Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stepping Out: A Look at Point of View Shifts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Slipping out of your point of view character's head can jar a reader right out of the story.

Point of view shifts are sneaky little bits of told prose, that occur when a POV character conveys something to the reader the POV character couldn’t possibly know. The most common one is when motive is attributed to a non-POV character, but having a non-POV character observe something about the POV is another one you see quite often. 

Sometimes they sneak by and readers don’t really notice them (we writers are far pickier on this topic than readers) but sometimes they do jar the reader out of the story because it’s clear the POV wouldn’t know that.

You have the super obvious shifts, where the reader is privy to more than one character’s thoughts and perspective in the same scene (or worse, the same paragraph):
John glanced down at his phone. Where r u? floated on the screen. Couldn’t that woman leave him alone? Stacy was his wife, not his parole officer. Stacy didn’t think so, and she waited with phone in hand, anxious for John to text her back. Why hadn’t he answered?
Feel that sudden yank there in the middle? Didn’t you think “Stacy didn’t think so…” was John’s opinion of her at first, then all of a sudden you were in Stacy’s head. This is a pretty bad POV shift, often referred to as “head hopping” because you’re jumping from head to head.

To keep the reader centered on the POV, you want to stick with one POV per scene or chapter. When you switch POVs, break the scene and start a new one.

Let’s look at the sneakier ones now:
John smiled at me, then reached over to brush dried leaves off my shoulder.
Can you spot the shift? The “to” implies motive, which the narrator couldn’t know until John actually brushed the leaves off her. There’s a good chance she hadn’t even known the leaves were there, so having that info is also a shift. Changing “to” to “and” shifts this back in to the narrator’s POV. She sees John reach over, and sees him brush leaves off her shoulder. Both are observable actions by the POV.

“To verb” is something that gets in there all the time, and yes, you see it in plenty of published books. Why if it’s a POV shift? Because there’s an inherent “the narrator knows the story and what happened” aspect to novels. Most people won’t even notice it because it’s so subtle. And like many inconsistencies in writing, not everyone will consider this a shift at all, because a farther narrative distance might allow for motive to be assumed. It’s the writer’s call on this one.

Implying motive also applies to third person:
John smiled at Lola, then reached over to brush dried leaves off her shoulder.
From this line it’s impossible to tell who the POV is, though oddly enough, both are shifting out of the POV. If John is the POV then it pulls back to the author telling motive (not showing it). If Lola is the POV, it’s a POV shift because just like in first person, Lola can’t know why John reaches for her.

Let’s look at some more obvious shifts:
I bumped into John outside the market. He looked at me and frowned, noticing the baby puke stain on my shirt.
The narrator can’t know what John notices. She can only see him look at her and frown. But here’s where it gets a little tricky. You could have something like…
I bumped into John outside the market. He looked down at the baby puke stain on my shirt and frowned.
If the narrator knows she has a stain on her shirt, it’s quite plausible that when she sees John look down at that area of her body he’s looking at the stain. The narrator observes an action and can guess the reason for it. That keeps the judgment of that action squarely in the POV’s head. If Lola didn’t know she had a stain, then the above example would have been a shift.

Same issues for third person:
Lola bumped into John outside the market. He looked at her and frowned, noticing the baby puke stain on her shirt.
John’s POV: The noticing is the author telling the reader what John notices.
Lola’s POV: The noticing is a POV shift.

You can also shift if you have your POV character noticing their own appearance or actions as an outside observer would.
Lola reached for the baby wipes just as the hot new stock boy came down the aisle. Her face turned bright scarlet.
This is another shift that not everyone would call a shift (and depending on your narrative distance, it might not be.) But if we’re inside Lola’s head looking out, she can’t know what color her face is. She can feel the heat of blushing, she can guess or assume her face turned scarlet, but she can’t know it. She doesn’t see it. You could also consider this telling as well, shifting out of Lola’s POV into the author’s. You can put it back in her POV by showing what she does, feels, and thinks:
Lola reached for the baby wipes just as the hot new stock boy came down the aisle. Her face flushed hot. Was it bright red? Gads, what if he saw her like this?

