Tuesdays with Ana: Why and how to avoid POV shifts

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 feelย 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?

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31 thoughts on “Tuesdays with Ana: Why and how to avoid POV shifts

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Oh dear, I have not read the dreaded I and thou, although I have been unlucky enough to be surrounded by pretentious people who like to refer to him (not you) as if he is the be-all end-all.

      Though I will admit that he seems to have wonderful things to say.

      Like

  1. katerichards says:

    In GLBT, first person is one technique that can help with overuse of pronouns and names IF (and Ana is good at this) you can avoid I and me-ing the reader to death. POV shifts can be subtle, are you seeing your own sparkling eyes without benefit of a mirror? Is another character smiling at him because he’s happy….? It’s tricky at first.

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    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      “I and me-ing the reader to death”…oh, that is good! Love that phrase.

      The subtle POV shifts are the trickiest, which is why I think new and beginning writers benefit from trying to stay in one POV. Even experienced writers get tripped up with this, right? I recently realized that my main character narrates that her partner “spanks my bottom to a toasty pink”. Oops.

      Like

      • katerichards says:

        Good catch, Ana! That’s a perfect example and the kind of mistake even an experienced writer can make. I will say that in romance, at least at the current time, the readers expect to see both POVs. There are always exceptions, but mostly they like to get nside both characters’ heads.

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        • Anastasia Vitsky says:

          That got through an editor and three beta readers, too. After a while, I get so mired down in fussing with technique that I hate everything I write. It’s a danger of working to improve, so it’s always a balance between respecting what we have and striving to do better. You do a really nice job of that. ๐Ÿ™‚

          I’ll send Katie to read your comment about romance and switching POVs.

          Like

  2. katherinedeane says:

    Thanks for sharing, Ana. What are your suggestions on the transition? I really want to be able to bring in my alpha males perspective, so he doesn’t seem like such a jerk. My MC is going to be turning his female lead over his knee during a very intense emotional scene. I need the reader to see him as the caring, loving individual that he is; that he really is doing it “for her own good”. scene change, different chapter? an “after the fact” scene from his perspective?

    Oh, another question ๐Ÿ™‚ Can you use 3rd omniscient, along with each character’s POV, or is that way too confusing. Going back to the hair and eye color – without a mirror comment. For instance, in my MC can look down, and notice her belly looking a little plumper than normal. But she can’t really notice her own straight blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. That would be something my M MC would have to notice. Unless, I try out the funky Omni POV, which I have never tried before. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ugh.
    Suggestions?
    Thanks!! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      If you look at Kate’s reply above, you’ll see that using both main characters’ POV is often expected in romance. The rule of thumb is to switch at chapter breaks, although recently this has been relaxed to allow POV shifts with scene breaks. I’m actually debating this as well as I’m working on a scene with a brief POV. The character observing the main character places something in his pocket that the main character can’t have known or observed, but it’s important to the story. I am not sure whether it works. ๐Ÿ™‚

      3rd omniscient does allow you to peek into every character’s POV, but the disadvantage is that you are then distant from all of the characters. You can’t show everyone’s POV without sacrificing the intimacy and closeness of 3rd limited or 1st POV. 3rd omniscient is good for stories when you want to be the detached, neutral observer who doesn’t interfere but only watches.

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  3. Maria says:

    This is very interesting to me because a Brit publisher I am interested in ultimately approaching states that you ‘must be able to shift between points of view’ in the criteria they send out. I had thought about switching in completely separate chapters, but on the whole it made my chapters super-short, and if I didn’t shift point of view at all, you couldn’t get into the main male character’s mind and understand that he sees things in a very different way from the average Terran female. Because he is a telepath I had to devise a way for the reader to ‘get inside his mind’, as he doesn’t always speak aloud.

    This probably makes no sense to you whatsoever. I am very pleased with what you have written above and plan to add it to my arsenal of advice for reference when working on my manuscript. I am so happy to hear all these differing thoughts I am smiling from ear to ear. (Did you hear about the Cheshire Cat? Of course you did. Beware!) LOL!

