Point of View: the Heart of the Elements of Fiction
I recently had someone ask me about “head hopping” within a manuscript and what would cause a reader to believe that a person was switching point of view (POV) in the middle of a scene. “Head hopping” is clearly a grievous violation of POV, but I discovered that not all POV violations are “head hopping” issues.
Let me start by setting out why this element is so important:
- Seasoned editors usually look first for POV issues because that tells the editor the extent of the author’s knowledge of the elements of fiction.
- When POV issues are evident, a manuscript is in danger of being rejected after the editor reads the first line.
For that reason, I thought I’d provide a check list of POV violation indicators:
- Are the thoughts of all your characters laid bare throughout a scene. Does one character act, react, and think and then another character does the same. That’s head hopping. Don’t do that.
- Is there an omniscient being telling the story? That’s omniscient POV, and that practice hasn’t been vogue since I began to study the art of fiction. I’m pretty old, and I’ve been writing since I was five. So, you don’t want to introduce omniscient POV to an editor. They won’t like it. Also, the excuse that “so-and-so author did it, and she’s famous, doesn’t work.” You will not get away with it. You should not get away with it.
- Are you setting the stage for your POV character? Readers don’t always consciously realize this, but when an author gives the POV character the first action (not thought or dialogue) of the scene, the POV character is set in the head of the reader. If you’ve ever gotten midway down a page or even into the chapter, and you have to go back to look to see which character should be leading the scene, it is most often due to one of two things: 1) the POV character was not set in that first paragraph; or 2) POV switches are occurring.
- Are your POV characters making comments with an adjective or adverb to describe their facial expressions or other actions? Unless the character is looking in a mirror and making a purposeful expression, this is a violation of POV. A POV character can smile, but when you add that adverb or adjective, you are adding a thought about the action. For example in Mary’s POV, a rueful smile or the indication that she smiled ruefully, is indicating that the character is so self-aware that she actually realizes what she’s doing. That is not normal behavior for a character. To avoid this violation, one would indicate only that the POV character smiled. Then the “rueful” smile is shown through dialogue or action. Since I had to look up “rueful” to determine what the action requires, let me share the definition: “expressing sorrow or regret, especially when in a slightly humorous way.” With that definition in mind, we might write: Mary put space between her and Dave. She bowed her head, tilted her gaze in his direction, and smiled. “I’m sorry that you and what’s her name broke up, but since you could never remember what to call her, I think it for the best.”
- Are your POV characters making an assumption of the intentions or emotions of other characters? Some editors might not flag this problem, but this editor will. Yes, it is possible for us to properly assess the actions of another as an indication of his or her thoughts, but in this instance, real life truths don’t translate well to the page. So, the best way to handle this problem is to provide a different slant on the POV character’s thoughts or to give the other character an action indicating the emotion/intention of the other character. Instead of saying Dave looked at her in anger, the anger should be shown in Dave’s actions or dialogue or the characters thoughts should be tweaked. Examples: 1) Dave’s hands curled into fists and his jaw raised with the clenching of his teeth. “That’s not fair, and you know it. I called her by your name, and you’ve never shown me any interest. What am I supposed to do when the only woman I love ignores my love for her?” 2) Dave stared off into the distance, an action she had long associated with his fighting for control of his anger.
- Are you telling rather than showing? I am so convinced that deep POV is the technique that allows a novel to play like a movie inside the head of the reader that I find a novel lacking this element boring and keeping me at a distance from the story. When I invest my time in a novel, I expect to have a total connection with the character. I want to be in the story with them. That is done by immersing the reader so deeply into the thought of the character that they are right there with the character. Telling is the enemy of deep POV as telling keeps the reader at a distance from the story. Therefore, it makes sense that deep POV would eventually result in better showing. When reviewing a manuscript, take special care to look for all telling phrases such as “he realized,” “she watched,” “she recognized,” “she knew,” etc., as well as all “ly” adverbs and eliminate them with revisions. This practice will make a story much stronger. Most times the revision is made simply by taking out the phrase. Example: “Mary watched Dave walk away” would become “Dave walked away.” With the proper setting of the scene as Mary’s POV, the reader understands Mary is watching him. Telling the reader she is watching him is redundant. As noted above, the “ly” or any type adverb should be replaced with a stronger verb or an action that shows the adverb. Be careful. Not all “ly” words are adverbs, and not all adverbs are wrong. The rule for flowery adjectives should be applied to weakening adverbs: the less the better.
Point of view has many aspects, and deep point of view requires continued practice to master, but I can promise that practicing will be a fun process and will definitely bring about the best writing an author can produce.
Fay Lamb writes emotionally charged stories that remind the reader that God is always in the details. Three of the four books in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series, are available: Stalking Willow, Better than Revenge, and Everybody’s Broken. Hope is the third book in The Ties that Bind Series, which also includes Charisse and Libby. Fay’s adventurous spirit has also taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.
Future releases from Fay will be: Frozen Notes, Book 4 of the Amazing Grace series, and Delilah, Book 4 from The Ties that Bind.
Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook and on Goodreads. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor.