Critique Technique, Part 51 — Point of View Shifts

By Ross B. Lampert

Two angry people sitting on a benchWhoops! Last time, when I wrote about head-hopping, I thought I had already written about point of view (POV) shifts. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Time to correct that error.

Let’s make sure right now that we’re clear on what POV is. The written-out term gives us a good start. Point of view, or viewpoint: whose eyes and other senses, in other words, the reader is seeing and 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 at least four different POV options.

  • Omniscient. The word means all-knowing, and in this case, the fly is really on the wall. In this POV, the narrator stands back from the characters and reports on their actions and statements. This can make the omniscient POV impersonal.
  • Third person. This is the most common POV and comes in a variety of forms, depending on how close to the 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 fly is riding right on the shoulder of the POV character and even has telepathic/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.).
  • Second person. 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 started beating faster. You smelled his sweat.” This may seem very personal, and it is, but only in a very limited because, unless the author steps out of this viewpoint in certain scenes, the reader/character can know only what the narrator tells her she knows, or what other characters tell her in dialogue or through actions she is aware of.
  • First person. This POV comes in two forms, singular and plural.

o   First person singular POV is common in certain genres, like mystery, where the fly is inside the POV character’s head (eww). Like second person, this viewpoint is very intimate to the POV character but also very limiting, again because the reader can only know and experience what the character knows and experiences.

o   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 shift from one kind to the other, with one exception: novice writers will sometimes drop into the second person to remind the reader of something they already know. That sounds like it’s intentional but it’s not. 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.

In head-hopping, the author jumps from one character’s POV to another’s like a frog being chased by a raccoon… hop hop hop.

The other kinds of POV shifts can be less frenetic than head-hopping but just as confusing for the reader. In each case, the essential cause is the same: when the writer’s focus—who they’re paying attention to at the moment—shifts, they shift into that character’s POV. Now, I suppose in “experimental” fiction an author could get away with that, but the standard practice in the industry—the “rule,” if you will—is one POV per scene. NOTE: Calling a work “experimental” is not an acceptable cover for bad writing technique!

So as a reviewer, what are you looking for when it comes to shifting POVs? Ask these questions:

  • 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? Especially, do we start experiencing the scene through a different character’s perspective?
  • Does the POV shift back to the original POV character?
  • Does the author speak directly to the reader, or describe something the reader should know, even momentarily?

If the answer to any of the last three questions is yes, you can then focus on how the author can keep her focus, and the scene’s POV, locked in on the original POV character. If it would be better to shift to a different viewpoint for some reason, you can discuss how to insert scene breaks to delineate the shift. Take a look at my example in Part 50 to see how that was done.

Now it’s your turn. How do you spot point-of-view shifts and how do you help writers overcome them? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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