August 3rd, 2018

Cleaning Up Those POV Breaks

Ann Griffin

As an indie author, I’ve been reading quite a few indie books lately. I have discovered a lot of fun reads and some great stories. However, I keep tripping over one particular writing error: breaking POV (Point of View.)

You seasoned writers with agents and editors who comb through your manuscripts looking for every tiny flaw, may not want to read this. But unpublished and indie published writers, this is for you.

A Quick Refresher

Point of View refers to who is narrating the story.

Ominscient/third person: The omniscient narrator can see into the heart and soul of every character, or any character the writer chooses. Popular in early novels, it is rarely used today in fiction, but is common in non-fiction. (He/she/it/them)

Limited/third person: The narrator is seeing the story through the eyes of one character, or maybe more, but never more than one in a single scene. This is the most common POV. (He/she/it.)

Close/first person: The narrator, who may or may not be the main character, tells the story. (I/Me)

There are more POVs possible, but they are uncommon, and I won’t discuss them here.

The character from whose point of view we write the story cannot know what others are thinking or feeling, or what is happening outside his or her presence.

Most Common Mistakes

Changing POV in a first person story

Example:

I gave Karen the envelope. “You’ve been served.”

She grabbed it and turned away, furious.

Did you catch it? The “I” doing the narrating cannot know how Karen feels.

How to correct the problem:

I gave Karen the envelope. “You’ve been served.”

She grabbed it, glowered at me, and stormed away.

Now the unnamed narrator describes Karen’s behavior. From this, we infer that Karen is angry, and we remain comfortably in the narrator’s point of view. Not only that, we have shown rather than told Karen’s emotions.

Head-Hopping

Example:

Bob and Phil lugged the cooler toward the blanket and thumped it down between Sara’s umbrella and the picnic table a few of the guys had dragged over. Sara wondered if Phil would want to hang out with her again as he had last week.

Phil gazed at Sara. Man, she was cute! He risked a smile. She smiled back.

Bob, tired of their endless flirting, groaned. “C’mon man, let’s go swimming.”

Extreme? I don’t think so. The book I finished last night was full of this kind of head-hopping into the brain of any character on the page. It left me confused, wondering who the story was about.

How to correct the problem:

First, identify the main character. For this example, I’m going to choose Phil, but you could re-write the section with any one of them as the main character. In fact, that could be a fun exercise. Try it!

Bob and Phil lugged the cooler toward the blanket and thumped it down between Sara’s umbrella and the picnic table. Sara sat on the blanket, fiddling with her earphone wires. She glanced at Phil.

Phil gazed at Sara. Man, she was cute! He wondered if she’d like to hang out with him today as she had last week. He risked a smile. She smiled back. His heart boomed.

Bob groaned and shoved Phil in the shoulder. “C’mon, man, let’s go swimming.”

In this version, we know what Phil is thinking about Sara. We think Sara might be thinking about him too because she smiles back. Is she embarrassed or nervous? Phil doesn’t know, so how could we? Bob’s behavior and comment imply he’s not interested in Phil and Sara’s little drama.

Too much Tell, Not Enough Show

This can happen anywhere, but it is a particular risk of first person or limited third person POV. Because you, the writer, know all the thoughts of your character, it is tempting to have your MC narrate a long section of endless backstory, before we get to any action. A book I read recently went on for thirteen pages before there was any interaction with another character. I nearly gave up.

On the other hand, a master writer like Michael Ondaatje begins his new book, Warlight, with the lengthy narration of a teenaged boy, the MC, that draws the reader into the half-lit, bizarre world of two teens abandoned by their parents and left in the care of spies and criminals, in post-war England. So it is possible to “show” while narrating, but it requires a lot of skill.

Changing POV Intentionally – in the wrong place

While it is acceptable practice to change POV in a new chapter or scene, most writers stick to three or fewer POV characters per book for the sake of simplicity. A brilliant example of use of different POVs and “person” is in House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. This tightly-written drama is written from the POVs of a woman down on her luck and an immigrant man desperate to make it in America. Both characters are written in first person, alternating by chapter. Later in the book, a third character, a detective of dubious ethics, becomes a main character, but his chapters are told in third person, distancing him slightly from the main conflict between the other two.

Marcia Fine’s Hidden Ones, a Veil of Memories,names each chapter after the character who narrates it, both in first person. One is a much-loved grandmother, and the other is her granddaughter. Since the grandmother spends much of the book in prison, unaware of what is going on in the family, the author had to create at least two points of view to move the story along. It’s a beautiful book.

J.K. Rowling breaks almost every POV rule in her Harry Potter series, but does it with such breathtaking talent that the reader doesn’t care. If you are not she, stick to the least number of character POVs that you can manage, to tell your story.

