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Avoid Being Branded as an Amateur: Use These 7 POV Basics

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In writing lingo we refer to point of view (POV) as the character through whom we tell the story. We get into the head of a particular character and see the story through her eyes. Sometimes we have one POV through the whole story. Other times we have multiple POVs.

Recently while reading a book, I became confused with some of the point of view changes. It was a really good story in many ways, and the author has had a long term writing career. So I was surprised to have to slog my way through several spots.

As I thought about the POV issues, I realized that during the last ten years, POV “rules” have grown more firm. Editors, agents, and readers want clear, concise, easy-to-read stories. Head-hopping can brand us as an amateur (even if we’re not). That means we have to make sure we understand some of the basics that go into having clear POVs.

So in the spirit of refreshing ourselves on some of the basic fiction-writing techniques (see Setting Basics & Dialog Basics), I thought I’d jot down a few of the POV basics that I try to incorporate in my writing:

1. Limit the number of POV characters within the book. We can’t get into the head of every character in our books. We should usually try to pick those characters we want our readers to care most about—usually the main characters (hero and heroine). Sometimes, I’ve seen writers tell snippets of the plot from the POV of the antagonist to add tension.

If we add too many POVs, we risk confusing our readers. We also risk developing shallower characters since we’ll have less time in each person’s head, giving our readers less of an opportunity to get to know and thus love the characters.

2. Introduce all the POV characters within the first few chapters. We won’t want to all-of-a-sudden halfway through the book throw in a new POV from one of our characters that hasn’t had a voice yet. It’s best if we introduce all of our POV characters fairly early in the story.

3. Delineate POV changes by a line break or chapter break. In other words, make it very clear when you’re switching to someone else’s POV. Hopping heads halfway through a scene just doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did).

If I want to change POV, I finish the scene first. Before I change POV, I move to a new stage, new setting, and new plot point. Of course, this means before starting each scene, I have to determine which POV character will help accomplish the goals for the scene most adequately. And if I need readers to “get in the head” of another POV character during that scene, then I have to SHOW the reactions (or wait to recap their thoughts when their POV comes along in a later scene).

4. After a POV break, clarify the new POV within the first sentence or two. I usually try to use the new POV character’s name in the first sentence. And if not, then I weave it in the second sentence so that my readers are clear right from the start of the scene whose head they’re in.

5. Bring in each POV character regularly. I don’t perfectly alternate scenes between my hero and heroine. Sometimes I may need a couple of scenes in my heroine’s POV or vice versa. But I try not to go too long in one person’s head. For those writing with three or more POVs, the juggling can get even more complicated. But we have to remember to keep all the balls in the air.

6. Beware of making POV scenes too short. Story pacing will play a role in how long our scenes are. When we find ourselves changing POV every few paragraphs or multiple times per scene, then we may begin to annoy our readers. If we don’t have a long enough scene, then perhaps we don’t have enough goals and need to consider how we can combine the scene with another.

7. Once in a POV, stick with it carefully. When we get into one of our character’s heads, we need to do the best we can to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and think about everything the way that particular character would. The more we can stay deep inside our POV character, the more alive that character will become to our readers.

Remember, we can’t have our characters noticing things about themselves that they wouldn’t normally see. If in doubt, use the mirror test: Am I describing something about my character she would see of herself (i.e. the protruding blue veins in her hand)? Or would she need a mirror to notice it (i.e. the color of her own eyes)?

If she needs a mirror, then she shouldn’t be thinking it about herself (unless she really is looking into a mirror, which incidentally has become a clich├ęd/taboo way of having characters describe themselves).

What other POV tips do you have? What's been your biggest struggle in handling POV changes? And if there are any topics/questions you’d like to see me cover in future blog posts, let me know in your comment!

41 comments:

  1. Hi Jody,

    I have a couple of questions for you.
    1) How longer (in say a 90k novel) do you think the average scene should be? I've heard editors are leaning toward shorter chapters these days because they're more attractive to readers (I think James Patterson's chapters are like five pages?) - is that the case in your experience?

    2) What is your view or having the same scene in both POVs? I'm working on a scene at the moment where I'd quite like to tell it in both POVs to contrast the girls' over analytical / dramatizing POV with the guys low key "what you see if what you get" POV but I'm not sure if it's a good idea.

