by Nancy Butts
Note: This is the first in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived here on my website as downloadable PDFs.
New writers may be forgiven for being utterly lost when confronted with decisions about how to employ viewpoint in their stories and books. There is a bewildering array of variations. How does distant third-person POV differ from omniscient narration? When does dipping become head-hopping; and what the !@#$% do those two terms even mean?
The difficulty with understanding viewpoint is compounded when you realize that not every “expert” analyzes it the same way. Although I think Alicia Rasley does an excellent job of explaining viewpoint in her book The Power of POV, I don’t parse the different kinds of viewpoint in the same way that she does.
The nuances of viewpoint require an entire book to explain; no one can cover it all in just one 1500-word article or blog post. But I’m going to try to demystify viewpoint here anyway, adding other articles later in an entire series on the subject. So let’s get started with this valiant attempt.
Viewpoint is often called point of view, which is where the acronym POV comes from. I will use all three terms interchangeably in this article. At its most basic, viewpoint means the character through whose eyes and ears, thoughts and feelings, a reader experiences a scene or event in the plot.
Think of viewpoint as if it were a pair of glasses. You as the author have the power to give these glasses to any character you want. Whichever character happens to be wearing those glasses at any moment in your book is your POV character. For however long that character wears those glasses—a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a scene, a chapter, or even the entire book—then you can write ONLY what that character can see through those glasses. The moment you switch from what the character is seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking to someone else, even for just a moment, you have yanked the POV glasses off his face.
Here’s an example.
Laughing at the TV screen, Ben crammed another salty handful of popcorn into his mouth. This show was so funny.
In these lines, the POV glasses are sitting invisibly on Ben’s face. We know this because we can taste the salt on the popcorn along with him, and share his thoughts about why he was laughing. The line “This show was so funny” dips into his thoughts.
Now let’s look at this next paragraph.
His father came into the room and scowled because the TV was so loud. “Turn it down, would you?” he barked.
The first eight words of the second paragraph are still in Ben’s point of view. Through his POV glasses, he is seeing his father walk into the room with a scowl on his face. However, those glasses are yanked off Ben’s face in the last six words of the sentence [colored in orange]. The moment I wrote the reason why Ben’s father was scowling—because the TV was too loud—I left Ben’s mind and jumped into that of his father, just for a moment.
It’s subtle, but look at it closely. Unless this is a Stephen King novel and Ben is telepathic, he can’t know why his dad looks so grouchy. When I wrote “because the TV was so loud,” I jumped from Ben’s mind to his father’s. I changed POV, just for half a sentence. And that’s what we call head-hopping, switching POV from one character to another too often, too quickly, or for too short a time.
Note: as soon as I quoted the actual words his father said, I jumped back into Ben’s mind, because that was dialogue that Ben heard.
So how do you avoid the POV error? It’s easier than you might think. All you have to do is rewrite the second paragraph like this.
His father came into the room and scowled.
Uh oh, Ben thought. The TV was too loud again.
“Turn it down, would you?” his father barked.
Instead of reading the father’s mind, I stayed in Ben’s head instead. From past experience—apparently Ben has been scolded repeatedly about the volume on the TV—Ben deduces that his dad must be angry about the noise, which is confirmed by the dialogue a moment later. But since I never left Ben’s mind, writing only what he saw (his dad’s scowl), what he thought (Dad’s mad about the noise), and what he heard (Dad’s command to turn the TV down), I’ve gotten rid of the head hopping. The POV glasses stayed firmly on Ben’s face for the entire scene. The only way we find out for certain why Dad is upset is because he says so out loud, in a line of dialogue.
When you keep the POV glasses with one character for an entire scene or longer, that is called single viewpoint. That is the first of the three fundamental groups of point of view.
Note that in writing for kids, remaining in single viewpoint for the entire book is the norm, especially in easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. There are variations with single viewpoint; you can choose to do it in first person (I) narration or third person (he/she) narration. But we’ll talk about that in a later article.
The second fundamental kind of POV is multiple viewpoint. This is when you transfer the POV glasses from one character to another.
This is where Rasley and I disagree. To me, any book in which there is more than one viewpoint character is multiple POV. If you are telling the book from the perspective of more than one character, then to my mind, you’re using multiple POV.
Rasley sees it differently. To her, it’s only multiple POV if you change viewpoint within a single scene. Everything else is single POV—even a book where every chapter is told from the viewpoint of someone new. I guess she sees that as a kind of serial monogamy! 😀
When multiple POV is defined as Rasley does, however, I don’t see the difference between it and head-hopping. I’ve read her book twice now trying to figure that out, and all I came away with is the vague sense that multiple POV only gets labeled—or libeled—as head-hopping when it’s done badly.
But in this series of articles on viewpoint, when I say multiple POV, I mean any book in which more than one character is used as a viewpoint character.
Multiple POV isn’t recommended for children’s books, though you do see it sometimes, especially in YA novels. I think there are two reasons why single POV is preferable. First, it’s less confusing. Remember, your readers are young. This means that they aren’t just inexperienced with written language—they are also inexperienced with narrative techniques in fiction, so it’s easy to confuse them.
What you hope to do in your book is bring your viewpoint character to life so vividly that readers start identifying with him or her closely—to the point where kids actually feel as if they are slipping inside the skin of the viewpoint character and experiencing every moment of the story with her. So every time you jump into a different character’s POV, you forcibly eject kids from this character they’ve been inhabiting. And that poses the danger not only of confusing readers, but of alienating them as well. They might even put the book down and not come back when you evict them from a character they’ve come to know and love.
The second reason I think multiple POV is not the best choice is that it’s very difficult to pull off, especially for a new writer attempting his or her first novel. It’s a challenge even for experienced authors to do multiple POV smoothly and well. When you are first starting out, I think it’s better to stick with single POV. [True confession time, however; in my first novel, Cheshire Moon, I did use an alternating viewpoint. But I had a good reason for doing so, I promise. I’ll write about that later in the series.]
Which brings us to the third fundamental group of viewpoint, omniscient narration. Rasley breaks this down into several different types, but let’s keep it simple. Omniscient narration is when none of the characters in your book gets to wear the POV glasses: you keep them for yourself. Or for some invisible narrator who, in a god-like manner, knows all the characters inside and out. The omniscient narrator hovers above the entire book, knowing everything about both the characters and the plot.
The various forms of omniscient narration are less popular today than they used to be, though you still see it in fairy tales, fantasy epics, and in some picture books.
So there you have it. Later in this series we’ll get down and dirty with more of the subtle intricacies of viewpoint. But you won’t go wrong if you think about the three fundamental kinds of POV in terms of who has the viewpoint glasses.
1. Single POV: One person has the glasses
2. Multiple POV: Two or more people have the glasses
3. Omniscient POV: Zero people have the glasses; a floating, invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator’s got ‘em
Next time: Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan
[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]