once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.

15 Replies to “once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping”

  1. I don’t switch when writing and hate finding out when reading that the author does so within a scene, unless it’s so unobtrusive that it’s never noticed. Jo Leigh does this. Nora. I noticed in Tami Hoag’s last book that she no longer switches as violently as she used to, if at all.

    And that’s what switching is for me. A violent disruption of my immersion in the story IF the author has been using a very deep third person pov. If she/he can back up with the camera as it were and ease me from one to another so that I don’t notice, then their control of their narrative works better for me as a reader but I still don’t like it, mostly because I feel a scene *belongs* to one character. I don’t feel that it’s fashion or aesthetics. For me, it’s about the purpose of the scene, and which character has the floor, as it were.

    However, if I’ve learned anything in this biz, it’s that not all readers read alike. A pov switch that will treat me like whiplash, other readers will never notice. I noticed before I ever started writing, so it’s always been an issue for me!

  2. Yes, I noticed your headhopping within a scene, but decided to attribute it to omnicient POV. Of course, it made it important to find scenes of pure POV’s to ask QofS study members to ascribe a particular person to that POV. Rules are only to help novices, huh? I;love;semicolons;;;;;but one must remember to correctly use them and to not split infinitives. Arghhh, that was almost impossible to type. To split infinites is immoral; not to split infinitives is divine.

  3. Rules are only to help novices, huh?

    Not quite what I said.

    I’d have to ask you first, where did these rules come from? Who made them? Isn’t it true that for every so-called rule, you can find many examples of writers who break them, and successfully?

    Some people like structure and prefer to approach things in terms of guidelines and rules. That doesn’t work for others. Novice or well established. Some writers don’t think about things this way at all. Such issues never enter their heads as they work. They might consider POV consciously during revisions, if something seems off, but otherwise they work without conscious application of rules. I’m more in the second camp. You’re more in the first.

    Finally, the split infinitive is quite a complex and cloudy issue of style. There’s a good article on the grammatical construction and the stylistic fashions behind the (so-called) rule.

  4. This reminds me that Ursula LeGuin’s book about the craft of writing fiction, “Steering the Craft,” is a fine and fun book, even for people who don’t aspire to write but might like to deepen their enjoyment of reading. (My only formal background in prose or literary criticism was an American public school education; I thought of “POV” in terms of camera angles and films, and didn’t really notice it as a factor when I was reading.) LeGuin’s chapter on voice and POV, and then one on changing POV, and another on indirect narration were really eye-opening for me. Good examples and helpful exercises, they made me wish I could have had her as a teacher, or just read her sooner.

  5. Robyn — I had completely forgot about LeGuin’s book. I’ll have to go look at those chapters again.

  6. Rules… The only rule I think everyone should adhere to in the US is to drive on the right side of the road. It’s a rule of consensus; but violating it just might lead to death. Well, there are others, like don’t hurt people. That’s not a rule of consensus.

    When a person is trying to learn a new skill in a formal setting such as a classroom, there are lots of rules to help the novice as that person struggles to learn the skill. I’ve also noticed that different instructors give out conflicting rules. Me, I said rules are only to help novices. As he becomes more confident, the person internalizes what works for him and ignores what doesn’t.

    One of the extreme and silly examples I’ve come across are the 19 rules for designing a good landscape. Why not 18 or 20? Of course, my only rule is to do what you want since it’s your yard.

    Split infinitives? My 4th grade teacher beat that into us. I just can’t violate it. Just can’t.

    Oh, and by the way, I absolutely HATE rules. I’ve been described as an utopist. Making up rules doesn’t come naturally to me. If everyone did what was right, we wouldn’t need rules.

  7. Hi Rosina, I’m terribly flattered that you’ve linked my post here! Thanks so much.

    The POV discussion intrigues me inasmuch as it helps new writers get a handle on the craft. From there, I agree what matters is writing the darn stories already!

