Writing Pet Peeves: Point of View Issues

Point of View is the perspective from which a story is told. A writer may choose to tell a story in first person (I was born) or in third person (he/she was born). I suppose second person (you were born) is possible, but is more appropriate for personal letters than works of fiction.

Whatever the perspective, the narrator can only comment (or think about) things he or she can see, feel, touch, taste, or hear themselves. If Bill is the narrator, he can’t say “Mark knew what Bill meant,” unless, of course, Bill is psychic and can read Mark’s mind. Unless Bill’s looking in a mirror, he can’t say his face turned red, either. Instead, he’d probably say his face grew hot.

Third person omniscient is another option. Doing it well AND keeping the reader involved in the story, however, is very difficult. With objective omniscient, the narrator is like a fly on the wall. Relating what he or she sees (tastes, smells, hears, feels) with no knowledge of anyone’s inner thoughts makes characters feel remote and distant.

When the narrator is obviously not part of the story, subjective omniscient can work. The television show “Pushing Daisies” employed this technique. The narrator wasn’t a character in the story, making it easier for he viewers to accept his knowledge of what the characters were thinking and feeling.

Multiple Points of View are possible in the same story. All my novels are told from multiple perspectives. The reader moves from one character’s POV to another, but the transition is obvious (usually a new chapter, or at the very least, a double space to indicate a new section), and the POV doesn’t change again through the end of the section.

The writers group where I learned to write fiction had zero tolerance for even the most minor slips in Point of View. I rarely make POV mistakes anymore, but early on, minor slips were common. A minor slip here and there (“Bill’s face turned red” when we’re in Bill’s POV) is forgivable, but I’d expect an editor to catch the error prior to publication.

A more serious Point of View issue is known as head hopping. In the same paragraph, the reader knows what both Bill and Mark are thinking. Bill thought Mark was good-looking, and Mark couldn’t think of a finer specimen than Bill. We start out in Bill’s head then jump into Mark’s head.

Head hopping drives me crazy. I recently read a story where the POV shifted back and forth between two characters in the same paragraph throughout an eight-page love scene. I damn near got whiplash from all the switching back and forth, and felt like I needed a dramamine or something to finish.

The writer was attempting to show the inner thoughts of both characters during an important scene. It didn’t work for me because 99% of the story is told from the POV of the main character. He was both the narrator and the main character in the story. Slipping in the thoughts and feelings of the other character threw me for a loop and took me out of the story.

Minor slips are forgivable, especially if there aren’t many of them. Head hopping, however, is a deal breaker. Authors should knew better.


2 responses to “Writing Pet Peeves: Point of View Issues”

  1. Unfortunately, while some authors are amenable to being corrected about head-hopping, others maintain that it is their style. There are very few who do it well and unobtrusively.

    • I’ve had great editors and never ignore their comments and suggestions. For me, disagreeing with an editor is a rare event. They’re trying to make the story better, and I have no problem with that!