Never change POV in the middle of a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence. Unless you are J.K.

Your Turn

What have been your challenges and issues with POV?

Have you discovered any tricks to help you avoid mistakes?

 

BIO:

Ann Griffin is an indie published author of Another Ocean to Cross,historical fiction set in WWII. She has also published articles for the British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association. Her next book will be a follow-up to her first, but she is not running short of writing material and has a third book underway. She is a member of the Historical Authors Association, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Toronto Writers’ Cooperative, and the Arizona Historical Authors Group. Ann divides her time between Mesa, Arizona and Toronto, Canada. Her website is http://www.anngriffinwriter.com, and she can be reached at info@anngriffinwriter.com

37 responses to “Cleaning Up Those POV Breaks”

  1. LucciaGray says:

    Great points. Thanks for bringing this up.
    I find head hopping particularly annoying/confusing.
    That said, I don't see it too often, at least not in novels I've read recently, but I'm sure I've seen it traditionally published authors, too.

  2. Ann G. says:

    You're welcome, Luccia. I think one of the reasons we see head-hopping more often, is that the omniscient pov is somewhat back in style. However, head-hopping is in my opinion, not the right way to use it.

  3. Paying close attention to POVs is important, as you say, but I disagree on a few points. Your first example, where Karen is 'served' works perfectly well in either version. The POV character, of course, SEES Karen, but as POV character she (he?) is also capable of thought and judgement. Therefore thinking Karen was "furious" is well within the realm of the POV. The real difference between tellings is 'show versus tell.'

    In the second example, while the rewrite was better written, the original POVs of Bob, Phil, and Sara were separated by paragraph, and were sufficiently enough identified to the character. This is still technically acceptable, though should be done better when written for a story.

    Certain stories lend themselves to first person, but when telling stories involving multiple plot lines third person omniscient allows for a much richer and more interesting story-telling. The author just has to be very careful to make sure readers can properly identify character's internal voices to the proper character.

    Needles to say, I am a fan of 3rd person Omni, and a great deal of what I have read is written that way. I think the theme and scope of a story are the key determinants of what POV is best (though the skill of the author with one POV or another is also an important factor-sticking to what you know).

    • Ann G. says:

      HI Jerold. I appreciate that you are a fan of Omni POV, and I recently finished reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, who is also an Omni fan. However, changing POVs from one paragraph to another I personally find distracting, and the current wisdom re Omni POV that I have reviewed still advises limiting to the POV of a small number of characters, separated by scene at a minimum. However, this is an industry in which you can do whatever you like, and if your readers like it, then go for it. Best of luck in your writing.

  4. Great Blog. Head-hopping is grounds to put the book down, in my opinion 🙂

    • Ann G. says:

      Hi Kris. Head-hopping was one of the first "crimes" my very first editor accused me of. Once she pointed out how distracting it was, I agreed with her. Still, if I'm reading a book of a new author, especially an Indie author, I'll usually show her or him the courtesy of reading the book to the end, but I get where you're coming from.

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    Point of View can never be discussed too much, Ann! It's interesting...as a new writer, it didn't bother me overmuch. Nora Roberts head-hopped all the time in her early years and she did just fine. The longer I've been at this, the more POV errors take me out of the story. That being said, I am a terribly nosy reader (and author). If someone can tell me what is going on with everyone in the room -- and do a great job of it -- I just say "Wow, thanks bunches!"

  6. Fae Rowen says:

    Even as I am writing my fifth book, when I go back to revise, I'll find a small "POV break," where a character knows something they can't know. Sometimes it's easy to overlook "the basics" when you're immersed in deep POV.

  7. Paige Turner says:

    Good article, well explained.

    I feel the need to make the point, though, that plenty of 'indie' or self-published writers know this stuff and write to a professional standard without editors/agents/publishers telling us how to; maybe this might be better addressed to debut authors, generally?

    • Ann Griffin says:

      As a Indie author myself, I encounter dozens of Indie writers who either cannot afford or do not understand the need for a professional editor. Many of them are at a beginning level of writing, but believe they are further along than they are. Debut authors with an agent did not snag an agent if their MS included basic POV mistakes. Hence my focus on authors. Of course, any writer who finds my blog post useful, is most welcome.

  8. ecellenb says:

    I had a horrible time with POV! What helped me the most was reading a chapter aloud after being away from it for a day or more. Sometimes that isn't enough, which is where critique groups come in handy. I attend two and they are invaluable.

