Why is shifting point of view (POV) problematic?


For the second time in as many weeks, a writer friend has suggested a post to me. This time, it was about POV. In a short story I recently critiqued, the POV (third person, past tense) shifted from a mother to her daughter. I recommended either sticking with one POV, or marking the change with more than just textual cues.

My writer friend indicated that she had a film background and asked if the omniscient POV wouldn’t allow her to shift her focus between characters in a scene.

What follows is my response.

A wee caveat: this is based on my own craft learning to date. I’m happy to lay the burden of expertise at the feet of others 🙂


 

First, you should check out CS Lakin’s blog: LiveWriteThrive

You may have to go fairly far back in her archives, but she did a series on writing based on film techniques last year. She turned this into a book, Shoot your novel, which you can find on Amazon.

This might appeal to your filmic aesthetic.

Now, having said that, film techniques aren’t the same as POV in writing. Parallels can be drawn, but really, they’re two different things.

POV in writing is about who’s telling the story. Whomever the story belongs to is generally the POV you use.

Why is a shifting POV problematic?
I’ll let you do a little research on this yourself. So many people have written about it. It’s called “head hopping.”

Here’s a starter from our friend Google: https://www.google.com/search?q=head+hopping&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

My recommendations? The Write Practice, Marcy Kennedy (she’s Canadian), the Editor’s Blog (Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash), and The Write Editor (The Difference Between Omniscient POV and Head Hopping). Jami Gold and WriterUnboxed are awesome too.

Go ahead. Check them out. I’ll wait while you scan a few of the articles 🙂

In a visual medium, the POV is omniscient, or at most limited third simulated by a voice over. You can’t really “show” the inner thoughts and feelings of a character on screen. So in film, the POV is the camera’s and by extension, the director, producer, and/or editor may have a hand in influencing the final product.

There is such a thing as an omniscient POV in writing, and it used to be used, but it’s not really popular anymore. Further, it’s hard to do well.

In cinematic terms, omniscient translates to the page as a wide shot, interspersed with close ups on various characters, but it’s all external observation. Visually, you have the zoom or cut to give you a clue as to which character or characters are the focus of the scene.

In writing, you have to do something that simulates the zoom to cue the reader that the focus of the scene is now changing. Otherwise, you could end up confusing your reader (who’s talking now? why do I have to hear from this character? why is this important to the scene/story?).

Readers have changed over the last century. This is primarily due to movies and television (where a complete story is told in 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours), video games (complete action smorgasbord), and the internet (e.g. Twitter: describe your day in 140 characters anyone?). Flash fiction and micro fiction now have journals devoted to them. Books have been written in Tweets.

Readers like shorter forms of fiction because they can read a complete story in a limited period of time (think CommuterLit.com).

If the story isn’t short, then the author must continually hook the reader and keep them interested in the story. Part of this is engaging the reader in the story (what’s at stake?) and the character (why should I care?).

Omniscient POV requires readers to pay attention and do a little more work than they might otherwise be inclined to do. It’s not personal. You don’t stick with any one character long enough for the reader to become invested in that character and you’re observing like a camera, never delving into a character’s thoughts or feelings.

A limited third POV focuses intimately on one character: She ran to his side and thought, Is he dead? Oh, please, no.

Some writers, for example George R. R. Martin in Game of Thrones, shift between characters in the limited third POV, but you will find, generally, that an entire chapter will be from one character’s POV.

If an author changes POV characters in the middle of a chapter, the POV will change when the scene changes (therefore one POV per scene) and there will often be a visual cue such as an extra line between the paragraphs, or a symbol like # or * set off in the middle of its own line. Barbara Kyle, Canadian author of historical thrillers set in the Tudor era, uses this latter technique.

A lot of young adult fiction uses first person POV (I, me, my) because it sinks the reader immediately into the thoughts and feelings of the character. This can either cement the relationship (he’s just like me!) or alienate the reader (why won’t he stop whining?). Most first person narratives stick with one character through the entire story.

Then you have the experimental authors who will mix third and first person POVs. Deborah Harkness does this in A Discovery of Witches. Diana Gabaldon did it first, however, in her Outlander series. The protagonist is written in first person and all other POV characters are written in third.

Hardly anyone can write well in the second person POV (you look in the closet and find a boy huddling in the corner). It has been done, but it requires a deft hand and mind. If any form is going to use second person POV, it’s likely a short, flash, or micro fiction story.

This gets even more complicated when you add tenses to your POV. Past and present are the usual choices. I can’t think of a novel written in the future tense in any POV. Again shorter forms may take the pressure of future tense but it feels awkward to read no matter what.

For short fiction, I’d recommend figuring out whose story you’re telling and sticking with that character throughout. If you lose the reader, they’ll put your story down.

If that reader is an editor or a contest judge, your chances of publication may be shot.

I’m just saying 🙂


 

Was this post helpful to anyone else? Please let me know in the comments. Also, as I mentioned last week, if you have any burning writing questions, I’ll be happy to do my best to answer them. Or refer you to the experts who answer them better than I ever could 😀

And that’s a wrap for this weekend!

Muse-inks

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2 thoughts on “Why is shifting point of view (POV) problematic?

  1. Great advice, Melanie. I must confess I was doing a little too much head hopping in my YA fantasy. My critique partner pulled me up on it and I’ve changed it and it is so much better.

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