Writing Wrongs: Mind Your POV P's and Q's

Imagine the parents of a small child telling her to never climb trees, and then that same child witnessing older kids climbing trees with agility. She'll probably feel confused—if it's bad to climb trees, how are those kids getting away with it?


Lots of writing "rules" are only partly true—or true to a point—and implying something is wrong when in fact it's merely risky, difficult to pull off for a novice, or out of style is patronizing to writers.



The best foundation for editing fiction is to read fiction. A lot. Consuming a plethora of well-written, well-edited fiction trains your mind to recognize when something isn't quite working. And then editing courses and texts teach you why it isn't working, and how to fix it.


But sometimes a little education can mess with the instincts that were honed by extensive reading; editors can learn "rules" that they feel obligated to follow even when their gut is telling them the writing is working just fine as is.


When I first set out to learn more about point of view in fiction writing, I turned to Google, which offered up blog posts that contained overviews of the different POV choices. While first person and second person are fairly straightforward, third person is a rather complex subject and the often oversimplified—and sometimes contradictory—explanations in these overviews confused me. I ended up with some misconceptions about point of view that weren't cleared up until I did a deep dive, reading books about POV instead of summaries. (My reading list is at the bottom of the post.)



The misconceptions


Do you believe these POV half-truths?



X Never shift viewpoint character mid-scene unless you're writing in omniscient voice. This is always head-hopping.


If you're a new writer trying to get an agent and writing in third limited, you should probably follow the standard advice and only change viewpoint character after a chapter or scene break. But some writers manage to shift POV gracefully mid-scene, even when they aren't writing in omniscient voice. And while this technique has fallen out of favor, it used to be quite common in romance. If done well, this is not head-hopping. I love Alicia Rasley's definition of head-hopping as "POV promiscuity ... the indiscriminate switching between characters." (Emphasis mine.)


And for proof that accomplished authors use this technique, check out this example from Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, which came out in 2009.



The first two paragraphs are from Sugar Beth's point of view. "Smug contempt" is her observation, and Colin can't know that her spirits were lifted (though an omniscient narrator could).


You may think this sounds like omniscient, but since the highlighted words in the narrative are the characters' voices—first Sugar Beth's and then Colin's—instead of an omniscient narrator's, this is third person limited with a mid-scene shift in viewpoint character. Everything in the chapter up to this point was from Sugar Beth's point of view, and everything that follows is from Colin's point of view.


How does Phillips—a traditionally published, successful novelist—pull this off?


She prepares the reader for the transition by increasing the narrative distance with filter words* ("she told herself" rather than simply "She wasn't that desperate yet"), then uses the clear transition "from across the room, Colin," which takes the reader by the hand and guides them out of Sugar Beth's head and into Colin's. And the first actions she has him perform can only be done from his point of view: he watches Sugar Beth's face and knows he ought to feel guilty. "Watched" and "knew" are filter words, which maintain some narrative distance and gently ease the transition into Colin's point of view, which begins to deepen with "bloody well intended."


Phillips then stays with Colin for the rest of the scene rather than bouncing back to Sugar Beth, and does similar transitions throughout the book so the reader isn't caught unprepared.


Deliberate, controlled switching—nothing indiscriminate about it.


(See the chapter on multiple third in The Power of POV by Alicia Rasley for more guidance on how to shift POV smoothly.)



X If you're writing in omniscient third, then shifting viewpoint character mid-scene is never head-hopping.


What makes a POV omniscient isn't the ability to hop into any character's head whenever you want. Instead, stories in omniscient third are told from one POV: the narrator's. The narrator has the ability to peer inside each character's head and report what they find there. But even when the narrator focuses on the thoughts and feelings of a particular character, the story is still being told from the narrator's POV. And when the narrator switches the focus to a different character, it needs to be purposeful and controlled, clear to the reader yet subtle enough to not distract.


This is one that confused me at first. I would get a manuscript with jarring POV shifts that felt like head-hopping, but would feel constrained by the author's claim to be writing in omniscient. Fortunately, I soon learned that writing in omniscient voice doesn't make indiscriminate hopping from one head to another okay (and calling a manuscript omniscient doesn't magically fix head-hopping issues). If the shift from one character's thoughts to another's trips up the reader, it's head-hopping. Regardless of whether you've chosen limited or omniscient third.