    • Ann G. says:

      Hello Ellen! (I'm guessing that's your name.) I think that's a great strategy! Although I confess when my first book was published, after about a zillion times reading it, I still found one very minor POV error the last time I read it. First person, if it works for you, helps keep POV clear, too. But I have read a book in first person that head hopped all over the place! Have fun and enjoy your critique groups

  9. Thanks, Ann. My use of third Omni was the first thing my critique group focused on in my writings, so I've spent much time carefully separating my characters in each scene. Some scenes I show more than one POV, but usually no more than three. And I use "show" at least as much... probably more. I've always been fascinated by human interaction though. People often don't give away what their thinking or feeling in a conversation–not in real life (unless you are a trained expert at observation)–and what they hold back can be very instructive and interesting. I hope I'll have handled it well, and that my readers (if anyone discovers my book) will find those brief insights more helpful than distracting. I'll see when I get reviews.

    • Ann G. says:

      Jerold, I took a look at your blog and saw you're writing sci-fi. Awesome! That's a genre I would not dare to tackle. The first chapter on your blog post nicely separates the POVs between the different characters, all attending to an imminent crisis from different locations, in which Omni makes a lot of sense.

      • Jerold Tabbott says:

        Thanks again, Ann. My blog needs so much re-working. I've vowed to run everything through ProWritingAid before I make any new posts.

        But what I'm really interested in is your pin avatar - the MV Georgic. I've made my living working with commercial ships. It looks like an older styled logo-I'm just curious of the history.

        • Ann G. says:

          The M.V. Georgic was the ship my parents and my brother and I sailed on, from the UK to Canada, in 1953. It also appears in my novel, Another Ocean to Cross, and had quite the history through WWII.

  10. […] You seasoned writers with agents and editors who comb through your manuscripts looking for […] Source link […]

  11. Irene Kessler says:

    Thanks for this post. Is this true for memoir? I have one short scene where the father tells the story of something she did.

    • Ann G. says:

      Irene, memoirs and usually, although not always, written in first person, as you know. I think possibly you could include the father's story as her memory of him telling it, but I would not switch to the father's POV.

  12. Thanks for this excellent and (for me) timely post. I received a note on one of my manuscripts recently from a critique group member that said something like, “This paragraph has an omniscient point of view but it doesn’t really bother me. It’s kind of a break.” My story is written in close third-person, so when I really looked at that paragraph it bothered me! I will be posting the link to this post on my blog.

    • Ann G. says:

      I'm glad your critique group spotted a skip in POV. It's always a shock when someone else picks out an error when you've read your own work dozens if not hundreds of times, and missed it. But that's why we love our critique partners. I'm glad the post was helpful, and thanks for the link to your blog!

  13. jamesr403 says:

    Thanks, Ann, excellent post. But, but Harry Potter? Harry Potter?? Say it ain't so. Now I have to go back and look. Or maybe I'd rather enjoy my ignorance. I'm sure you're right, and the books are so brilliant that I didn't notice.

  14. Laura Drake says:

    POV was on e of those things that I didn't get, until a light bulb went off, and I haven't had a problem since. I thank the writing Gods for close first person...I'm in love with it. I write romance (mostly), and though it's rare there (but getting more common), I'm writing my 3 book, Chestnut Creek series in 1st person close POV.

    I mean, who doesn't want to be all up in someone's head who is madly in love?

  15. Ann Griffin says:

    I'm with you, Laura, but John Gardner, writing The Art of Fiction, positively excoriates third person close. Perhaps it is because the book was written in the 80s? I admit his vehemence made me take another look at 3rd person close, but in the end I just disagree with him.

  16. dholcomb1 says:

    still working on the head hopping POV in the same scene with limited/third...

    denise

  17. Ann G. says:

    Let me know how it goes, Denise.

  18. Kay DiBianca says:

    Thanks for this post. The first version of my manuscript was written in omni POV, and my mentor/editor had to educate me on the use of Limited Third Person. After a painful season of re-writing, the story was much better.
    That being said, I don't mind seeing a POV switch within a scene as long as it isn't confusing. Adhering slavishly to a POV rule for the sake of the rule seems unwise, and I appreciate your pointing out talented authors who find their own way.

    • Ann G. says:

      Kay, I was in the same position as you, and once I had Limited Third Person in my head, it wasn't hard and the manuscript (now a book) was much better. Best wishes on your own writing.

  19. Great post, Ann. I hate when an author head hops or suddenly changes POV. Thanks for this. Have linked to this post on my Week in Review post for this coming Friday (10th) at https://harmonykent.co.uk/my-week-in-revie…writing-links-10/

  20. […] Editing is necessary, so Melissa Donovan explains how to prepare to work with beta readers, Jen Matera walks us through what authors should expect from an editor, Dominic Selwood gives us 4 tips for professional punctuation, and Ann Griffin shows how to clean up POV breaks. […]

  21. […] you missed it, for an excellent discussion on POV, see Ann Griffin’s “Cleaning Up Those POV Breaks,” in this blog last […]

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