Point of View 4: POV shifts – Working Examples

Let’s look at POV shifts within paragraphs and some possible solutions:

Version 1:  

autumn leaves 0034Julia smiled to  herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion.

Julia’s cat stared at Simon curiously with her bright green eyes from the edge of the flowerbed. She wondered what he was doing and hoped that all that strange pulling and tugging on his part might be the prelude to a tasty morsel or perhaps an interesting game. Realising it was neither, she gave a loud yawn and stretched herself to her full length, before sauntering back in the direction of the house.

In the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Simon groaned. He hated this place. 

Version 2: 

autumn leaves 002Julia smiled to herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon.

Simon rubbed the grit from his eyes, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. The pair of green feline eyes gazing curiously at him from the edge of flowerbed unnerved him. That cat – Julia’s cat – didn’t like him, he was sure of that. As if to prove his point, the animal gave a sudden loud yawn, stretched herself to her full length and sauntered in the direction of the house. Simon groaned. He hated this place.

Watching from the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Commentary: 

  • In Version 1, the POV shift from Julia’s point of view to Simon’s is unnerving. One sentence on, we get a further shift: we are now viewing Simon from the cat’s POV. Then we are back to Julia, then Simon again. The end result is confusion and irritation for the reader as they try to figure out on exactly who or what they should they be focussing, no doubt also asking themselves at the same time why they are having to work so hard.

  • Misc 2009010In Version 2, the shift from Julia’s POV is more clearly signposted (although still a little disconcerting). We’ve also lost Puss’s POV. This may be quirky, but it is distracting and makes the cat more significant than is warranted in the overall scheme of things. In addition, we are setting up reader expectations only to cruelly dash them, if this is the only instance of her POV. Cutting her out allows us to focus more clearly on Simon’s feelings, which is more useful for the story, and gives the reader a better sense of his and Julia’s relationship and the physical and emotional distance between them.

Whose story is it anyway? 

Of course, all of the above assumes that Julia and Simon are the two viewpoint characters in the story, but the tale could just as well be told solely from Julia’s POV or Simon’s POV, or indeed, entirely from Puss’s POV. Or you could use the cat yawning at Simon as the pivotal event in which the same story is told from three different points of view. To be honest, the possibilities are endless and the joy of being a writer is you get to try out as many as you wish. So, please, go explore and enjoy!

Point of View 3: Split personalities

You are perfectly at liberty to have more than one viewpoint character if you think it will serve your story best. Think fantasy epics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Lots of books. Lots of characters. Lots of viewpoints.

Harry Potter 004The main problem with multiple viewpoints is how to manage the POV shifts between characters. Again, consistency is the order of the day. You need to set up a structure for the POV shifts and signpost them clearly, because shifting POV without warning is like speaking to someone without first catching their eye. The first time, they may be merely taken by surprise, but if it happens more than once, they will become irritated very quickly.

Most common is a pattern of alternating narrators, with POV shifts usually occurring between chapters or larger book divisions. There are no limits on the number of viewpoints, but be aware that if your readers are fully engaged with a particular character, they may be unhappy at a POV shift regardless of how well you manage it. The way around this problem, of course, is to make the next viewpoint character every bit as fascinating as the last (something to keep in mind if you are planning a large number of them). Beware also random minor characters who pop up to grab their fifteen minutes of POV fame. Unless they have some piece of information absolutely vital to the story which cannot be imparted any other way, remove them from the premises quietly and quickly. Don’t forget, the more viewpoints you have, the more goodwill required from your readers.

Dracula 003A good example of the use of multiple viewpoints is Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, Dracula. The story weaves between major and minor character narrations via letters, journals, interviews, ship’s logs and newspaper reports. The clever thing about the way the novel is structured is that each narration moves the plot forward in time and place, linked by and chronologically following Dracula’s physical journey from Transylvania to England and back again. Indeed, it is the reader’s awareness of this sinister thread of Dracula’s evil presence underlying the narrated events (and mostly unbeknownst to the other protagonists) which pulls the disparate sections of narrative into a cohesive whole and gives the story its overwhelming sense of menace and urgency.

A note of caution – one of the most common mistakes in early draft manuscripts is the unintentional POV shift within chapters or even paragraphs. We’ll look at this in more detail in the next post, but here’s a quick taster:

autumn leaves 0034‘Julia  smiled at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his dirty hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. 

The POV shift from Julia to Simon may be subtle, but is unnerving nonetheless. Let’s face it, if readers have to work too hard to get the sense or atmosphere of a story, they may end up thinking less kindly of you as a writer. So keep an eye out for errant POV shifts to ensure you don’t end up with lots of  VARs (that is, Very Annoyed Readers).