X Pick a POV and then stick with it.


This is another good guideline that can nevertheless lead newbie writers and editors astray. This can be misunderstood to mean that you must stay at the same narrative distance throughout your book, that if you choose a subjective or objective omniscient POV for your opening scene, you must stay in omniscient the entire book—or that if you want to write in deep third, you can never zoom out and observe action from a greater distance. But an entire book with a distant narrator can feel flat or old-fashioned, and an entire book in deep third can be too intense. It's the flexibility of third person that makes it such a complex and versatile POV.


The confusion appears to arise from the way the term point of view is used to describe both the overarching POV of a novel, chapter, scene and the subtle shifts of narrative distance that can happen within a scene, especially in third person. I certainly got confused by this when I was first trying to wrap my head around third person. But in an otherwise third limited story, an omniscient narrator/authorial voice can make itself present in opening scenes and in transitions. See my analysis of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone below.


This misconception can also lead writers to believe they can't mix first and third in the same book, or second and third, or mix narrative tenses. There are plenty of books that have chapters or scenes in first person and others in third. There are books where the villain's chapters are in second person, while the rest of the book is in third. Dickens mixed present tense narrative with past tense narrative in many of his novels. As long as the choice serves the story and the transitions are clear, this is completely fine.



X You can't mix omniscient third and limited third POV.


Strictly speaking, when you have an omniscient narrator, all the words in the narrative should belong to that narrator's voice. So if a character is described as a "stupid girl," that's the narrator's opinion, not one of the characters'.


Contrast that to writing in limited, where the narrator's voice is either objective or aligned with the character's voice, depending on the narrative distance. Any subjective words in the narrative are perceived to be those of the point-of-view character.


But you only have to examine the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to see that this isn't always true.


The first chapter appears to open in limited (though limited to a family, not an individual), but it sounds to me like an omniscient narrator echoing/acting out the Dursley's words (as some storytellers are wont to do), but still telling the story from the position of external observer. And with "our story starts," it becomes quite clear there's an omniscient narrator.


In my opinion, J. K. Rowling's choice to include words directly from the Dursleys (highlighted below) sets up a clear expectation for the reader that omniscient and limited will be blended in the chapter to follow.



From there, the focus descends into Mr. Dursley's limited POV (this could also be omniscient that is focusing on only one character)...



... then goes deeper as his thoughts and voice merge with the narrative. I highlighted in yellow those words that clearly belong to Mr. Dursley, not the narrator.



Then it swiftly zooms back out and shifts to omniscient with this sentence:


After a brief omniscient observation of those people "pointing and gazing open-mouthed as owl after owls sped overhead," Mr. Dursley is once again featured, and objective descriptions of his actions are interspersed with zooms into deep POV, almost stream-of-consciousness:

Ending with this omniscient transition sentence:

After this, the rest of the chapter is in omniscient, though with a more objective feel, as multiple characters are observed and overheard (Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and baby Harry) with very little reporting on anyone's thoughts or feelings.


Most of the rest of the book is in third limited, from Harry's perspective, with a notable exception. At the second quidditch match, there's an omniscient scene that takes place in the stands—while Harry is up on his broom—that includes Neville, Ron, and Hermione.


I've read this book multiple times over the years, and never once stumbled over the POV/narrative distance shifts (or even noticed them, really). They're seamless. So, if done well, a narrative can move from distant subjective omniscient to a deep limited point-of-view and back again.



The truth


In summary, you can break POV "rules" if you do it well enough that it doesn't bother the reader.


However, if a beta reader or editor brings up these "rules" to you, don't dismiss their concerns out of hand. While it's possible they're misapplying these half-truths as absolute law ... it's also possible they're noticing something amiss in your manuscript.


 

*Filter words are words that describe the action of experiencing something with your senses, rather than the thing itself. For example: "I noticed that her hair was an unusual shade of red" vs. "Her hair was an unusual shade of red." Filter words increase narrative distance, so are useful when switching point of view within a scene.


 

Reading recommendations


Books

  • The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

  • Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card


Articles

It wasn't until I googled "narrative distance" that I discovered in-depth blog articles on third person POV.