Spotting POV Shifts 

“To verb” is easy to search for and you’ll eliminate a lot of smaller shifts if you revise, in many cases, just using “and” instead. Other things you can look for:
  • Any judgment or opinion statements of non-POV characters that aren’t in dialog. A non-POV character will only convey information by what they say and how the act. That’s all the POV can observe.
  • Places where the POV states motive or opinion of a non-POV character. If the POV is guessing or basing their thought on what they can observe, then it’s probably okay. But if the POV is attributing a motive as if it’s fact (like in the noticing example above), you might be shifting.
  • Anything the POV character wouldn’t know, couldn’t guess by observation, or couldn’t see.
  • The POV referring to how they look.
It’s really up to the writer to decide how fanatical they want to be about subtle shifts (head hopping is a no-no). The tighter the POV and the closer the narrative distance, the more the shift affects how the text reads. The farther the narrative distance, the more acceptable a slight shift is because there’s another layer between reader and POV. There’s a sense that someone is relaying the info and they could know things the POV doesn’t.

Just think about what your POV can see/hear/smell etc. If it’s not something that falls within their senses, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t know about.

How do you handle searching for POV shifts? What words or phrases have you noticed frequently popping up?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Thanks for this really helpful post. It's insane to think how slippery POV can be, but good to know that there are ways to catch those shifts.

  2. I'm fairly lax on the subtle shifts you describe above, like Lola's face turning red. I don't intentionally set out to do it, but it slips in.

    "John smiled at Lola, then reached over to brush dried leaves off her shoulder."

    This is exactly the sort of thing I would write, assuming John is my POV character. Since the narrator is working from John's limited perspective, I allow that his motives can be known.

    I used to head-hop in my writing while in college. It ended up being as confusing to write as it was to read, so I cured myself of it quickly.

  3. Great examples of shifts in POV. I think many authors make mistakes with the blushing example. I'll have to watch for these slips more.

  4. Ack! John said to me, then he did a kung fu thing to me that muddled my mind. "My Kung Fu is better than your Kung Fu." Then his lips mouthed the words with a one minute delay. At least, I think he said it. Could have been someone else entirely!

  5. Thanks for the great post. Shifts in POV sneak up on you and you must be mindful when editing to spot them. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. More great information, Janice. Even a little bit about telling, which is where I need a lot of help. Thanks.

    The downside is that you are putting out good info faster than I can assimilate it. I'll be studying this stuff for years.

  7. POV shifts are sneaky creatures. I'll be examining my WIP more closely for this now. Thank you.

  8. Great tips. I am more sensitive to them now as a writer than I was as a reader. Right now I am reading "The Idiot" (I alternate reading something fun and current with a classic I've not yet read) and am half convinced the idiot is the author, because the head-hopping is giving me whiplash. Yes, you can't SEE yourself blushing - you can feel the heat rise in your face, your ears get hot, etc., but you don't notice yourself blushing. I have (blushing) committed that one too many times. I think I'm cured. I hope.

    Writing in Flow

  9. Good advice if speaking of third person limited,and your examples are that, but what about omniscient? Whet is the line between omniscient and third person slippery POVs?

  10. Jasie: Most welcome. They can be tough to catch but you do start to develop an eye for them after a while. A lot of times it's just being aware of it makes them jump out.

    Paul: Narrative distance really plays a role in the more subtle aspects. So does personal preference. I actually edited IN POV shifts once upon a time because I didn't understand a crit comment. They wanted more internalization, and I just gave it to everyone LOL.

    Natalie: They might not always be "mistakes" per se, as opinions do vary on this topic. But I think it helps to think about what you're doing and if that's what you *want* to do.

    Stan: LOL A bit random, but I love the one minute delay.

    Dawn: Happy to help

    Chemist Ken: Oopsy sorry :) On the upside, the blog will be here when you need it.

    Barbara: You're welcome!

    Beverly: It's wild sometimes reading the classics. What was normal and acceptable decades ago often doesn't work these days. Telling used to be the norm a hundred years ago. Now it's the evil of writing.

    Anon: I'm not sure there is one for omniscient. Omni IS being in everyone's head at the same time, so you'd be able to show what they were thinking and what they noticed. I think there, it would be more a matter of what sounded right and how clear it was who was thinking or saying what. If it feels like there's a narrator direction the story you're probably good. But if it feels like everyone speaking at once and butting in it's probably shifty.

  11. Great post. Much needed. In fact, I'd say that slithery POV is the #1 thing that tags a book as amateurish. I see it a lot in self-pubbed books. And NO beginner should attempt an omniscient POV.

    1. Sasha Anderson6/06/2020 2:58 PM

      "And NO beginner should attempt an omniscient POV."

      Why do you say that? I would have thought it was better for people to write the way they want to, and try to improve. I mean, no-one would say that sort of thing about genre, right? "No beginner should attempt crime. Write fantasy until you know what you're doing."

