Disclaimer: Conventions and attitudes toward shifting POV (point of view) within a story can change depending on the genre. In some types of stories, such as romance, some readers and publishers expect writers to alternate chapters between POV of the two romantic leads.
Second disclaimer: “Headhopping”, or shifting between two or more character’s POV within a short time frame, is a standard that has changed with time. Many older romance stories use this technique, but most current publishers discourage it.
Third disclaimer: I dislike POV shifts. Not everyone does.
Good morning and welcome back to Tuesdays with Ana! Are you feeling refreshed and secure in your identity as an author?
Today we’re going to talk about a problem that most writers face at one time or another, POV shifts. Here are some questions that writers ask:
- When is it okay to shift POV? At a chapter change? Scene change? Paragraph change?
- Is it okay to shift POV, period? Or should I only stay with one character’s POV?
- Why can’t I use 1st person POV?
- What is headhopping, and why can’t I do it?
- I want to do something wild and crazy with POV shifts. Can I?
Let’s start with the third question, “Why can’t I use 1st person POV?” By 1st POV, we mean a story that uses “I” in the main character’s narration. Examples include Desire in Any Language, Editorial Board, and The Way Home, as well as Claire’s part of the story in The Vengeance of Mrs. Claus. Writing in 1st POV gives a story intimacy, and it brings the reader closer to the character. Not all publishers accept manuscripts written in 1st POV, which is why some writers are told that they “can’t” use it.
You can do anything you want, but your choices may limit what publishers will accept your work.
I prefer 1st POV and use it for a few reasons. One, I write F/F. If I say “she” and “she”, the reader won’t know whether I mean Kat or Natalie, Mira or Eunji, or Spring or Rachel. Repeating the characters’ names for clarity can make the narrative feel stilted. Using 1st POV is a matter of simple practicality. “She” and “I” are easy to distinguish.
The other reason that I use 1st POV is that my stories often focus on emotion, personal growth, and the inner journey of the main character. Take Kat, Mira, and Spring, for example. All three stories focus on their struggle to come to terms with who they are. 1st POV works well because it allows me as the author to bring my readers right into Kat, Mira, and Spring’s inner thoughts. I don’t tell you what they are thinking and feeling; I make you feel it.
Does that mean 1st POV always works? No. As much as 1st POV gives intimacy and emotional depth to a story, it limits what you can show and tell as an author. For the entirety of The Way Home, Desire in Any Language, and Editorial Board, we only see and hear the story from Kat, Mira, and Spring’s POV. (With 1st POV there are techniques to show that the narrator is unreliable, but they take practice.) This can make things difficult. Kat, for example, is shy and sensitive. When she reacts to Natalie’s words or actions, I as the author have absolutely no way of showing that Kat’s perception is limited or even flawed. Believe me, I have tried! The problem, however, has been that I created such a sympathetic narrator that most readers take Kat’s interpretation at face value. The intimacy of 1st POV has its risks.
In revising Lighting the Way, the forthcoming sequel to The Way Home, I added three scenes from Natalie’s POV. Is that headhopping? Breaking the rules? (No, because my editor told me to do it…and I am a good, obedient author who always does as I am told…)
When can I shift POV, you ask? I’d point to the above example. If your story is stalled because you have tried every other approach but can’t make things work without shifting POV, give it a try.
Reasons to shift POV:
- This information is crucial to the story, but there is no way that the main character would know it. (Suspense is often a good example.)
- My publisher or genre expects me to do so, or this is a clearly established pattern that I have followed throughout the entire story. (In romance, authors often change POV so that readers can understand both characters’ journeys toward finding each other.)
Reasons not to shift POV:
- It’s easier to switch to the other character’s POV.
- I’m tired of writing from this character’s POV.
- It will give variety to the story.
- Ana told me not to.
Why do I dislike and discourage shifting POV, especially for newer and beginning writers? Shifting POV is easy and tempting, so much that we may do it for the wrong reasons (see above).
Shifting POV is easy to do, but it’s difficult to do well.
Staying in one character’s POV is good discipline and training to learn the limitations of that character’s POV.
Once you have mastered the art of staying in one POV, you’ll see the depth in exploring that perspective. If you begin by staying in one POV, later on you will be able to shift POV purposefully, to accomplish a specific goal (see above). It will make your POV shifts that much more powerful, and it will charge your story with extra narrative oomph.
If you begin by shifting POV, or without learning to distinguish when you are switching POV, you weaken a powerful storytelling tool (changing POV) into the dreaded “headhopping”.
What is headhopping? Shifting POV haphazardly, too frequently, and without a specific reason.
Respect the power of the POV shift. Use it responsibly, wisely, and well.
Thus saith Ana. Go forth and sin no more.
(Can you do something crazy? Of course. But only if you understand how and why.)
What about you? What do you think? How have you used POV shifts in your own work?