    Thank you Ana, very much.

    Maria

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      That’s a fair requirement by the publisher. Remember, each publisher/genre/subgenre/time period has its own set of standards. Also, I believe that your story contains elements of romance, correct? That’s different from, say, a literary novel where the history and standards are different.

      You can do almost anything, as long as you do it well and for a good reason. Start with a well-written story that grabs your reader. Once you have that, it’s only a matter of time before you find a publisher that is the right fit…or choose to self-publish. These days with hundreds of small epublishers popping up everywhere, I think most people with a well-crafted, compelling book will be able to find a publishing home. It may take time and determination to find it, but it will happen. Just focus on writing the very best book that you can. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  4. Joseph McNamara says:

    Thank you so much for this post today. One of my current titles a *wip* is soundly placed in a duel POV. It has been from the start and the editor I am working with has encouraged this. I so agree with all the pros and cons stated above.

    As a fairly new author, writing in duel POV, I have found it hard, yes, and yet there is an ease in this semi-autobiographical tale that flows very effectively. I am writing about a partner who is now deceased and shared a special time in my life and there is a certain gratifying embrace in recreating her story from her POV as I remembered and shared it.

    It is nice to tell the story chapter by chapter flavoring our emotions and thought as our story unfolds. And I think and hope the reader will experience this as I did in real life if I get it correct.

    These last two posts of yours Ana are a wonderful resource and guide for us. Thank you !

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      That is absolutely lovely, Joseph. See, you aren’t switching POVs for the heck of it. You’re doing it deliberately, for a purpose, and in order to achieve something that you couldn’t do with a single POV. I can’t wait to read it when you’ve finished it. It’s coming out at the end of this year, is that right? You have so much depth and poignancy in your writing, and I’m looking forward to reading the final product.

      Like

  5. Julie says:

    Wonderful topic, Ana.

    As a reader, not an author, I’d echo that it seems shifting POV can be difficult to do well. It’s so important for me that the new POV fits with the actions and emotions that have come before. If it doesn’t it can feel manipulative, like the author trying to make me feel differently than they think – or are afraid – I’m feeling in reaction to the story they’ve told to that point.

    Or, if the new POV directly contradicts what I’ve been told happened, such as:

    Kat: Natalie paddled me so hard I couldn’t sit down for a week.
    Natalie: I tapped Kat twice with the paddle to remind her what could happen if she didn’t behave.

    I then have to question everything I’m told. And for the reader, that way madness lies. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      LOL! Oh, Julie, I will HAVE to find a way to work that exchange into a future Kat and Natalie story. I can absolutely see that happening!! I can see you saying, “Well, obviously it’s because Natalie is mean and too strict! Poor Kat was trying to behave.”

      And don’t be so quick to call yourself a reader only. I’m quite proud of your recent efforts. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  6. Maren Smith says:

    This is a fantastic topic! Head hopping is a major pet peev of mine.Unfortunately, I’ve been stumbling over a lot of it in the books I’ve bought here lately. Not all were Indie books, either. Mainstream publishers seem to be allowing it. Apparently, I’m going to need to write a sternly worded letter. lol

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Ooh, a sternly worded letter from Maren! Can I see it? Pretty please? ๐Ÿ˜€

      I actually did not know what head hopping was because I never switched POVs in my stories, but in many publisher submission guidelines there are warnings against it. I think sometimes it’s good to clarify what we mean instead of just saying, “Don’t do it!”

      Unless it’s feeding your family bugs and brains. ๐Ÿ˜€

      Like

      • Maren Smith says:

        Dear Publishing House,

        Please get your head out of your a…okay, maybe that’s too strongly worded and a tad insulting. Better try again.

        Ahem.

