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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Writing tips - Changing POV

I’ve just read a book, no title, no author, no pack-drill, where the character point of view switches more than once within the same scene. And it isn’t a book written from the omniscient POV. Established authors can get away with it (Why? Don't their editors care?), but this still grates; and, furthermore, if you're not established, potential editors or agents might notice and award a demerit or two, especially if it persists.

Switching POV pulls the reader out of the story, loses the intimacy of a character, and at its worst can confuse the reader.

[I'm being uncharitable towards many editors, I know. When the editor points out this kind of thing, it's up to the author to correct it; the editor can't impose his or her will, he can suggest. If the author won't budge, then... the POV issue hangs there.]

Here are some thoughts on changing POV.

If you change a character POV in a scene, then create a scene break. I won’t labour the point, but an example can be found on p79 of The $300 Man.
Corbin too wondered what business Tillman had with Mr Walker.
* * *
Sitting in an upholstered chair opposite Mr Walker who was at his desk, Tillman rested his elbows on the arms and nursed a tumbler of bourbon and branch water. ‘I am perplexed, Mr Walker.’

Thanks to the break, the reader then knows whose head he or she is in – Corbin’s then Tillman’s.


Action scenes can be difficult where there’s a temptation to show how each fighter feels as the blows are exchanged. Resist this. In fact, for each scene, decide whose POV is going to be revealed.

When the scene is first written, I’m not always sure whose POV I’m going to write from, as I’m just writing the interplay, the dialogue and the action. But when I have to layer in the emotion – and possibly thoughts and feelings, such as pain – then I have to decide. Who is most affected in the scene? Then that’s probably whose POV you should use – so go back through that scene and personalize it from that character’s perspective.

Bert laughed and tugged off the woman’s wedding band. She whimpered but said nothing.

         Elijah chuckled. ‘Get another husband, widow. He’ll buy a new ring for you!’

         These distractions were enough. Half rising, Corbin swung his left arm up, the hook sinking into Elijah’s neck. Blood spurted, splashing Corbin’s dark blue flannel shirt and buckskin jacket. Damn, must have hit an artery. Jerking his bloody hook out of the wound, he used it to snag the shotgun out of Elijah’s hands.

         Bert swerved round, levelling his six-gun, his face draining white at sight of his sibling crumpling to the carriage floor.

         Corbin’s right hand grabbed the shotgun. Resting the barrel on the back of the seat, he blasted Bert full in the chest before the bandit could fire off a single bullet.

         The widow shrieked in alarm as Bert fell back onto the floor, ineffectually gripping his revolver. Others cheered. (The $300 Man, pp7/8)

In the above example, there are four characters – Bert and Elijah, the bad guys, the widow and Corbin. It would be easy to get into any or all of their heads – but this must be resisted. This has to be from Corbin Molina’s POV throughout. ‘These distractions were enough’ is Corbin’s thought. I don’t convey it as ‘he thought’ when it’s obvious by the next three words that it’s Corbin’s POV. Then Corbin’s thought – Damn… It’s visual and fast, and we don’t get confused about who’s doing what.

Mixed up action
Action scenes can easily become confusing, especially where the writer is employing ‘he’ but it isn’t always obvious who ‘he’ is. There’s a tendency to jump from one character POV to another. Pay close attention to your action scenes, and make sure you’ve pinned down whose POV you’re writing.
Strive to simplify and visualise every time.

- extract from Write a western in 30 Days (pp 64/65)


Jack Strandburg said...


As always, good advice on POV, which can sometimes escape us when revising and there is more than one character in a scene.

Nancy Jardine said...

I personally hate POV shifts now. When I submitted my debut novel to my publisher, the editor I was assigned to was ruthless in making sure I really understood how confusing POV shifts can be. To avoid any lingering tendency, I use different font colours when writing early drafts-that means that checking is easier after I've done as you suggested- i.e.'decide on whose POV a scene is in'. I now think it's lazy drafting by an author if they leave messy scenes.

Nik said...

Thanks, Jack. I like your idea, Nancy, of using different font colours. As you suggest, some authors stay too close to the book - they know who's doing what and saying what, but it isn't necessarily clear on the page! Rewriting and self-editing are the most important aspects of writing a novel; we'll never catch everything, but we should at least TRY.