Midweek Technique – switching point of view

Today I’m talking about point of view (POV). Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before:

  1. “You should only be in one character’s head per scene – no switching point of view.”
  2. “Readers don’t want to know what your hero is thinking –  it’s your heroine’s story, so tell it from her viewpoint.”
  3. “Whatever you do, don’t head hop!”
  4. “You should stick with just your hero and heroine’s POV.”
  5. “If you write first-person POV, your reader won’t empathise with your other characters.”

Now, while I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of these (sadly, all-too-real) statements, I will talk about effectively and smoothly switching from one character’s POV to the other.  And it is really, really simple.

Here’s a paragraph I prepared earlier:

Jenny gasped, the breath in her throat burning the way the whiskey had done only moments before.  Jason’s hand on her wrist tightened, fingers digging into her soft tender flesh and her anger flashed behind bright blue eyes.  He smiled, knowing he was affecting her, judging by the way her pulse leaped under his fingers.

Gosh, it’s actually painful  to leave that badly written paragraph intact :angry: !  Argghh!!  So, what do we know about this para?

Sentence 1 – we’re in Jenny’s POV.  Why?  Because of ‘the breath in her throat burning’.  This is something she feels, that no-one else can.

Sentence 2 – we start out in Jenny’s POV (his hand on her wrist tightened) but end up in Jason’s because of the ‘anger flashed behind her bright blue eyes’.  Because she can’t see her anger, and she wouldn’t think ‘my bright blue eyes’.

Sentence 3 – In his POV, because he feels her pulse beneath his fingers.

So how to fix it?  Before I do that, here’s some important things about POV switches:

  1. not every POV switch should start with an extra line space – in fact, if you do this in the same scene, it will only jar your reader, because ‘extra space’ means ‘later on’ or ‘this is a new scene’.  Yes, some publishers do it and it annoys the hell out of me!
  2. too many POVs in one scene and you start to lose the tension of the moment, plus annoy and possibly confuse your reader
  3. an effective way to start a new POV is with a new paragraph, and the character’s name, followed by something only they would know/think/feel

So, rewriting the above sentences (plus making our hero a little less like a violent jerk…):

Jenny gasped, the breath in her throat burning the way the whiskey had done only moments before.  When his Jason’s hand on her wrist tightened, fingers digging into her tender flesh, and her anger flashed behind bright blue eyes surged, giving her enough strength to break his possessive grip.

“Don’t touch me!”

“That’s not what you were saying last night.”

Jason He smiled and let her put distance between them, even though his entire body ached to get up and personal with that luscious mouth of hers.  A now-scowling mouth that had only been too willing to open up for him last night.  He sure as hell knew he affected her too,  knowing he was affecting her, judging by her those flashing blue eyes and her leaping pulse he’d briefly held leaped under his fingers.

Somewhat better 🙂

So to reiterate: when you are in one person’s head, use words and thoughts that they would say and feel, and describe stuff via their eyes.

Easy Way to Count your POV Switches

Use either the highlighter option in Word, or do a printout and use highlighter pens (I do blue for my hero, pink for my heroine).  So when you spread your scene out across your table or floor, you have a visual representation.

But how many switches is too much?

Well, I can’t answer that for you.  But I can tell you I had to rework one scene in my last book because I was all over the place with those switches.  It started off in his POV, then went to hers, then back to his on the same page, then back to hers, then his>hers again.  Gave me whiplash!

I’ve heard writers say “think about who has the most to lose in the scene and write it from their POV” but honestly, this is a bit hit and miss for me.  I work out whose head I’m going to start in based on a) how I ended the prior chapter or scene, plus b) what the reader needs to know about this character right now in the story.   My rough draft will be riddled with way too many POV switches and it really only takes minor editing (after I highlight my scene) to cut those jumps.  And sometimes that information in that character’s head can be best used in another scene, at another time.

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5 comments on “Midweek Technique – switching point of view

  1. Excellent and timely article, Paula. I have just finished critiquing a contest and the biggest problem with just about every entry is POV switches!
    I now use Scrivener and I have set up coloured labels for hero/heroine so I know which POV is being used in which scene. Very helpful for seeing where I have huge swathes of one particular POV.
    Another tip for checking on POV is to rewrite the scene if first person, as an exercise.

  2. I re-read one of my first completed works the other day and gave myself a headache. POV jumped through anyone and everyone’s head, and paragraphs…? What paragraphs!?

    When I’m writing now I try to stay in each person’s head for at least 2 to 4 pages depending on what’s going on. And because I edit as I go I tend to look out for any superfluous head-hops and correct them then and there.

    BTW, if I’d been born a boy, my name would have been Jason =)

  3. @Alison – I see crazy POV switches in contests A LOT. I certainly had no idea of my multiple POV switches when I first started writing. Takes a bit of practice to figure it out. 😀

    thanks for dropping by, everyone!

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