    Thanks :)

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  2. Great questions, Kara! I'll take a quick shot at answering them. First I don't think there are any hard, fast rules about length of scenes. Yes, I do believe anything (chapters, paragraphs, sentences, scenes) that is too long could distract our readers. But I think scene length will have to do with our genre expectations, voice, and the pacing of our stories. My scenes typically go for about half a chapter (anywhere from 1000-2000 words). But that's just me. I tend to pack a LOT into each scene so I need the space to accomplish everything I want.

    As far as having the same scene in two POVs, I think again that will depend our your voice and story. I think it can be done, and I've seen it done well. But generally, I tend to see it as a cop-out, writers using it to avoid having to do the hard work of showing what the other characters are feeling and how they're reacting to the POV character. Instead of showing the reactions, they change POV and hop over into the head of the other character and use internal narration for the reaction.

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  3. Great advice. I once wrote a book with 8 povs, thankfully, I've come a long way and 2-3 are the most I do these days. These done, as you've suggested, chapter by chapter instead of during a scene.

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  4. Jody, So glad you posted this. These are lessons I've learned in my own writing, and errors that make me cringe when I read the work of others. Thanks for listing them all in one place.

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  5. Personally, number 2 isn't really an absolute.

    For example, the mid-point of the story is a nice opportunity to introduce a new POV, for the sake of presenting a perspective of the plot that wouldn't be plausible in Act I or II.

    Some foreshadowing would be needed, but the the second half of the book, especially if it's labeled with an unsubtle "Part Two", seems like a natural place to introduce one more POV character.

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  6. Some great advice there, thanks :)

    I'm currently working on a novel which is told in 3rd person, but, it also flits between the 4 main characters. I've been told that's omniscient?

    I've had one beta reader so far, who says it was like reading a film, the way it shifted from one scene to the next, like the reader is spying on conversations lol

    I'm not too sure now whether I should change it, but the whole novel has been written like that lol

    Xx

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  7. Vikki, Yes, generally novels can be told from 1st person, 3rd, or omniscient. It's a little tough to pull off multiple POVs with 1st person, although I have seen it done. I also think it's difficult to engage our readers with omniscient because we lack the deep POV that can get our readers inside the characters' heads which helps our readers know and understand motives better. However, I have read plenty of books in omniscient that I've liked. You'll just need to work harder to make your characters likable.

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    1. I think Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles is one of the best multiple 1st person POV examples out there. I was impressed how he smoothly transitioned between the two characters.

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  8. Some great, concise explanations about a complex topic. Thanks, Jody!

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  9. Great post, Jody! I've been thinking a lot about POV lately. I've only recently learned about deep POV...and it can be tricky! But it's always good to add another tool to the writer's toolbelt. :)

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  10. Thank you for breaking it down to the simple fundamentals. In my book I spend most of the time with one POV, but I do have a couple chapters told through someone else. It's an interesting thing to manage.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  11. Great thoughts and ideas here. Shifting POV's will throw me out of a story faster than anything.
    Thanks for putting it all into words!!

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  12. As writers we are most aware of points of view shifts BETWEEN characters. But the more subtle and jarring point of view shift is the one that goes from deep third person to omniscient. In other words, from inside the heroine to outside the heroine where she is looking at herself from outside...or is suddenly aware of what another character is thinking.

    In omniscient viewpoint the narrator can know things that the characters do not know...so when we shift from inside the character (deep third person) to outside the character (omniscient) it can be especially confusing to the reader.

    Like you, I've seen this done recently by some well known, well published authors. It still makes the difference between whether I will buy another book by that author. I probably won't. :(

    I do think that an author can do a signaled point of view shift midway through a scene. If they signal it well, do it correctly the reader will follow easily. It is a bit like making a signaled lane change on a busy highway.

    There are scenes where the emotion of the scene changes midway through the scene so that what started out as a scene in which the heroine had the most to lose changes through some event or realization so that the hero suddenly has the most to lose. In those cases I think it would not best serve the story to stay in the point of view of the character with the least to lose. In those situations it makes sense to do a signaled point of view shift.

    It should be noted that any point of view shift should happen at a paragraph break. It should not happen mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

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  13. This is a great checklist. I'm off to check my WIP for all these suggestions. Thank you, Jody.

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  14. Great checklist. POV is a tricky thing to master. Some, like Lisa Gardner, do an amazing job with several characters. For now, I'm sticking to two and the occasional antag pov. My pov changes at the end of the scene, but I also like to have one character who is the true lead. The story revolves around them, and the secondary protag gets about 40% of the narrative.

