Points of View (from a writer’s point of view).

58. Points of View
Should a writer switch the point of view of narrative, and if so when and how?

Of course, any story can be written from one point of view, maybe that of one character and maybe that of the author/narrator. If the character p.o.v. is used, the writing can be in first or second person though it is, for most readers, truly difficult to follow second person writing for any length of time and the technique is not often used. A narrator can use first person to tell a story in which they are an observer and not personally involved, and this type of narrator is not always the author. When the author uses an omnipotent authorial voice and tells the story in third person it can be easier to involve the reader in a number of different threads and the actions of a large cast, but the technique can also be distancing, and can lead the author into commentary on the storyline that does not stem from within the plot.

To avoid distancing and such problems many writers choose to write in third person but make it clear that the narrative is proceeding from the tight point of view of one of the characters. This works well until there is a necessity to show some part of the story that could not be witnessed by the character concerned. Methods of dealing with this include other characters recounting the events concerned either in person or by letter, but this can be irritating for the reader who wants to follow the story as it happens and not ‘after the event’ wherever possible.

And so we come to multiple points of view. Some readers don’t mind switches of p.o.v. and others find them hard to handle. My own view on this is that such a switch should always come at a natural break in the text, and should probably be shown in some way such as by a new chapter or part of a chapter and that there should be some kind of introduction of the new p.o.v. usually by the use of the character’s name in the first few sentences.

I was led to think more about this by my current project, the third volume of my fantasy detective series. Where crime and detection are concerned it can be important to allow a plot to develop in a linear fashion. My detective has assistants and at various points of the plot they are separated, sometimes for quite some time. At one point, they are completely out of touch. It would be clumsy to have them constantly reporting to each other and could make the flow of the story jerky, so I have chosen to use a different p.o.v. in different chapters, bearing in mind the warnings I gave in the last paragraph. Obviously when they meet again they can report but it doesn’t have to interrupt the narrative for long.

I now find myself progressing very slowly. I am constantly having to check who has done what, and also who knows, when they found out, and so on. Otherwise, subsequent actions and conversations wouldn’t make sense. I need to have multiple tabs open and move between them. This slows me down physically, of course, but even more so, it slows me down mentally and throws me out of my own story for a while each time I have to check. And of course, as the author, I know what happens but my characters don’t and I mustn’t let them see too much too soon.

I don’t think there’s an answer, though I admit to feeling, at the moment, as if I will never use multiple viewpoints again. (I’m only using two but it’s driving me mad.)

I know I’ve been ‘absent’ this month – I’ve been struggling with my novel! I’d be interested to hear whether other people have the same issues when they are writing, and also how switching viewpoint affects you as readers.

6 thoughts on “Points of View (from a writer’s point of view).

  1. I don’t think it’s a case of ‘should’. It depends entirely on what a writer is comfortable with. I’ve read books that actually switch from first person pov to third! The important thing is to make a change in pov that flows well within the narrative. The best way of doing that is, as you said, at a natural break in the text – the start of a new chapter or the start of a new scene. I’ve read far too many works that suddenly switch pov mid scene or even mid paragraph and that is so disconcerting and confusing that it ruins the context of what is being read. Sometimes though a writer will manage it almost seamlessly but that is more the exception than the rule.

    Personally, I often find writing in different pov’s better for me than trying to stick to one. I might start with the intention of telling the tale from the view point of one character but end up bringing in another. Sometimes I think it’s important to let the reader know what is going on in heads of both (or several) of your main characters. But again, it would depend on the type of story you were writing, what you wanted to write about and what you want your reader to know as the story progresses.

    You don’t feel comfortable with multiple viewpoints so maybe for you the answer is to stick to one but you would have to consider how you are going to present the story if you do have your characters separated and that in itself could present as much difficulty as you’re experiencing at the moment with the multiple pov’s! So maybe the story itself dictates how you write it.

    • I don’t feel uncomfortable in terms of how the story develops. It’s quite clear in my head what everybody is doing and seeing and I can switch p.o.v. for myself easily. It’s the task of sorting it all out so that it’s clear to the reader at the right times that I find cumbersome – and that throws me out of writing! Obviously, with this particular volume I’ll carry on the way I’ve started but I might restructure later stories so that the different characters aren’t separated or, if they are, leave the reader in suspense for a while!

  2. This is something I find that a lot of people struggle with. As a reader, I agree with you, I don’t like too many changes of POV and when they come I like them in natural breaks and shown in the writing by some kind of break. I can’t stand it when there are POV changes within a paragraph. So, as a writer I try to follow the rules I like as a reader. If I’m writing 3rd person from a character’s POV then there is always going to be the need for POV changes – as you say scenes where the main character is absent, asleep. unconcious etc etc. However, I think POV changes can also be a powerful writing tool. For example, in Quest for Kmowledge I had four of my characters moving down a long, dark, narrow tunnel on trolleys trying to get out of the dwarf delve. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to have four paragraphs, one from each character’s POV to explore what they were feeling and thinking at the time. I heard someone’s work at my writing group the other day, three people sitting in silence in a moving car and the same thing done very effectively.

    • I thought you would have encountered the same issue! I think things like multiple ‘takes’ on the same event (like your trolley) can be very effective. I’m having more problems where the characters are not experiencing the same things but need to report to each other – this is possibly a greater difficulty in detective stories than in most genres because the reader needs to follow the plot in the right sequence. I suppose I will get through the separation and the consequent need to police who says or does what, where and when, and get back to ‘normal’ soon!

      And I do agree strongly about the need to show whose p.o.v. is current!

  3. Should a writer switch the point of view of narrative, and if so when and how?
    Hmm, depends on the situation… My general approach is: switching can give interesting results (like showing the same scene/detail/person/whatever in different ways to make the story less simplistic), as long as it’s used knowingly and without confusing the reader.

    Usually it doesn’t matter for me – the first or third person (I don’t like the second, though). What makes more difference for me is rather the tense. In most cases I hate the present tense narration. In a short text I can accept it, if it enhances the story, but in novel-length it’s tiresome and annoying. There were times, more than once or two, that I quit a book at the first glimpse of it, even if the summary seemed interesting.

    Ehh, I’d happily write more, alas I’m afraid I’m terribly busy recently. I hardly manage to keep up with many places I used to follow… 😦

    • I agree about tense! You’ve given me an idea for another post – thanks!

      And yes, I am more than happy to read – or write – about the same scene from different perspectives. The problem, in terms of keeping the writing under control, comes when the characters are viewing different, but important scenes, and it’s essential to keep the reader informed in the right sequence. I dislike, as a reader, too much use of flashbacks or recounting, so different p.o.v.s seem to be the answer, but they’re hard to keep track of!

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