Writers in the Storm

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March 15, 2013

Point of View: Choosing Whose Head To Be In

How do you choose whose head to be in?? *

How do you choose whose head to be in?? *

by Sharla Rae

The first thing writers learn about Point of View, or POV, is that it refers to whose head we’re in.

In other words: through whose perspective will the reader experience the sounds, smells, actions and emotions of a story/scene?

Seems simple, but as writers it isn’t always easy to decide which character should be showing the story at a given point.

First, decide the type of POV you want to use.

Author omniscient or Omniscient narrator is when the all-knowing author narrates the story. Currently it’s out of fashion.

First person POVs are viewed from one person’s perspective, the character who is telling the story.  It's not always to easy to write, but when it comes to choosing POV, it’s simple; there’s only one choice.

Third person is especially popular in romance, and it’s not unusual to see three or more character POVs. We learn what’s happening through the outside voice of one of the characters in a scene.

Note: It’s the third person stories with multiple viewpoints that we’re discussing here.

How does a writer choose the point-of-view character in any given scene?

In some scenes, there’s only one character on stage so no problem. In most cases there’s at least two.

The reader may not understand a character’s actions/reactions unless they are in his head or have been at some point. The motivation and action/reaction elements tie into the whose-head decision.

In critique, we decided the most important POV element determining whose POV should be used is emotion – the character’s and the reader’s. A scene has more “pow” if we’re in the head of the person who is emotionally involved and/or has the most at stake.

Again, seems simple. But maybe not.

Sometimes two characters are experiencing major emotions in the same scene and both have a lot at stake.

Simplified examples:

  • Two people are on stage arguing. Both have reasons and motivations behind their opinions. Both have something at stake.
  • A woman streaks naked through a shopping mall. What in the heck is going through her head? Why would she do such a thing? But wait! What if her husband is coming out of the pet shop? He can’t believe his eyes! His sophisticated, genteel wife would never do such a thing!

See what I mean? Whose head should we be in?

Ask these questions:

  • Whose story/scene is this? Or, who has the most at stake? (Instigating circumstances)
  • What kind of emotional impact is needed?
  • Whose POV will engage readers and drag them along for the ride?

It’s not always an easy choice. Sometimes we need to write the same scene from two different prospectives, before we know what’s right. No harm in that. The important thing is this: Always involve the reader’s emotions.  

All this POV talk begs the question:
Can we skip from one person’s head to another’s, that is, head hop?

Yes, but — and this is a big but – you gotta have skills, and that’s another blog.

Okay, let’s talk. How do YOU choose whose head to be in?

~ Sharla

* Photo credit: Revista Quo via Wikimedia Commons


About Sharla

Sharla RaeSharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOWLOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by "Romantic Times Magazine" for best first historical. Her current work, HOW TO FELL A TIMBERMAN is in the submission process.

When she's not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.

0 comments on “Point of View: Choosing Whose Head To Be In”

    1. I didn't understand what POV even was until "after" I published my first book. It was so embarrassing because I had joined a crit group by then and they kept talking about POV while I sat there like a dunce wondering what the heck they were talking about! I felt like the village idiot who'd been recruited for guard duty and didn't know which of a gun was up. Ha! I finally braved being thought a total loser and asked them to explain.

  1. Sometimes it's obvious, but when it isn't, I ask myself, "Who has the most to lose?" I've had to re-write entire chapters because I've discovered the one I thought had the most to lose wasn't.

    1. And as I mentioned, that's okay Judy. Sometimes writing a scene from two different view points leads to a discovery we can use later and that's always good!

  2. All my fiction comes out first person. I've always written (and told) stories like an old campfire yarn spinner, so first person is what came to me.

    I want to try third person, to get some experience moving from head to head. I'd also like to write a first person from a perspective other than the protagonist. Archie Goodwin and John Watson told infinitely better stories than Nero Wolfe or Sherlock would have.

      1. I keep telling myself I should try first person but I always feel very limited. That said, I've traveled a lot and my sis tells me I should write for a travel magazine because what I tell her about the trip is much more interesting -- like reading a good book -- than what she reads in the magazines. Of course that's 1st person. Maybe the great beyond is trying to send me a message. 🙂

  3. My most recent published books are stories written in 1st person POV (2 are urban fantasies, 1 is dystopian romance). But before that I'd written exclusively in 3rd person. So I feel comfortable with both. However, I recently had to change the beginning chapters of a new project from 1st to 3rd person for a proposal, and that was hard to do. It's been several years since I've written in 3rd, so in the rewrite I kept messing up my pronouns, using proper names way too much, and then trying to figure out whose POV to use in which scene... aargh. I had to shift my timeline around to make it work. But it did... finally... and I'm happy with the results. Now I'm eager to jump in and write the rest of the book. 🙂

  4. Good post, Sharla. Funny, my publisher is having a month of pet peeve posts on the MuseItUp Publishing blog. Mine, coming out Monday, is about editors/contest judges/publishers who hold strict adherence to the not-more-than-2 POVs-rule. I'm clear that my rant doesn't apply to MIU. LOL And that it's a personal pet peeve. Your comments make the whole subject very clear. Thanks.