        Dear Publishing House,

        Lately you have published several books in which your author head-hops. I do not like this. It is confusing to read and, quite frankly, lazy writing. I have added three of your authors to my do not read again list. If I continue to find head hopping in your books, I will add your publishing house to my do not read again list.

        Sincerely,

        The Paying Customer Who Keeps You in Electricity and Out of the Unemployment Line

        How’s that?

        Like

  7. Rollin Hand says:

    I use both 1st person POV and POV shifts on occasion. I find 1st person POV works well for certain types of story. My best example is a private-eye type of novel in the Raymond Chandler tradition. Because my protagonist is a wise cracking, sardonic type, his voice comes through best in that POV. I’ve also used 1st person POV when the story is in the form of a speaker telling the story to a third party listener who interrupts and comments. I don’t shift POV often, but sometimes, especially with a climactic spanking scene, head hopping between spanker and spankee can be most effective, but I think that is particular to this genre. In general it becomes annoying, so what I do is focus mainly on one character’s POV in the third person and then bring in the other only at major or minor climax points and very sparingly. This seems to work well for me, but since I have no publisher (I’m the publisher, editor,illustrator, CFO, CEO, and BMF), nobody complains. LOL.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      That’s a great point, Rollin, that self-publishing allows a writer unlimited creative freedom. Well, nearly unlimited. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m glad that you’ve found a style and an approach that works best for you.

      Like

  8. patrickoscheen says:

    Find myself being a contrary person here. I love POV shifts—-when they tell the story. I almost always dislike first person narrative— unless its the best way to tell the story.
    Now that you are about to stand me in the corner, I’ll just say that everyone has a different opinion…and that’s okay. Makes us interesting.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Many people dislike 1st POV. You’re hardly alone. Many people do like POV shifts, too. You’re hardly alone there, either. ๐Ÿ˜€

      You’re right that the difference in our opinions, writing styles, and perspectives is what makes us interesting.

      Like

  9. Constance Masters says:

    Great topic Ana. Point of view is something Iโ€™ve struggled with. I see everything from everyoneโ€™s point of view. Maybe thatโ€™s because Iโ€™ve spent most of my life breaking up kids arguments and trying to be mediator. Iโ€™m really trying with my WIP to keep it mostly in one point of view. Itโ€™s hard to break old habits.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I like that about being the mediator and seeing everyone’s POV. But I think that’s more about creating sympathetic characters–understanding why people do things. Why did Becky do such a thoughtless thing to get herself into trouble, for example? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Plus, if you’re writing romance it’s not necessarily a bad habit to alternate POV. I think that I didn’t make that disclaimer obvious enough. ๐Ÿ˜€

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  10. Minelle says:

    I guess I am still choking at you being obedient.

    This is something that as an amateur writer I struggle with perfecting. I actually find it difficult to stay in the proper person. However I am trying to absorb and learn from all the advice you and the others here freely give.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Oh, gosh, not “even” published authors…I think that publishing is not at all a guarantee that people won’t headhop. Besides, it used to be acceptable in certain kinds of books.

      So glad you enjoyed the article. It’s lovely to see you here. Thank you for the comment!

      Like

  11. Kaelah says:

    That’s a very interesting topic, Ana! I am not a professional writer, but I often play out rather elaborate spanking scenarios in my head and on rare occasions I write a short story for Ludwig’s and my blog.

    Both the scenarios I play out in my head as well as the stories that I write are written from the third person perspective because I prefer to be a “fly on the wall” when fantasising about the formal spanking scenarios that I like. In my scenarios, I usually switch between the perspectives of the different characters, though (or, one could also say the stories are told by an omnipotent narrator who is informed about the thoughts of all characters involved). Maybe that is because I am a switch. I identify with both the top and the bottom in a scene and I want to know how both of them feel and what they think.

    I can understand why writing your novels as first person narratives and avoiding headhopping absolutely makes sense, though. As you said, I think it depends very much on the kind of story and the writer’s intention.

    Like

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