The joys and sorrows of POV

So, this may seem a VERY obvious statement, but it just occurred to me this weekend that successful writing is MOSTLY about good story telling. (I know, duh.) But you see, as a writer, it’s really easy to get wrapped up in the moment and that VERY FUNDAMENTAL notion is lost day-to-day. I’m reading a really good story right now and I can’t help but try to compare the author’s writing to mine - and try to find the delta that got HIM published! What I’ve determined is that he writes to an excruciating minutia. I mean, if someone walks into a room to fix a radio, he MUST describe every second of that scene - “Jim opened the door, then closed it. Then he walked over to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down…” Etc. I recall that L. Ron Hubbard wrote that way too; Battlefield Earth was an excellent story, but his writing style was a bit sloppy and too detailed, and it sometimes took twice as long to get through a chapter because I would have to re-read paragraphs. It was also over 800 pages long! That’s most obviously because of the way in which he covered every moment of a scene. I’m not a big fan of that style…but they still got published, and I bought the books, and I like the books! So who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?

One of the issues that was brought out this past summer - when I let two friends read my really rough first draft - is that I like to change POVs…a lot. Another fav author of mine also shares this writing style quirk - that which I cannot seem to help but continue because it works for me. Her book is mostly written in 3rd person omniscient with a smattering of 3rd person limited. Each scene or chapter seems to be in one character’s POV for the most part, but she WILL NOT hesitate to change a POV in the middle of a scene or chapter if she needs to make a point. In one particular scene I recall her changing POVs within one paragraph! Hurray to her, I say! I’ve decided that is simply how I write and as long as it doesn’t get confusing, I’m not going to focus on changing it. I’m just going to focus on telling a story.

Any thoughts on POV changes and usage in a novel?

I think what you said there is the most important thing.

The moment any of your readers get confused is the moment you need to be more careful. For that reason, if you are going to swap whose head you are inside, it needs to be done at some kind of break, or otherwise make it very clear and explicit, otherwise people get confused.

For that reason, I think most writers try to limit their POV to one or just a few characters, usually clearly separated into chapters or parts, or at least with scene dividers.

To do otherwise is fine - so long as you have a good reason for doing so, and make sure readers don’t get lost in the transition.


This post made me think of a quote from a novel by Robert Rankin, but it’s ages since I last read anything by him, and now I can’t seem to remember it. Anyway, the novel in question – one of the “Armageddon: The Musical” trilogy – switches from third person to first person when a detective character enters the plot. And the character himself comments upon the change.

I also like switching POV. However, the last novel I wrote was in first person. I was inspired by first person video games, and the way the best of them – Half Life 2 and BioShock in recent memory – gives you the feeling of trying to catch up to a story that’s already happened. It’s also brilliant for misleading the reader – in a good way, of course. I thought about rewriting the novel to include more POVs, but then the plot twists wouldn’t really be twists any more, because of the information being withheld in first person. The downside of this is that you can’t really build suspense – because then you have to use the “audience superior” principle, where the reader knows more than the character. You really just have to lead up to surprises, both for the reader and the character at the same time. And a surprise doesn’t last as long as suspense.

One of the things I like about playing with several POVs, is that you can use it to skip a lot of unnecessary beats – or even what you think might be necessary ones, just to make things a bit more interesting. I like a compressed storytelling style – I find the sort of information mentioned upthread, about closing the door, turning the light on etc., generally superflous.

Die Hard is a great example of the sort of thing I mean. Early in the movie McClane’s killed a bad guy and put him in an elevator – and then he sees a Santa Claus hat. Then you cut to the other bad guys, who find the guy in the elevator wearing the hat. You don’t see McClane put the hat on. Just cut to the chase. The movie has tons of stuff like this, but I could sit here all day going on about this, and there is writing to do.

Imo, you can do what you want - it’s your story - though it helps if you know what you are doing and have reasons for doing it that way.

There is, however, a craft to writing POV(s) and that is something a writer needs to learn before being able to craft a story with the POV(s) the writer wants (versus just writing and hoping for the best without understanding what the written words are actually saying/conveying).

Imo, POV is a subject that has a number of dimensions, not just whether it’s first, second, or third, but there is also the choice of the kind of storyteller voice - narrative (with or without an unseen narrator), omniscient, etc. - and how close (from external events only to internal thoughts), and so on.

One of the best books on the subject, imo, is Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft. It has small examples of the different kinds of POV as well as storytelling voices. I highly recommend doing the exercises - several times, if necessary - until you can craft the POV you wish how you wish.

There are some POV “purists” out there, but - again, imo - mostly the “rules” were made after-the-fact and were put in place to try to codify something that, in its essence, cannot be codified. I think your notion that changing POV is fine as long as there isn’t confusion in the reader.

Leonard Bishop, in his book Dare to be a Great Writer, says that you can change POV wherever you damn please, including in the middle of a sentence. He does add (iirc) that it helps if you’ve already established the characters involved before doing so, to keep the POV clear in the reader’s mind.

Sorry for the long post, but I am of the opinion that too few writers actually study POV enough to control it in their stories and, therefore, are at a loss as to why their stories are all over the place.

Thank you for the insightful post, Studio717! I will certainly look into this book. I started getting too wrapped up in POV last summer b/c a friend had mentioned it to me. I read up on it some but realized that I could spend all my (precious) free time reading about writing, or just get back to writing. So I opted for the latter! :smiley:

I’m just finishing the second book of Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy. She uses POV interestingly, but sometimes deviates from the rules.

Book two for example has more or less alternating chapters: from the first-person POV of the main protagonist, and the third person narrative of the second protagonist. But in one chapter the second protagonist, a woman called Kaede, we shift from her thoughts and viewpoint very briefly to those of her maid/assistant. It all still works, but I particularly noticed the change.

Might I recommend having a look at James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime,” which is one of the finest examples of authorial creativity I have seen in a modern writer. In this book, he is all over the map with POV and Voice, changing both apparently randomly, and somehow it all works perfectly. The most intriguing element is how he manages to describe private action in the voice of a 1st person narrator who is not present. He breaks almost all the narrative rules and produces a brilliant, compelling, exciting story. He is well up on my list of top 5 favorite writers.

I recently read a novel with an interesting POV - Then We Came To the End by Joshua Ferris. Except for one section in the middle, it’s told from a first person plural POV. Not entirely original, of course, but he handles it very well. The perspective is from a group of workers in a Chicago advertising firm suffering through the downturn after the dot-com bubble burst. I thought the POV would get annoying after a while, but the humor saves it.

An idea I have been toying with is a take on POV.

I have a main character but you never see his POV. The story unfolds from his friends POVs throughout the story. It is his story but experienced through everyone else’s eyes but his.


never see the MC’s POV?? Okay, colour me highly intrigued –

A head-hopping fiend myself, I’m really, really :exclamation: interested to see how you pull this off!

Hmm … slightly out of angle on the thread, but it has just struck me that the granddaddy of changing POVs is Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, especially the first three volumes.