    1. I guess I can understand if a publisher only wants two POVs if that's what works best for particular type of book, but I "really" don't understand an agent doing that. Seems very limiting even for them. I think it's important to avoid constant head-hoping but multiple POVs are okay by me. 🙂

  5. Sharla, the old school ... many of the classics and all the noir mysteries of the 20th century used the omniscient POV. I had one heck of a time killing the habit ... but very few successful authors today get away with "head hoping" ... Nora comes to mind. Some literary fiction still uses it.

    Okay,in my current mystery the POV is couched with the main charcter ... but ... there are things that happen "off camera" that the reader needs to know. There are scenes where another POV is needed. I go into that with a separate chapter if needed. Or I use *** to distinguish a change of scene within a chapter.

    And Martha, I think it is short-sighted to apply that type of "rule ." If the changing POV works and takes the reader smoothly from one character's perspective to the other ... it doesn't make sense to limit whose perspective the writer uses.

  6. There are so many schools of thought on expressing the hop from one head to the next. I prefer a seamless transition into the new POV but recently an agent jumped me for that saying no matter how seamless, I need to leave a space between the hops. Personally, I believe if the head hop is seamless, no space is needed. If it's impossible to make it seamless, I do leave a space between the head hops. I only use the *** for a complete scene change -- say scene A takes place at the ball park and Scene B is at a police station. From what I've been able tell, all these preferences change depending on the publisher's choice. Anybody out there know any new set rules?

    1. I just know that I'm nosy enough that I kind of like head-hopping if it's done well. I know it bothers a lot of people, but I dig it. 🙂

  7. I think you're right the the space--no space--***--#--options vary with publisher, Sharla. I'm with you, seamless is best with no space, but on that I'll dowhatever the publisher tells me. Even if I think it's seamless, and they want ####, I'm there. LOL And thanks, Florence, yes, especially for contest judges to make such a deal about it. I was afraid my blog pet peeve was too personal to connect with folks, but maybe I'll find there are more of us out there a little bugged.

    1. I've judged a few contests and I never mark down for ** or ## instead of a space between POV head hops. There seem no solid rule and it's unfair to mark down a contestant for this. Now if there is a head hop that is completely confusing that's something else.

  8. I'm used to writing in multiple POVs -- well, two or I guess three in my last -- but my present book so far just has one. I'm choosing to do it this way to emphasize her isolation, but I'll sure be glad when I get to the point where other people close to her come onto the scene! Sticking to one person's vocabulary and view of the world can get awfully limiting, is what I worry about. This book more than most I'll be glad to turn over to crit partners.

    1. I can see where your technique is limiting BUT in your case I think it's great way show the isolation Beppie. I think it's a great idea.

  9. Why is the omniscient narrator not used any more? Can't it still be effective if interwoven with dialog that brings the reader into the story?

  10. Lorna, I think today's readers really like being in the character's head as sort of an escape mechanism. Fairy tales of old were mostly author's voice. We could get into the excitement of "what's next," but it was more difficult to feel character emotion. Just my take.

  11. I always find scenes where I struggle with this. I'm writing one now. My hero want me to be in his head because he has some pity thoughts, and my heroine wants it to be in her POV because she's discovering things about the hero she didn't know.

    One time my editor suggest I switch a scene to my heroine's POV. Well she let fly and it wasn't pleasant. We changed it back.

  12. Wow, this is so helpful, Sharla. I'm just critiquing a friend's book, she's a beginner writer and I'm dizzy constantly with the head-hopping. I'm just going to recommend she reads this post, it'll make my job a darn sight easier. Myself, I tend to write 3rd person, with two (and in this book, three) pov's, however, I separate them by chapters or using the hiatus dots. It makes it simpler for me to read and edit, and my critique partner says it's clearer for her to read.

  13. Hi,

    First - the paragraph below the "ask these questions" bullets says "prospectives" instead of "perspectives". 🙂 Just had to mention that.

    Secondly, great advice here as I am currently struggling with figuring out who should have the POV for which scenes. Sometimes it feels natural for "character A" to have the POV, and sometimes "character B" but other times it is difficult to figure out. Putting it in terms of "who has the most at stake" gives me a better idea!

    Thanks for the info!

  14. Thanks for an informative post. In one of my critique groups, it's a topic we're studying. I've sent everyone the link to your post.


    Linda Joyce

  15. I once wrote an entire trilogy in two POV's per chapter, then chose the best for each chapter. At first I planned to make readers read both POV's but came to my senses and kept only the best instead.

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