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July 13, 2011

To use POV effectively, each scene should be told through the eyes of one character, the one driving that scene. In other words, that scene is seen, heard and felt by a specific character, not several at the same time. Every sentence should be how that character would see or perceive what’s going on. Unless your character is a mind reader, he or she cannot tell what another character is thinking. At the same time, they cannot see something that is physically impossible for them to see, or understand things they have no knowledge of (this is where first person can become awkward, especially in intense action scenes). Other characters can speak and perform actions, but any thoughts or feelings must be expressed only through the eyes of the character driving the scene.

If another character expresses feelings or thoughts within a scene, they must be visual or audio so that the main character of that scene can see, hear or feel them and perceive them. For example, the POV character of the scene is Jane. During the scene, Alex is disappointed in something. How do we know this? Jane has to see or perceive this by something Alex says, the expression on his face, or something he does, like his body language. Since it’s Jane’s scene, she has to perceive everything that is happening. It can’t be Alex. That would be a POV violation. It can’t be you, the author, or that would be author intrusion. Both of these violations can jerk the reader out of the story. If Jane perceives Alex’s disappointment, it’s a perfectly natural way to keep the reader immersed into the story.

Randall didn’t like the idea of walking down that alley. This first sentence establishes the scene in Randall’s POV. He’d been attacked before. He was sure some deranged killer lurked behind that green dumpster on the right side. Now this continues his POV as he thinks of all the bad things that could happen by walking down that alley.

The next paragraph continues. Jeremy had to laugh at Randall’s paranoia. The guy was a total wimp. This is a POV violation. The scene is Randall’s, yet the author jumps into Jeremy’s head within the same scene. Now the reader has two different heads to contend with, and has to shift POV. This is likely to confuse the reader. Randall can’t possibly know what Jeremy is thinking, so how does he know this?

You can correct his by changing what Jeremy sees into dialogue. Jeremy laughed. “Man, you’re the most paranoid guy I know. You’re a total wimp.” Turning Jeremy’s thoughts into dialogue keeps the scene in Randall’s POV because now Randall can hear and react to what Jeremy says. The dialogue reflects what Jeremy is thinking.

Randall stepped down the alley with Jeremy in tow. His eyes bored into every shadow. What he didn’t know was that the alley was empty and he was worried for nothing. The first two sentences are solidly in Randall’s POV. However, the third sentence is omniscient and author intrusion. In other words, Jeremy couldn’t possibly know what is going to happen, and the author is blatantly telling you. The fix for that third sentence is: When they reached the other end of the alley, he sighed with relief. It was empty. This puts the same thought solidly into his POV.

When the POV changes within a paragraph or a scene, it is known as head-hopping. This is the sign of an amateur and should be avoided. Sure, you will see some big-name authors doing it, some because they can get away with it, others under the guise of style or technique, but those are garbage excuses for poor writing. The thing is that as a new writer, no editor or agent worth their salt is going to let you get away with it. Not only that, you are going to make it harder on your readers and that is something you don’t want to do.

There is nothing wrong with changing POV within a story. However, it needs to be done in the right way. If you want to get into another character’s head, change scenes, or start a new chapter.

Another thing about POV. First, ALWAYS start and stop a scene or chapter in that character’s dialogue, thoughts or actions. I’ll go more into that in another blog on structuring chapters, but always start a scene or chapter with either dialogue or some action or thought from that character. Second, ALWAYS end it with their dialogue, thought or action.

By keeping your POV’s straight, your readers will appreciate it, whether consciously or subconsciously, and you will have one less excuse for an agent to toss your submission into the reject pile.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2011 2:11 am

    Keep the blogs coming, Fred. For a change I enjoy learning something constructive that helps me.

    It is difficult to write in the first person as there are many pitfalls. I’ve written seven chapters of a novel I began before Shirley became ill and it’s in the third person. I read it recently and there wasn’t very much I wanted to change, it’s pretty good. But I just don’t have the desire or time to continue, even thought the entire plot’s in my mind. Naturally it’s about musicians, drugs, a French lesbian dancer, pimps, good guys, bad guys, Harlem, race, and the main character who tells the story is a priest, formerly a professional trombonist…what else.

    Great job


    • July 13, 2011 3:16 am


      That sounds like a great story! I hope you can finish it one day. I’m glad you are getting something out of my ramblings.


  2. July 20, 2011 5:46 pm

    I don’t necessarily agree. Although it’s probably a good rule for beginning writers, I’ve read many love stories where the POV switches back and forth between lovers within the same scene. It’s very effective as long as the reader doesn’t get confused.

    • July 24, 2011 7:34 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! While it is true that some authors have broken the “rules” and made it work, most don’t make it work well and handle it poorly. For a first time author, it is better just to start out the right way and not do it at all. Yes, it CAN be done by one who has their chops but it is not easy and is a risk at not only alienating potential agents and editors, but readers as well. However, depending on the genre, you never know. As I’ve also stated, one can write however they want, roll the dice and see what happens. As a writer, I’d want to appeal to as many people as I can and taking risks with alternative styles like that is something I’d not want to do, personally. Maybe a writer could make it work, and obviously, it’s worked in certain romances. However, were those first-time romance authors? Were they well-established? In that type of genre, does grammar or style matter at all? I don’t know because that is not something I’d ever read! I’d be curious to know more about it from a writer’s aspect.

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