    I noticed you say my novel’s getting “a lot of marketing energy and money,” and I hope you’re right, but I don’t have any word on that yet! Are you clairvoyant? :-)

    Your site is so creative and interesting–I’m glad to have discovered it. Thanks again for the link.

  8. Asdfg: Ah, the categorical imperative. Kant was a good guy. Also, I think maybe we had the same fourth grade teacher.

    Therese — I just went back to your weblog to see if I had misinterpreted something, and I did. For some reason I thought they had a large booktour planned for you, but there’s nothing about that. That misconception of mine is where the ‘time and resources’ comment came from. Publishers send writers out on booktours less and less often, due mostly to the expense but also, I believe, because they aren’t all that successful at selling books. If they do send you out on a big tour, you may just turn out to be the exception to the rule.

    It is great that the foreign rights have sold so widely and so quickly, and it bodes well for you.

    Also, I will admit that I have been in the business for a while and I may be a little jaded — both as an author and a teacher. You’ll have to forgive my down-in-the-dumps tone. We’re weathering a pretty big storm just now. Didn’t mean to take it out on you.



  9. First, regarding “head hopping” and one POV per scene ?rules?. These are only general guidelines aren?t they? I believe the ?rules? are made to help new writers learn the craft. And for every writing “rule” you find, the next novel you pick up will break it…like starting a sentence with “and” (ok?that?s a very old rule!). It?s all right to break the rules, but you should be aware you?re doing it. No?

    Second, as a reader I prefer stories written in one POV. I _think_ it?s because I like to be more emotionally involved or in tune with one character. If the POV changes continually, I find myself wanting to be with one character rather than another.


  10. Wilma, from everything I’ve read, and I’M NO EXPERT, your 1st paragraph is exactly correct.

    In case you’re interested, I’ve recorded at least 120 POV’s in QofS. To be more specific, I recorded the 1st POV in a chapter, then recorded any changed POV as it occurred.

    The easiest ones to decide were the letters; each letter is 1 POV. Most difficult were those where Rosina was giving out info from various characters’ minds within 1 scene. I think POV debaters could argue multiple POVs with headhopping or else 1 omnicient. I say omnicient. Headhopping is supposed to be avoided because it confuses the reader, and since Rosina didn’t confuse me I conclude omnicient.

  11. Very interesting POV discussion. I’ve been batted down in critique groups for switching POV just once from female character to male character in a chapter/scene. Yet I see authors all the time switch POV, and it’s necessary to the scene to do so. I’d like to ask a critical question here – I’m re-reading Wild Swan by Celeste DeBlasis. Haven’t read these books in 20 years. Please go read the first 4 1/2 pages. She switches POV eleven times between Alex and St. John, sometimes in the same paragraph! It goes on from there, switching from character to character. Yet, it doesn’t seem to interrupt the flow, maybe only once (the same paragraph switch). I would think that’s excessive, but would like some other opinions! Could those first few pages have been written without the shifts? Just curious, as this author was much acclaimed in her day. Thanks all!

  12. 120 POV’s or more. Yep! That’s why I defined how I recorded them. Not 120 characters.
    For instance, QofS Chapter 8:
    Hannah’s POV: Hears Titine’s family’s story.
    Jennet’s POV: Dreams of brother, etc.
    Luke’s POV: Thinks about returning to Montreal.
    Jennet’s POV: Thinks about Nut Island.
    Omnicient POV: Patience is gone; interview w/harbormaster.
    Jennet’s POV: Letter from Honore, etc.
    =6 POV’s w/in the chapter, including those of 3 characters and 1 omnicient. I could also have said one POV with 5 consecutive POV changes. But by now everyone is bored and snoring with the details.

  13. Re: Point of View discussion.

    Dear Rosina

    I realise this discussion has come and gone but if it should resurface I would be interested in you sharing with us some examples of where you feel change of point of view within a scene works well, particularly if you have examples of it flipping between two people in one scene at all.

    All of my copies of books bar QofS are in storage and I will re-visit that in the meantime.

    Thank you.

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