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.)
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.
He made no effort to hide his smug contempt, and she told herself she
wasn't this desperate yet. Except she was.
He named a salary that lifted her spirits, and she shot into the living room.
"I'll take it! You mean for a day, right?"
From across the room, Colin watched Sugar Beth's entire face light up
and knew he should feel like a cad. He didn't, of course. He hadn't felt
better since the day she'd arrived. ... He didn't plan to destroy her, but he
bloody well intended to see some flesh wounds, or at the very least, a few
honest tears of regret.
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.
How does Susan Elizabeth 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 subjective or objective omniscient for your opening scene, you must stay in omniscient the entire book, or if you want to write in deep third, you can never zoom out and observe action from a greater distance. But an entire book in omniscient can be flat or feel 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 POV is used to describe both the overarching POV of a novel, chapter, scene and the subtle shifts of POV/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 POV. 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.
You only have to examine the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to see that this isn't true. Strictly speaking, when you have an omniscient narrator, all the words in the narrative should belong to that narrator's voice, and when you write in limited, then the narrator's voice aligns with the character's voice at times and the words in the narrative are perceived as those of the character. But there are exceptions to this.
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.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.
When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday our story starts ..."
From there, the focus descends into Mr. Dursley's limited POV (this could also be omniscient that is focusing on only one character)...
"At half past eight, Mr. Dursley picked up his briefcase ..."
... then goes deeper as his thoughts and voice merge with the narrative. I highlighted in yellow words that clearly belong to Mr. Dursley's voice, not the narrator's.
"Mr. Dursley couldn't bear people who dressed in funny clothes—the getups you saw on young people! He supposed this was some stupid new fashion. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and his eyes fell on a huddle of these weirdos standing quite close by."
Then it swiftly zooms back out and shifts to omniscient with this sentence:
"He didn't see the owls swooping past in broad daylight, though people down in the street did."
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.
"..no, he was being stupid. Potter wasn't such an unusual name. ... He'd never even seen the boy. It might have been Harvey. Or Harold. There was no point in worrying Mrs. Dursley; she always got so upset at any mention of her sister. He didn't blame her—if he'd had a sister like that ... but all the same, those people in cloaks ..."
... ending with this omniscient transition sentence:
"How very wrong he was."
After this, the rest of the chapter is in omniscient, though with an objective feel, and 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 shifts (or even noticed them, really). They're seamless.
The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley
Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
It wasn't until I googled "narrative distance" that I discovered in-depth blog articles on third person POV.
"Understanding Third-Person Point of View: Omniscient, Limited, and Deep" by Tiffany Yates Martin.
"Third Person Narration: Using the Zoom Lens" by Sarah Callender
"Deep POV and Narrative Distance—Part 1" by Beth Hill
"Narrative Distance" by Jennifer Ellis
"Psychic Distance: What It Is and How to Use It" by Emma Darwin