Let’s be clear from the beginning about what point of view (POV), or viewpoint, is. Simply stated, it means whose eyes and other senses the reader is experiencing the story through. Said another way, if you think of the reader as being the proverbial fly on the wall, where is that fly? That sounds simple enough, but there are four main POV options, and many variations of each.
Four Main Points of View and Some of Their Variations
The word means all-knowing, and in this case, the fly really is on the wall. In this POV, the narrator stands back from the characters and reports on their actions and statements. But it’s also a telepathic fly: the author can tell the reader, as well as show him, what a character is thinking or feeling. However, too much telling can make the omniscient POV impersonal.
This is the most common POV choice and comes in a variety of forms, depending on how close to the viewpoint character the writer wants the reader to be. In the more distant forms, it’s hard to tell the difference from omniscient. In the more personal forms, the so-called “close third,” the fly is riding right on the shoulder of the POV character and even has telepathic and/or empathic access to his thoughts and emotions.
In omniscient and third person POVs, the author will refer to the character by name (Alice, Bob), by pronoun (she, he), and by description (the banker, the red head, etc.).
This POV is used very rarely in part because it’s so hard to do well. In this form, the reader is the POV character, with the author telling her what she’s seeing, feeling, thinking, etc. “You saw Bob coming down the stairs. Your heart beat faster. You smelled his sweat.” This may seem very personal, and it is, but only in a very limited way because, unless the author steps out of this viewpoint in certain scenes, the reader/character can only know what the narrator tells her she knows, what other characters tell her in dialogue, or through actions or events she is aware of.
It’s possible to do a second person plural POV, but that’s even harder to do, and thus much rarer, than second person singular.
This POV comes in two forms, singular and plural.
First person singular POV is common in certain genres, like mystery or detective, where the fly is inside the character’s head. The POV character is the narrator, telling the reader what’s happening. Like second person, this viewpoint is very intimate to that character, but it’s also very limiting, again because the reader can only know and experience what the character knows and experiences.
First person plural is even rarer—and harder to do—than second person because instead there being one POV character, there are several… all at once. The author refers to the POV characters as “we” rather than I, he, she, or you. I’m only aware of one book that’s used this POV, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and even in this case, the author eventually had to switch to another kind of POV to make the story work.
The fact that there are all these different kinds of POV isn’t the problem, however. Authors don’t often intentionally shift from one kind to another within the same work. However, there are a few ways that writers—and not just novices—can shift POV without meaning to.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Writers may sometimes drop into the second person to remind the reader of something they already know. That sounds like it’s intentional but it may not be. The writer is confusing the narrator of the story with a friend of the reader, and so the narrator has a momentary conversation (usually one-sided) with him. This can be OK, but only if the author establishes the technique right from the beginning of the story.
Head-hopping doesn’t have anything to do with drug-addled frogs (or any kind of frogs, for that matter), mid-twentieth century actress and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, or some strange horror movie. Instead, the author jumps from one character’s POV to another’s within a scene or even a paragraph. This is an easy trap for new writers to fall into, although more experienced ones can do it too. They’re ripping along, telling a rollicking good tale from the POV of one character, and then, when their attention shifts to another one for a moment, they slip into that character’s POV. As often as not, they slip out again when their focus returns to the first POV character.
In this kind of shift, the POV just slips from one character to another and stays there to the end of the chapter or scene. This shift can be especially sneaky because it can seem so natural.
In each case of POV shifting, the essential cause is the same: the writer’s focus—who they’re paying attention to at the moment—shifts, and so they shift into that character’s viewpoint.
Now, I suppose in “experimental” fiction an author can get away with that, but the standard practice in the industry—the “rule,” if you will—is one POV per scene. Calling a work “experimental” is not an acceptable cover for bad writing technique!
Fixing POV Shifts
There are a few different ways to fix POV shifting. The most direct is to just get everything back into the original POV character’s viewpoint. This isn’t always easy, and may require a fair amount of rewriting.
Another fix is to turn the second character’s perceptions, thoughts, etc., into dialogue. Not interior monologue (thoughts), mind you. External speech. That gets everything right out in the open, but this may not be desirable.
A third option is to break up the original scene into several. It’s completely acceptable to change POV after a scene or chapter break. In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons for having such a break. Then, once the author has gotten done whatever needed to be done from that different POV, she can insert another break and switch back to the previous viewpoint. This technique can make a work choppy, however, if there are too many such breaks in close succession.
Questions for You
As a reviewer, what are you looking for when it comes to shifting POVs, and how can you help fix them? Here are some questions you can ask yourself.
- What type of POV is the author using at the start of the scene: omniscient, third person, etc.?
- Who is the POV character at the start of the scene?
- Do either of these change, even momentarily, during the scene? In other words, do I start experiencing the scene from a different character’s perspective?
- After the POV shifts the first time, does it shift back to the original POV character, to yet another one, or bounce back and forth?
- Does the author speak directly to the reader, even momentarily, or describe something to them, that they should already know?
- Would replacing the shifted POV with dialogue solve the problem?
- Would breaking the scene where the POV shifts fix it?
If the answer to any of the middle three questions is yes, you can focus on how the author can keep her focus, and the scene’s POV, locked in on the proper POV character.
Now it’s your turn. How do you spot point of view shifts, and how do you help writers overcome them? The focus is now on you to share your ideas in the comments box below.