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Please note before reading this piece that it is lengthy, almost 1500 words. But since the agents, publishers, and other professional editors I know feel that Point of View is not a subject to be taken lightly, I decided it should not receive short shrift.

What prompted me to address POV at this time is that I recently read a scene that contained four POV shifts, and when I brought this to the author's attention, I was told this was the intent. And it was explained to me in no uncertain terms that the writer did not see the problem--because in this person's mind there wasn't one.

It's Critical to Recognize Point of View Shifts

Let me state flat out that the importance of understanding and writing consistence POV cannot being overstated, because this is one of the first elements agents, publishers, and professional editors notice, since shifting POV is considered not only a deficiency but a sign of amateur writing. I can't always tell writers how to get published by a major royalty publisher, but I am certain of ways not to. And the unskilled shifting of POV is one of the fastest ways I know for material to end up in the slush pile.

There are Exceptions for when POV Shifts are Desirable, but they are Rare

There are of course exceptions. Some highly skilled writers can shift POV seamlessly. But their POV shifts are done sparingly and generally at high tension plot points in which the writer is not concerned with the movement because the scene is so powerful that the other character's view is necessary. And not expressing that POV would hinder the scene.

I wrote an article last year on POV in which I illustrated an instance in which I felt the shift was not only acceptable but desirable. So the issue is not confused, I'm not going to include the article at this time, but will mention that E. M. Forster said that POV shifts are fine--as long as nobody notices them (his remark made me laugh too). The difficulty for most writers is that POV shifts are most often not only noticeable, but overwhelmingly detrimental to the narrative.

Even Some of Literature's Elite have had Problems with POV

It does not require close reading to find problematic POV shifts, and even some of literature's most famous writers have erred. For a developmental writing workshop series I facilitate, which is sponsored by the local library system where I reside, I reread Saul Bellow's THE VICTIM, since I use it in one of my syllabuses and I wanted to refresh my memory on one aspect of the plot line. I noticed two instances in the story in which Mr. Bellow shifted the POV, and to the extent that it required me to read both passages several times so I could decifer the meaning.

A callow youth might read something by a famous author that contains jarring POV shifts and assume this sort of writing is acceptable. I'm sorry, it is not! Especially if a writer has hopes of being paid for being published in today's highly selective literary marketplace.

A Simple Definition for POV

If POV is foggy, perhaps this will make it clear: A character whose POV the scene is written around (maybe it would work best to consider this the "lead character" for this illustration) can demonstrate actions and express thoughts. Every other character in the scene can demonstrate actions but never express thoughts, since the thoughts of another character in the same scene automatically reflect that person's POV--and what is referred to as shifting POV once the scenes initial POV is established by a character. How POV is maintained for the reader--related to which character's thoughts are driving the scene--is the key to POV consistency.

Along this line, it is important to keep another point in mind. Even though this lead character can show actions and thoughts for the reader, he or she must couch the viewing of others. This means that the lead character can state what he or she desires, whether this be personal information or material about other characters or situations, but he or she can only suppose what is going on in the mind of others. Hence, we read phrases in which the lead character says that it seemed, or it appeared, or it looked like something was occurring related to another character or circumstance. Again, for POV consistency, once this lead character is established, no other character can express an opinion via interior monologue.

Examples of the Good and Bad use of POV

Here, now, are examples of the same scene with John and Mary written three ways. The first is in John's point of view.

"Hi," John said to Mary. He gazed into her eyes, more nervous than he had ever been in his life.
"I'm happy that you came by," Mary said, her voice sounding positive to him.
John, uplifted by her tone, experienced a sudden burst of confidence that he hadn't thought possible. But as he continued to stare at Mary, she blinked several times before turning away. He could only guess at what had caused her sudden change in comportment.
He took a deep breath and his voice was shaky. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Mary kept her head down. He heard what he thought was a muted sob, then she looked up at him and seemed to force a smile. "No. I thought I could but I can't."

Note that John can state his positions because he knows for certain what he is feeling, since this scene is written in his POV. His thoughts are "leading" the scene. But he cannot know for certain what Mary is feeling. He cannot know for example that she forced a smile, only that she seemed to have forced one. It is only after she says "no" that the reader can infer that John might have made a correct assumption. If the last spit of dialogue read, "Yes, I thought I couldn't, but I can," this could mean than her smile wasn't forced, but was one of subtle satisfaction with her decision. What follows is the same scene in Mary's POV.

"Hi," John said to Mary, as he gazed into her eyes.
John's anxiety was obvious to Mary, even by his one-word greeting, since his voice had cracked.
"I'm happy that you came by," she said in a soft tone, hoping this would provide him with some degree of self-assurance.
John seemed uplifted, and appeared to experience a sudden burst of confidence that pleased Mary. But as he continued to stare at her, she blinked several times before turning away. She hoped that he wouldn't misinterpret her actions, because it was she who now needed to gain composure.
He took a deep breath, but his voice was still shaky. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Mary kept her head down and sniffled, hoping he wouldn’t know she was crying, then she looked up and forced a smile. "No, I thought I could but I can't."

Here, now, is the same scene with the POV's shifting back and forth--and the consequences:

"Hi," John said to Mary, as he gazed into her eyes, she wondering if she really wanted to see him.
"I'm happy that you came by," Mary said, her voice soft, John thinking she should've been more aggressive, since he'd made everything so awkward.
John, however, was uplifted by her tone, and experienced a burst of confidence that she hadn't thought possible. Then he thought he noticed a change in her comportment as she seemed to look away. But he still needed time to think and she wished he were someplace else.
Mary kept her head down and made what sounded to John like a muted sob. Then she looked up and appeared to force a smile. As they stared at one another, she dreaded the words he would say or hear next. "I thought I could but I can't."

This example is overkill, but I've read material just as bad, and it demonstrates just how devastating inept POV shifts can be. Lack of speaker designation is the most common issue with POV shifts, as depicted in the last paragraph, since the reader is unable to determine who was talking.

If a Writer is Seeking a Major Royalty Publisher, a Good Rule is to be Consistent with POV

As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions to maintaining POV via one character. But if a writer is trying to find a quality agent or a bona fide royalty publisher, especially for the first time, I strongly suggest avoiding POV shifts altogether.

Also, if anyone would like to receive my Free Newsletter on Writing and Publishing that I currently E-mail every other Tuesday, please visit my web site at http://www.theperfectwrite.com and scroll to the bottom of the page for the simple two-step sign up Form.

Views: 26

Comment by Mark A. Santomieri on January 22, 2010 at 3:39pm
Hey Robert.

Though I agree with you on principle, I think that, creatively, point of view shifts can be executed to good and salable effect.
One very well known author, Frank Herbert, demonstrated this time and again in his Dune series. Since his son Brian has taken the wheel, the illustrations of this priniciple are still manifold.
I should also like to point out that points of view within scenes are discrete according to the writer's voice at any given time. First person, third person/omniscient, third person/subjective, etc. all have their particular rules of engagement to the reader.
I would hasten to add that publishers will take chances with very well crafted stories regardless of character point of view and that the editors are the ones who "throw down" with the writer first on topics of style and consistency. Homogenization is not a good thing in our craft.
I will certainly subscribe to your Newsletter. And again, your points are well taken.
Best,
M.

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