but I am willing to change POV mid-scene once if there’s a compelling reason for it, especially if it’s a long scene, and then I always insert a couple of blank lines.

  3. This post raises some well-made points–good clear reasoning on why NOT to head-hop.

    My practice at this point is to change chapters with every POV change.

    I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s BLESSINGS; she does a great job with limited omniscience. One day I’m going to try it…

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