Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Ramble on Point of View ...

Point of View (POV or PV) is something a lot of beginning writers don't understand. As a manuscript appraiser and editorial consultant, it is one of the most common newbie writer mistakes - I think, because until you start writing, you don't even realise that there is such a thing as POV.

I used to do Editorial Consultancies for our state writers centre. These were 1.5 hour long sessions, where I read the person's work beforehand and then talked them through writing craft issues, made suggestions as to groups they could join, answered their questions about the industry etc. One person I worked with had 11 POV changes between 3 characters in 4 pages. And some of these POV changes were within a single paragraph. (Warning, extreme Head Hopping). So I spent the hour and a half explaining about:

When to change POV - when you want to reveal something specific.
How to change POV - preferably at a scene or chapter break. But if you do it mid scene, telegraph it by saying Character B felt ... As soon as you use a verb like 'felt' the reader knows you are in that character's POV.
How many POVs to use - Not too many or you dilute the narrative drive. (Of course if you are George RR Martin, it doesn't seem to matter. LOL).

When I wrote the King Rolen's Kin trilogy, I stuck to three POVs because I wanted the narrative to revolve tightly around those three characters. But there are many well known writers who don't follow these guidelines. Nora Roberts (a best seller) head hops all over the place and her readers love her. Either they don't notice, or it doesn't worry them, or the trade off is that they feel connected to the characters and swept along by the narrative.

What triggered this post was a Bernard Cornwall (another best seller) book set in the fourteenth century. I enjoy Cornwall's books. But I could not switch off the internal editor because he was head hopping all over the place. Again, I think his reader's don't mind because he delivers a ripping yarn. The character went from one confrontation to the next at break neck speed. The good guys are good (but not too good) and the bad guys are really bad, even if they believed they were doing the right thing.

That's the thing about POV, it can take you right into the mind of the villain and reveal not only his motivation, but his justification. I like to write what I call Deep POV. Imagine writing in first person, that immediacy and intimacy, but doing it from third person. That's what I try to achieve.

Currently, I'm working on book two of The Outcast Chronicles. I have four POVs. I needed the four character POVs because I needed to interweave four narrative threads. Because each book is around 150,000 words I need to keep track of what has happened in each scene, whose POV the scene is in and what page numbers it covers. So this is what I do, I colour code each POV.

This way I can see at a glance, how much time each character is getting on centre stage. Since I am slightly obssessive and suffer from synaesthesia, I colour code according to personality, because colours have personalities for me. (If the colour I choose for the character isn't quite right, it feels like a badly fitted coat).

By writing a quick line about the scene, I jog my memory. Then, if I get a sudden inspiration to add one sentence that plants a clue for a revelation 400 pages later, I can go to exactly the right scene in the right book and slip the clue in, without trawling through scene after scene trying to find the right spot.

Colour coding POVs also helps because, before I hand in the books, I do a read-through, following each indvidual character's narrative, to make sure that their story arc is satisfying. By colour coding their POV scenes, I can spot them at a glance. Being naturally lazy, this is very satisfying.

These are my little tricks when writing. What are your little quirks?


Brendan said...

I am not sure I have any tricks or quirks yet but on of the short stories I am writing really suprised me when I finally figured out who the POV character was.

It is a SF tale with a scientist, his daughter, and the aliens he is studying. Originally the story was to focus on the scientific team and there problems(which get solved by the daughter) but as soon as I made the father the POV it became about his relationship with his daughter, a soliloquy of doubts, regrets and worries. I have him so firmly ensconced now I couldn't go back to writing the original idea if I tried.

Francis Turner said...

On the whole I hate it when the PoV changes mid chapter/section. There are, of course, exceptions but mostly excessive head hopping is bad.

I think for the most part having one PoV per chapter and ending the chapter when the PoV needs to change works well. Certainly it seems like a good rule for a n00b (e.g. me)

Bruce H. Johnson said...

Might also try a modified diary format. I use 1st-person POV. When it switches:


My readers didn't seem to mind and it sure helps me.

MataPam said...

While climbing up the learning curve, I used to print out each scene separately, shuffle them accord to POV and read through each character's parts, to get some sense of where they went, when.

Then I had to see when they showed up in other POV scenes and make sure they got there on time.

I must be getting better, the process is so much less laborious, these days.

Anonymous said...

I've never struggled with POVs much, but I've always adhered to the KISS principle, Keep It Simple, Stupid. My short stories are one POV. I'm very linear that way. What I find interesting is that my two pro sales are both third POV, deep POV, as you call it. I went deep into character, just from third POV.

