Last month we looked at the most common Points-of-View used in fiction today: First Person, Third-Person Limited, and Third-Person Omniscient. Now let’s explore some pitfalls to avoid in mastering POV.
Head-Hopping. Switching the viewpoint back and forth between characters in the same scene without a, well, a “heads-up” alert to the reader, is called head-hopping. It’s something to avoid because first, it makes the reader pause in his enjoyment of your story to figure out whose “head” he’s in (whose viewpoint) and second, when a reader is pulled out of a story, even momentarily, it interrupts the flow and unnecessarily weakens the impact of the scene. Example:
Gaylord’s heart skipped a beat when Phoebe looked up briefly and smiled. She twirled a lock of curls, enjoying how she tortured him. How he hated to have to make his way across the crowded ballroom to vie for her attention with the other helpless, moth-like creatures surrounding her. Behind her handkerchief, Millicent shed bitter tears, wishing Gaylord would notice her. Helpless, Gaylord stepped forth despite the dangers of her flame. She had been surrounded at every ball since her debut, and she knew it was because of her beauty. As further torture, she turned her head in disdain as he came nearer.
Have pity. Don’t make your readers wonder, Wait, I thought Gaylord was the main character. Who is the “her” with the flame? [Rereading the passage] Oh, I see, it must be Phoebe. And who’s Millicent, anyway? What’s going on? I’m confused!
Transitioning Between POVs. It’s not nice to make the reader constantly try to figure out the viewpoint character. You can avoid possibly losing a reader with the use of a transition between the POVs.
Most commonly, each character’s POV will have its own, separate chapter. But what if there’s not enough material for an entire chapter when you need to switch to another character’s POV? In that case, make sure you have only one character’s viewpoint per paragraph, and that you identify the new POV character right away. Additionally, you can alert the reader to this change by adding a line break between paragraphs.
Gaylord’s heart skipped a beat when Phoebe looked up briefly and smiled.
Phoebe twirled a lock of curls, enjoying how she tortured him.
Gaylord hated to have to make his way across the crowded ballroom to vie for her attention with the other helpless, moth-like creatures surrounding her. Helpless, he stepped forth despite the dangers of her flame.
Phoebe had been surrounded at every ball since her debut, and she knew it was because of her beauty. As further torture, she turned her head in disdain as he came nearer.
Behind her handkerchief, Millicent shed bitter tears, wishing Gaylord would notice her. Just as she had done in their childhood, Cousin Phoebe drew people to her brilliant, fiery beauty like moths to a flame. Millicent trembled. As an early victim, she knew that sooner or later Gaylord, too, would be scorched by that flame, and perhaps scarred beyond repair.
It began on Millicent’s eighth birthday, the very day the orphaned six-year-old Phoebe came to live with them… [and so on.]
Notice that when there was change of scene, an extra line and a symbol (#) were used.
Recognizing POV Slip-ups. When editing, it’s hard to recognize when we’ve slipped out of our chosen POV, especially when it’s written in Third Person Limited. Remember, in this POV, the reader cannot know anything that the Main Character (MC)doesn’t know. These are the things to look for when editing:
- Do we know what another character is thinking? Then the MC is either psychic or we’ve slipped out of POV.
- Do we know what another character said or did outside the MC’s presence? Unless the MC heard about it from another character, saw or heard a recording of it, saw it through the peephole, overheard it, or it was brought to her attention in some other way, we’ve slipped out of POV.
Basically, any time our MC somehow shows up in another character’s “head” and reports what’s going on in there, it’s a POV switch. This excellent article gives you tips and specific words to search for in your manuscript to help spot any POV slip-ups.
POV Mastery. It’s a good idea to choose a specific POV for your story, try it out, and watch for slip-ups in a learn-as-you-go process. A master of the Craft of writing can break any or all the “rules” about POVs so expertly that far from being confused, the reader is only focused on the desire to keep turning the pages. Genius writer John Steinbeck, for example, switched POVs within The Grapes of Wrath and won a Pulitzer. The rest of us, though, have to learn the rules first before attempting to break them on purpose.
Next month we’ll continue with a look at two more POVs: Second Person and Omniscient. We’ll also try to understand the difference between Omniscient and Third Person Omniscient. It’s a bit tricky. In the meantime, you might start looking through novels (perhaps including your own works-in-progress?) with an eye to identifying POVs. Don’t despair if it all seems too complicated at first. Remember, practice is the way to build confidence.