Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Point of View

There is a lot of advice out there about POV in novels.  It seems that the main problem with novice writers is the disembodied narrator who tells the story:
He laughed, not believing the words she had just said. “You’re joking."
She shook her head. “No, it’s not a joke.” Her heart was breaking at having to tell him this news
He banged his fist on the table although it did nothing to dispel his anger.
This is sometimes known as head-hopping – jumping from one character’s POV to another. 

When I first started writing romance novels, the rule was ‘heroine’s POV only’.  And no author intrusion either.  You couldn’t write "She didn’t see the angry look on his face as she turned towards the door.”  Of course, if she didn’t see it, then she didn’t know what look was on his face, so you’ve moved out of her POV into author mode.  

Writing from one POV only was ingrained in me.  When I returned to writing fiction in 2008, I was still writing from the heroine’s POV.  My about-to-be published novel ‘His Leading Lady’ is all in her POV.  It has some advantages.  The reader sees everything from the heroine’s angle and is as confused as she is when things happen that she doesn’t understand.  Single POV allows the reader to bond completely with the heroine.

In my second novel, ‘Fragrance of Violets’, I decided to experiment with dual POVs – heroine and hero.  I must admit I struggled at times to break out of single POV.  I didn’t want to destroy that bond between the reader and the heroine, but gradually I realised that the reader could develop a bond with both.  Not with head-hopping from one to the another in the same scene but with different scenes played out in the POV of one or other character.  And I started to see the advantages.  The reader can bond with both.  They can see things from the heroine’s POV and also from the hero’s.  Additionally, they may be privy to things revealed while in the hero’s POV which are not apparent to the heroine (or vice versa) and this can help to increase the tension.  For example, the reader learns the secret that Jack is, of necessity, keeping from Abbey.  Hopefully, it will leave them wondering just how Abbey is going to react when she finds out. 

In a recent discussion about POV on one of the author loops to which I belong, an editor (Tess MacKall) gave some very sound advice about POV.  With her permission, I am quoting it here (thanks, Tess!):

Just a few years ago no editor would have wanted a book with male POV. Now? Most romance books have male and female POV. Like everything else, the face of editing changes.

In the strictest sense of the term, head hopping today does not have the same definition it did just two or three years ago. In the past, not only was head hopping a matter of changing POV within a paragraph, but in a scene as well.  Now? It's perfectly acceptable with MOST publishers, online and brick and mortar, to change POV within a scene. But with that comes another couple of "rules".

Rule One: Don't switch POV just to get in a paragraph from the other POV. It needs to be at least a page to make it worth it.
Rule Two: The POV switch must be marked somehow. Some publishers ask for a line break, others ask for an asterisk or two. And that goes to house style.
Rule Three: Head hopping within a paragraph is still head hopping.

I hear all of the time that Nora Roberts head hops. I'm constantly being told that it can and does work. Well, I've yet to see it work.

And I've been sent all kinds of books to prove it. Not one has done that for me. It's not a matter of questioning the intelligence level of readers. It's simply a matter of making a story as clear and concise as possible. Why take the chance that one single line in your book will be misunderstood or cause even a momentary bit of confusion?

It's not a matter of interfering with author voice either.  As with everything you do, there are reasons for doing it. And in this case, it is to better yourself within the writing craft. 

When an editor or reader is reading our work, they are not reading it from the same perspective as the writer. Keep in mind that the editor and the reader have NO idea of our intent unless they can clearly see if in our words. Our perspective as a writer is from INSIDE our heads. We see, hear, smell and touch the same things our characters do. Our characters are real inside our heads. We are the omniscient POV in all of this. So intent is clear to us as writers. But our words don't always make things as clear to a reader or editor. Which is why there are rules and particular concepts that are unacceptable within the writing craft. And again, I'm speaking strictly to romance here.

Sound advice there from Tess.

I’ll conclude by giving you some ‘homework’!   He went into the bar which was dark and smoky.”  That’s author (or in technical terms, ‘omniscient) Point of View.  Think about how you could write that from your character’s point of view.


  1. Excellent post Paula. Amazing how much the 'rules' change over time as readers get tired of one approach and comfortable with another.

    Moody Writing

  2. Great post. Love the examples too. :O)

  3. I love your example of author intrusion. :)

    Also the whole post is wonderful - great advice!

  4. This has clarified a few POV issues for me - thanks for the post, and for including the advice from Tess MacKall.
    All good stuff :-)

  5. Great examples, and advice, but I have to say I hate it when we're told about "rules" we need to follow. I understand that there are rules, but I think that written the right way, we can break them if we do it well. I think that's the only way the rules ever change.

  6. Thanks you all for your comments.
    And yes, I totally agree with you about the 'rules', Jennifer!

  7. Rules are made to be broken. But the only way to do that is if you know them, understand them, and master them. Then, and only then, can you know just what and how much you can get away with.

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