As I write NaNoWriMo, and I use the word "write" loosely, I am finding that third POV isn't working for me. I'm going to have to change it to first person. Or go a lot deeper on the third, though I'm preferring first person at this point. I just think it will work well.

Personally, I adore first person, for reading and writing. I find it allows me to creep into the character on a much more personal basis. I also adore narrated movies with the main character helping us along the story (e.g. Ferris Bueller's Day Off, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Murder of Crows). It really drops me into a story.

I have a theory as to why I prefer and adore first person. As I write, I'm discovering that I'm much more of a character writer than anything else. That could be why I love first person.

I realize that first person is rather limiting as to plotting, but with regards to this YA novel, it's sustainable.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


That is a really organic way of writing. Some people can plan, Oh I'm going to write an insightful story about a scientist's relationship with his daughter while solving a life and death scientific mystery. LOL

But I'd be like you. I'd start with the premise and maybe one character. And then the story would grow as I wrote. And yes, settling into the right POV would make the story come to life.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Francis sad:

On the whole I hate it when the PoV changes mid chapter/section. I think for the most part having one PoV per chapter and ending the chapter when the PoV needs to change works well.

This was why I switched to doing the one POV per scene. With my first trilogy I followed all the rules when I changed POV. I signalled it. I only did it once in a scene to reveal something the other person had misunderstood. And still people tripped over it.

So I thought Keep it Simple. It just makes the narrative flow smoother.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Modified diary would work, if that was you stylistic choice.

In my current WIP, The Outcast Chronicles, I have 4 POVs. I change with each new scene and to ground people in their POV I use their name to start the the first sentence of each new scene and I 'bold' it in 16 point. This may seem excessive, but I thought it looks rather nice on the page, almost like an illustrated manuscript.

Don't know if the publishers will use it in the final edition. We'll see.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Printing out you ms is a really good idea. I find even if I have read something umpteen times on screen, once I print it out and sit there with a pen, I spot more mistakes, or clumsy phrases. You just see it differently.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Anonymous Linda,

I came across one writing book where the author said I accord my characters the same courtesy I accord my friends. They all have their own identity so I never use first person - paraphrasing here. I read this years ago.

So, being a newbie writer I veered away from first person. But I've come back to it. There are definitely reasons to use it.

While first person can be challenging from a narrative stand point, I really like it. This 'limitation' can be turned into a plus. A simple example is when writing a mystery. You can only reveal with the first person narrator knows, overhears, or discovers. This raises the tension immediately. And it is more like real life, in that we are always observing others, trying to work out what their motivations are.

First person has the character's 'flavour' right away. It can be more colloquial. You can play with the narrative. ie. You can let the character lie, either deliberately, or by accident because they misunderstand something, or because they lie to themselves.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Whether POV shifts -- other than by scene -- are tolerated at all depends on the genre you write in. I don't know about YA fantasy, but in grown up (adult sounds JUST wrong as in pervie) fantasy they tend not to want you to shift except at the scene break/chapter break.

In Romance, OTOH they're not only tolerated, they're expected. if you don't do it, the readers get upset. I think this is because in Romanc it is the story of a COUPLE (or more) and to get the right romantic tension you need to know the lovers are starcrossed and he doesn't REALLY hate her, but is only snarling because he thinks she despises him, etc.

George RR Martin et al -- it has changed over time too. Even twenty years ago, head-hopping was far more common.

I don't think it has so much to do with how "ripping" the yarn is, as with what the public expects -- hence the time/genre bound "expectations."

Me, I'm divided. As "free" as third person multiple POV makes me, I think I still prefer first person narrative, where I can hear the character in my mind.

As for my hangups -- the main one seems to be names. If I don't have the name of the character (or the title of the story) right, I can't write it.

Mike said...

Quick thought -- one of the things I hate is a book that starts with a stretch of third-person names, then finally settles into someone's head -- and it isn't the one I thought it was going to be (typically the first person mentioned). I sometimes have to go back and reread the beginning, now that I know "who" I'm supposed to be.

I think this probably indicates a rewrite of the intro, without realizing that the confusion of names now misleads the reader.

Same thing sometimes happens at the start of later chapters.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Sarah.

There is a genre expectation.

Names are really important. Can you imagine:

Bob, the Barbarian?

Doesn't have the same ring as Connan, the Barbarian!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


The reader should 'know' who they are supposed to identify with. That's the whole point of POV.

Mike said...

Absolutely. But there are books out there which have a bit of confusion at the start...