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  15. Excellent tips! #7 is my own personal pet peeve, particularly when an author is physically describing the POV character in ways that don't seem true to the character's personality, or at a time when the character isn't even thinking about appearance.

    Personally, I don't believe describing a person's looks is as important as some people think...even though it is fun to describe a character!

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  16. Great tips as always, Jody. Isn't it interesting how writing styles have changed? You're absolutely correct about POV being more of a 'big deal' than it was in years past. I think this can be said for a number of things, like long out descriptive passages, and even 'telling' vs showing.

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  17. This is my pet peeve. I've read a lot of books lately from authors that need to read this blog post. It absolutely ruins the flow of the story when you can't figure out whose head you're in!

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  18. This is great information, Jody. I know multiple POVs can sometimes be done well, but as a reader, I find it easier to really care about a character when the POV remains with her throughout the story. When POV shifts, it dilutes my emotional attachment. As a writer, that seems like a good reason for me to stick to one POV. :)

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  19. I have had exactly the same experience this week Jody: I am reading a best-selling author, and the constant head-hopping is certainly hard to get used to. I found myself turning to the publisher's notes to see when it was published - 1997. I thought exactly the same thing... stylistic trends must have changed since then. We are now strongly encouraged to write in deep POV, with only one POV per scene.

    In my own writing I find it a struggle sometimes to keep to the one POV because I want to reader to know what both of them are thinking. It is certainly a lot less flexible. I do have to use the recap technique even though it seems a bit lame. In scenes where my hero and heroine are equally invested, I find it a struggle to choose the POV. I still have some scenes in my current WIP in which I've head-hopped because I haven't made a final decision.

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  20. It's easier for me to read books that are told from the point of view of multiple narrators if I like all the narrators. There have been a couple books where I didn't like some of the narrators at all; that made me want to skip over their narration and focus on the characters that I did like.

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  21. Thanks for this post, Jodi. My books have "head-hopped" and it's been a challenge to get to understand and write from a specific (instead of omniscient) point of view. I'm still growing in this area and as I do a rewrite (from scratch) to try to do this well, it's a slower process. So much has to be left out and yet, my first readers so far are telling me it makes a MUCH better story. I'm trying to pay more attention to this as well in the books I read and have found that even good authors sometimes accidentally blur the lines. Still, I want to grow and this is where my focus is at the moment in developing skill here. Thanks for the tips!

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  22. I often write books with multiple POV. In one of them, I had three in the first draft (in the very very first draft I had one in 1st and another in 3rd. I changed that). In this one I introduced a character halfway through. Then when I finished it, I took the 3rd character out.

    In another book, I'm writing in 3rd person for three characters. I think two of them are very well developed, but I don't think the 3rd is very deep. :/ I'm not sure if I should keep her or not.

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  23. Hi Jodi, Great post with good points about POV, and a very good conversation in the comments section. (By the way, I love your Pinterest page--that's how I ended up here.)

    I love playing with POV--I think the choice of POV can change the meaning of an entire story/novel & bring ironies to life. In my latest novel, One Amazing Thing (Hyperion,2010) I decided to shift among all 9 characters--the reason was, this is a novel about creating community in crisis, & thus all the characters were equally important. It was a challenge, but for that novel I think it was the right strategy.

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  24. Hi Chitra! Love hearing that you found me through Pinterest! I'm always interested in knowing about the growing role of Pinterest. And 9 POV characters sounds VERY difficult! I'd be curious to hear what your readers thought of all the POVs!

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  25. Thank you for this Information Jody, I had a question about #2 though. I have a character planned who I want to do some POV snippets from at some point but I don't plan on even introducing this character until near mid-book of the first book. Any suggestions on how to best handle this?

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  26. I remember this in your first two books...it was really well done! Thanks for the reminders.

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  27. Eric, I think the first thing you should ask yourself is why you want to introduce another POV. What purpose will it serve the plot? Is it really necessary for the story?

    The other thing to consider is that any main character that is pivotal to the plot usually needs an introduction into the story fairly early on, even if you only mention them by name or allude to them.

    As one commentor mentioned above, you could possibly start a "Part 2" and introduce a new pivotal character, but that's a bit tricky. If you have to wait to introduce this character, you may want to ask yourself if you're starting your story in the right place? Perhaps you need to jump into your story a little later than you have?