      I'm not disputing the fact that it's difficult. But if someone wants to write in an omniscient POV, that seems like all the more reason to practise it. I just don't understand how writing in a limited perspective until they're not a beginner any more is going to help improve their omniscient writing.

      Am I missing something?

    2. Since this comment is from 2011, and I don't know if Anne would get a notification about it, I'm chiming in here :) I can't speak to her mind behind that comment, but I can share my thoughts.

      I agree with Anne that the omniscient POV is very difficult to do well, and it's nature can lead new writers down
      a "bad habit" path (easier to tell, POV shift, head hop, infodump, etc), and it can encourage explaining the story versus showing a story. It's a HARD POV for anyone, especially beginners.

      But I disagree with the blanket "no." If omniscient POV is someone's preferred style, and this is what they want to write their books in, then write omniscient even if they're a beginner. It's a good idea to practice it and learn how to do it well.

      I can understand her comment, because I've seen/spoken to writers over the years who struggle with POV, or telling, or infodumping or whatever, who say "Well, I'll just do omniscient, then I can "make all these mistakes" (insert whatever writing problem they're struggling with) and it won't matter." They use the "all knowing" POV style as an excuse to write badly.

      Writing in a limited POV to start with can help because it can focus a writer to pay attention to how they show the story through a character's eyes. It can help them make that shift from "author telling the story" to "character experiencing a story." Trouble spots are more obvious with a limited omniscient, because it's more clear when you slip out of it. It helps you identify when you're POV shifting or telling, or infodumping, etc. That lets you learn/master the basic skills before you tackle a more difficult POV.

      A full-on omniscient POV can also lead to too many characters, and a story without a protagonist. The author is too outside the idea and is explaining the idea, not having characters solve problems.

      These things can happen in any POV though, they're just more common with omniscient. In all fairness, I've seen the same types of mistakes happen with beginners who write first person as well. I think the more extreme POVs are the toughest to write.

      As long as you're aware of the extra challenges, I see no reason to avoid it of that's what you want.

    3. Sasha Anderson6/08/2020 8:05 PM

      Thanks, Janice - lots of interesting things for me to think about here! :)

  12. This is an excellent post, Janice, cheers.

    I know for me, I'm always going back and searching for those places where I "imply motive", it's amazing how they sneak in.

    It's incredible how one little word like "to", can imply so much, or how the difference between "a boat" and "the boat" can tell you how much the POV character knows. The subtleties are astounding.

  13. I have a related question: how many POV characters can you have in a story? What's the norm?

  14. Absolutely awesome article. I hope you don't mind if I link to this blog post in a link round-up I do on Sundays. More people need to read this!

  15. I POV shift all the time when I'm speaking, but so far in my writing I've done mostly first-person and my problem isn't POV shifts, but tense shifts...I forget if I'm in past or present. I guess this is why I like to have a critique group--so someone can point out my mistakes and confusing parts.

    Thanks for your examples and insights on POV shifting :)

    I wrote more about critique groups at

  16. Anne: I so agree with you there. It was tough just writing the examples! Omni takes a skilled hand to do well.

    Sam: The subtleties in written always wow me. One word can do so much. It can be frustrating, but it also keeps it kinda cool and fun. When we struggle to find "the right word" it's not just us being picky. The right word matters!

    Quickreaver: Depends on the story and even the genre. Thrillers and epic fantasy for example, often have a lot of POVs because the story is told from a larger perspective and you see lots of little snippets. Romance is personal so you often see one or two POVs only. The more you have the harder it is for readers to keep track of everyone. So you want to make sure that every POV brings something important to the story. Size of the novel also plays a role. Shorter books usually have fewer POVs because there's only so many pages per POV you can devote to them. a 60K cozy with 6 POVs only gives 10K per character. That's barely more than a short story. Hard to fully develop a novel-sized character in 10K words.

    Rachel: Link away, and thanks!

    TA: Tenses are a tricky thing, especially in first person. It's not as cut and dry as always using the same tense and you can't do present if you're in past. One of my crit partners Juliette Wade just did a great post on that on her blog.

    She's a linguistic anthropologist, and she gets the nitty gritty details of language so well and does a great job of explaining how language works. Might help you out on this :)

  17. Thanks for the link! that was very helpful!

  18. If I ignore them will the "to's" go away? (lol?) urrg. I'll save looking for this when the bigger problems are fixed. Thank you for pointing this out. It's hard enough not using looked, saw, felt, herd, wished, and the like. Now to, too? gerr.