Point of View shifts

Point of view is a tricky thing and it often trips up writers. When revising your manuscript, it’s a good thing to relook at each scene for any POV slip.

POV can, of course, be done using first, second, or third person. It can be done through the eyes of one person, usually the sleuth. The first-person sleuth can be the narrator, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, or the narrator could be a sidekick, like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Here, from A Scandal in Bohemia:

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.”

The sleuth’s POV can also be done through third person, as in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series. As a reader, we still connect with the sleuth, but the author is also allowed to describe the sleuth and perhaps give us other information outside the sleuth’s knowledge.

You can also have multiple narrators, alternating chapters or scenes. Some crime fiction has two sleuths, or a novelist may alternate between the sleuth and a killer (but beware of this, as many readers hate, hate, hate a killer’s POV—and it’s been a bit overdone).

The rule of thumb, however you do it, is to limit the number of narrators and to have only one POV per scene (some say per chapter). To jump from one point of view to another is called “head-hopping,” and many editors/agents consider this the mark of an amateur. This limits the reader’s capacity to bond and empathize with one character, mainly the sleuth. It may also be confusing or throw the reader out of the story.

Take this example:

Joe nervously held the gun out to Rich, hoping he wouldn’t accept it. (Joe’s POV)

or

Joe held the gun out, tentatively, Rich thought. He suspected Joe didn’t want to give it up. (Rich’s POV)

or

Joe held the gun out to Rich, hoping he wouldn’t accept it. He really doesn’t want to give it up, thought Rich. (This is head-hopping, and not recommended.)

However, having said that, some very well-known authors do head-hopping and get away with it. Mary Higgins Clark uses a variety of POVs, and increases the number of POV changes near the climax, as she increases the tension leading to the final crisis. Louise Penny also does this in her Gamache novels, which involve a lot of soul searching and inner turmoil among the main characters. But she is so skilled in this that most readers don’t seem to mind (although, if you look at her online reviews, you’ll find some readers do complain of the head-hopping).

Romance novels (and therefore romantic suspense) also allow for sudden POV shifts between the two romantic leads.

What are the advantages of multiple POVs? Some say that the reader gets a broader picture, and so the story is more well-rounded. You get to know the different characters better if you are seeing events through their eyes. Ultimately, whether you have one or more narrators is up to you, and the structure of the book.

But when revising, ask yourself these questions:

  •  Am I diluting the book, or even a scene, by using more than one POV?
  • If I’m including more than one POV, does it detract from my main character? Is the reader still getting a good picture of my main character?
  • Am I intentionally including a POV shift where I don’t mean to?
  • Have I carefully signaled a POV change to the reader?

What do you think of POV shifts? Is this a problem in your writing — or reading?

2 thoughts on “Point of View shifts

  1. I find head hopping very distracting. I am fine with changing POV in a chapter if its clearly marked – otherwise, I find myself pulled out of the story. And there are some where the multiple POV was extremely effective and added to the story. As you noted, it can work but for most stories, I get invested in the characters and comfortable with how the writer is moving between them fairly early. If its too hard to figure out, I’ll likely put is aside.

  2. I’m a fan of the In Death series by J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) which is written in a full blown head hopping style. When done well, I enjoy being able to move through all the main characters’ thoughts.

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