Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

Half-way through the year already, where did the time go? The first Monday of every month (or the first Sunday if you’re in the northern hemisphere) is when I invite you to post your writing-related questions and I’ll  answer them here. Lots of talented writers read and comment on this blog and you’re also welcome to contribute your thoughts on an answer, or share a writing experience that might help others.

 Questions can be posted ahead of time if you like and I will answer during Monday July 2.  I monitor the blog and post answers throughout the day. To kick things off, here’s a question I was asked at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writing Centre during the last week:

Which is better, staying in one characters point of view or having a variety? I was told not to “head hop”

The viewpoint character is the person through which the reader “enters” the story. Like putting on a garment, we “put on” the character’s view of the story (POV) and see everything as it happens through that person’s eyes. If there’s more than one viewpoint character, we get to see the story as it’s experienced by two or more people.

In romance novels we used to see the story only through the heroine’s eyes. She would guess or imagine why the hero did things, or what he was thinking. These days, readers want to see both sides of the romance. so it’s common to switch between the heroine’s POV and the hero’s. To avoid confusing your reader, it’s a good idea to switch viewpoints only when we have something new to learn from the other character. She might think he’s not attracted to her, for example. In his POV, we find out that there’s danger and he’s pretending not to care to get her out of the way.

There are no rules, only what works in your story.

It all depends on your point of view!

If a critique partner or editor says you’re “head hopping”, this means you’re not staying in one character’s viewpoint for very long before switching to another, and this can get confusing. Some writers – Nora Roberts is a good example – switch so effortlessly we don’t notice it happening. A lot depends on your skill as a writer.  You need to be aware of whose POV you’re writing in and when you make a switch, so the reader isn’t lost.  Also beware of accidentally slipping into the head of a minor character by having them “think” about the hero or heroine as they take their coats, for instance. Rather, have the POV character assume that the minor character doesn’t like them by their snooty expression, so we stay in the right head.

Got a question? Advanced or basic,

I’ll do my best to answer.


Proud friend of the National Year of Reading 2012

Established Writer in Residence 2012, Katharine Susannah Prichard Centre, Perth WA

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Comments on: "First Monday Mentoring, ask your burning question here" (12)

  1. POV is something I’m trying to come to grips with. The first stories I’ve written have been the ‘old fashioned’ in the heroine’s head only and I quite enjoy of the challenge of letting the reader see things about the heroes POV through his body language or the things he says. Of course you risk making the heroine look stupid when she misses these things.
    Now I’m trying to do both POV’s and it is always a struggle to know when to change, especially in a scene where there is a lot of dialogue and potential for misunderstandings. I find I’ve stuck a heroes POV fair square in the middle of the heroine POV and it makes sense to me but to someone unfamiliar it may seem confusing and head hopping. At the moment I’m writing a lightweight scifi novella with a strict he says, she says in first person, chapter by chapter. That opens a whole barrel of monkey’s but I’m finding it very interesting and educational.

    • Hi Fiona, POV is both a minefield and a wonderful tool. You can share some info but not others between the characters, letting the reader know stuff the other characters don’t (my favourite use of POV) and give us a more rounded view of a relationship. I like to have a reason to switch, not just because it’s been a while in one POV. You may want to show another side to an argument, or that the hero’s feelings for the heroine are growing, but without her knowing. This is a good reason to switch IMO. First person is indeed another monkey barrel, limiting the writer to only what the POV person sees, experiences or is told about. Enjoy the challenge.

  2. VP, as well as being a “good idea to switch viewpoints only when we have something new to learn from the other character” I thought the pov you should be in is the one who has the most to lose.

    If this is two different people in the one scene, which is the stronger reason for choosing a pov? Or is it a case-by-case situation?

    • Good point, Anita, and I have heard that too. Personally I find that “rule” a bit limiting. POV has so many uses, to share information with, or keep it from the reader, to show more than one side to a situation, perhaps one you don’t yet want the characters to share with each other, and of course to move the story forward. Case by case makes more sense to me. I tend to ask myself what work a piece of writing needs to do, look at what choices will accomplish the task, then choose the least predictable one. Is this helpful? let me know if you need more.

  3. Robyn Van Matre said:

    Valerie, my question has to do with writing a screenplay. I have always been curious how this is formatted and what you can and can’t include. Is it strictly dialogue or are directions and things of that sort in there as well? Thanks for satisfying my curiosity. I know sometimes it can kill the cat…

    • Hi Robyn, I’m writing a screenplay at the moment. Latest thinking is to include as little stage direction as possible, only the basic moves we see the characters making,leaving the rest up to the director. All dialogue is included but these days the writer puts very little in the way of “how” the dialogue should be said, again leaving it to the actors. The old style of putting (angrily) in parentheses is avoided and they’re dubbed “rileys” because one of them was (wryly) LOL. Here’s a basic guide to formatting a script. Disclaimer: no cats were killed in responding to this question 🙂

  4. Hi Valerie
    I know it’s not first Monday any more but I have a question about POV and I naturally thought of you. You can leave it til next Mentoring Monday if you wish. I mention above I’m writing a short novella in first person POV. I’ve started off with POV from each of the two protagonists one chapter each until I got to five. Five should have been the male protagonist but the way the story line developed she needed more air time so she has another chapter sequentially. I could possibly insert the Male POV in between as he could easily have a bit to say. They are about 3k each so not overly long. Now I’m on the final chapter. Six, and am in his POV. I am feeling it would be more powerful if her POV is included in the final denouement but I’m worried the readers (moot point perhaps) would be confused if I put her POV into this chapter along side his. I think it’s important that he has a strong voice in the final chapter because in a lot of ways it’s his story.

  5. Hi Fiona, we’ll sneak this one in Since the novella is short, the pattern of alternating POV may be more noticeable than in a longer work. Can you break the pattern elsewhere, so it isn’t just a one-off? I’m all for going with what the characters want to do, provided it fits the book, so I’d be inclined to let the heroine keep going. Having two POV characters in the closing chapter shouldn’t be a problem as long as the reader is clear about whose head we’re in. Leaving a couple of line spaces between POVs (I first typed loin…very Freudian LOL) should be enough to signal the switch. There’s no rule for how long a chapter has to be. If you want to keep alternating POVs, you could simply have her chapter run longer. Generally I’d go with what feels right to you.

    • VP, sorry, now I’m going to keep this going, but you’re answer created the question! I know you shouldn’t head hop, but if you change pov’s do you have to leave the line space? I’ve always thought you didn’t need to as long as the change in pov didn’t pull the reader out of the story or confuse the reader about which pov you are in.

  6. Thanks VP. That helps clear my head a little. Chapter length could be a good way of moving things around. I hadn’t considered that.

  7. Anita, the line spacing is only one way to signal a POV change. Not all authors do it. I do. Others put asterisks. Some writers nothing at all. The sainted Nora Roberts doesn’t and it works for her. Another way to signal a change is to have the new viewpoint character use the previous one’s name in the first sentence after you switch. For instance. “He felt glad they’d had this discussion. If Sally thought she was going to call the shots, he had news for her.” (In his POV. The next sentence might read. “Sally listened to Ned laying down the law with a sense of astonishment. What century did he think they were living in?” and so on. Mainly it seems writers run into problems when they forget whose POV they are in or slip into another POV by accident. That’s when editors start to query things. 🙂

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