Writing A Novel With Shifting Points Of View, by Greg Barron
Most people serious enough about writing to read this blog post will already know the basics of POV. You’ll know that, in general, a story is told from the perspective of one or more characters – that the story is “seen” through their eyes. The words you write describe the world as they walk, talk, eat and drink. You do your best to write so that the reader feels what the character feels, smells what they smell and hears what they hear.
In first person POV books this is straightforward. They are a great place for the beginner to start. So too with third person narratives that stick to the POV of one main character. The difficulties occur with complex, multiple POV stories, particularly where the writer follows the modern convention of restricting each scene to the POV of one character.
In more traditional styles, with an omnipotent narrator, the writer simply jumps from the mind of one character to another:
“You are a beast,” Ellie shouted, wondering how she could ever have loved him at all.
“That’s your opinion,” Thomas snapped back. Yet he could see the hatred in her eyes. It unsettled him. Had he really been so mean to her?
Modern readers and editors can find this unsettling. The one POV per scene rule is standard these days. There is, however, a problem when several POV characters get together. Sometimes, in a long book, you might have three or even four POV characters in the story all having a conversation. Whose POV do you use for the scene?
My usual answer is to use the dominant character’s POV but this doesn’t always work. They might have a relatively unimportant role at this point. I might choose the perspective of the character whose emotional reaction to events at hand is strongest. A nice touch might be to use a relatively unimportant player who can observe all your characters dispassionately and thus reveal information about them that has not yet been disclosed. You might choose the hostess of a dinner party, for example.
Most often, however, particularly in popular fiction, you want the lens of your writer’s telescope fixed on the mover and shaker, the character who is doing things, not having things done to them. If your dinner party involves a major character pulling a gun on another, accusing him of betraying his country, are you are better off with the reader’s eye looking down the sights of the gun or staring at the muzzle? This is not an exact science.
If you are writing primarily for women, you will probably take the POV of a woman. The opposite applies when writing for men.
Rules are made to be broken, of course, but jumping all over the place, from mind to mind, will not look professional unless you already have a track record as a successful writer. There are lots of little POV traps:
Sara followed him outside to the stables.
“Wait here,” he said.
She obeyed, standing, playing with her Blackberry while he disappeared inside, took down a blue nylon halter from the nail and returned leading a glossy black stallion.
How does she know what he’s doing inside the stables? She doesn’t, so you can’t put it in there, unless you’re using an omniscient narrator. If it’s important to the story, you’ll need to write a little scene from his POV to explain what he does. If it’s not important, cut it.
Sometimes, with POV, you just have to go with your gut feeling. There are so many variables to take into account. My advice: write with the eyes and ears of your chosen POV character for the scene and you won’t get into too much trouble.
Greg Barron’s author website: www.gregbarron.com
Writing Novels in Australia