    All that to say, each book is really an individualistic expression. If you can make it work, then go for it. Perhaps test it out on beta readers first to see what they think.

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  28. These are great points. However, like everything else in this business, they're not hard and fast rules. Best-selling author Allison Brennan had 13 POV characters in her first published book. Suzanne Brockmann is an expert on smooth transitions without the use of chapter or scene breaks. It's one of those, "learn the craft, do it well, then make it work for the story" things.

    Terry
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  29. I'd have to agree with all of these, especially keeping in that character's head for the duration of a scene. It just gets too confusing otherwise.

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  31. Another great post. My current book, which is about to be self-published because it's a novella and I can't query agents on a novella, is written in multiple POVs/3rd Person. The story just doesn't work otherwise. if it's only written in my heroine's point-of-view. Finale. Done. I'm going to give my readers a delicious, colorful world involving my villain and I want them to be on the edge of their seats with worry and anticipation. I have let my followers know up front that the story is written in multiples. I should just slap a red warning label on the cover!! LOL. It's not because it's my writing style; I can certainly write in 1 POV. My freelance editor suggested that I keep one POV in an entire chapter and I've adhered to her suggestion to keep confusion minimal.

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  32. OW! That hurt. I just spent 5 minutes pulling my hair out... SO if multiple POVs is passe (pass-ay)then I must be old? No. Hmmm. My WIP has 2 brothers and 2 sisters. I cannot tell my story without those 4 people. Because the story is about those 4 people and how one couple has everyone going for them, and the other couple struggles. That kind of nut-shelled it, but that's basically it. I LIKE sweeping epics. There. I said it! And clearly, they like me because they live in my head. As I said to a friend, I like layers of characters all moving our hero and heroine toward each other to a beautiful ending. Is there no room in the inn for a good thick epic?

    Gah. I should have taken up skateboarding.

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  33. Jennifer, If your story demands 4 POV's, then go for it! There are no hard fast rules for how many POV's are appropriate. I think it's going to depend on the story itself. However, I do think writers need to seriously consider why they're adding in POV's and whether it really adds to the story/plot or not. Most of the time, I think we add in more POV because we don't really know how to SHOW the reactions and emotions of the minor characters. Jumping inside their heads is a short cut, but may not be the best way to bring depth to the story.

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  34. Aw thank you Jody. As forminor characters, let me give you an example, because I know you have tonnes of free time... kidding! One of the people who rescues my heroine is an ex-prostitute. Why? Because God uses what society considers the lowest of the low to redeem and release those who need someone who understands being in the pit of despair. One of the prostitute's lines, in speaking to the heroine, is "Wanting to save you is what saved me".

    I wrote my story like a collection of tributaries all flowing toward a mighty river. It's long and I won't apologize for that. But I do need to master multiple POVs.

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  35. And I do "show", but I need their help in a broader sense. But the minors are only there to move the story along. Our heroine can't bust out of a dungeon alone.

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  36. There is a difference between a pov character and a character that isn't pov. Of course we need other characters but we don't need every character's perspective. Write in first person if you want a lesson in strict pov! I am a short story writer so I mostly stick to one pov but I have a wip that moves from objective third in the opening scene, to the male lead, to the female, back to the male and back to objective. There is intentional framing going on and I am anxious about how it will be received. Pov is probably the most subtle and intuitive thing to grasp as a new writer.

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  37. Not to send folks away from Jody's blog...lol...but this post gives some great insight into the use of 'psychic distance' when it comes to POV changes. If done well, the transition in mid-scene can be seamless. [10 out of 12 Betas agree!]

    http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html

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  38. Thanks Jody! Rereading my draft I got annoyed at my own characters heads, so clearly, I need to redefine who's heads I'm in. I'm actually making it hero & villain, so it at least makes the scenes easier to manage. Hopefully it works, and hopefully by the time they confront each other, I've been in their heads long enough that readers will grasp what they feel without over-writing it. I guess the truth is, like the expression, "just because it pops into your head, doesn't mean you should say it" also applies to "just because your characters think it, doesn't mean reader needs to know it."

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    1. Hi Heather, So glad the post gave you some ideas for your characters. I like both of your sayings. They're SO true! Our readers are usually smarter than we give them credit for! Wishing you all the best!

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  39. Hi Jodi,
    If I write a YA novel in first, but want to have a short snippet or two in third from the antagonist's POV, would that be okay?

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