Thursday, August 27, 2009

POV Whiplash

I recently picked up the last book in a series that I read about two years ago. The authors had ended book four on a cliffhanger, properly undoing all closure they'd established, and then ceased writing the books, leaving me royally peeved. So, when I saw book five in a shop, I HAD to get it. What can I say? I like knowing how things end.

Well, I'd forgotten something about these books. The authors like to jump POV a lot. They LOVE it. And it never bothered me in the other books. I would remembering being seriously ticked if it had. But here's the thing: they're jumping all the time now.

There are maybe six or so separate stories going on here, not to mention that they authors like to cut back to the hawks (which I think are supposed to be symbolic or foreshadowing things). And I'm getting POV whiplash. I understand why the author needs to jump around a fair bit. I mean, there are loads of stories to keep track of here. But, then again, some of these jumps are 3 POVs on a page.

In book one, there were only two main POVs and occasionally two others, but not really. Generally, it cut between one family and the other, and that kept it simple. The benefit of that was that each character's section was long enough that I didn't feel like a hackey-sack being kicked from person to person.

I do shift POV sometimes, I admit it. But I try to minimize how often I need to do it. Sure, I know there are other characters out there, and you want to keep the reader apprised of what's going on with them, but a POV shift can be a rather abrupt way of trying to do that. It will, to some extent, remove the reader from the story. So, you shouldn't do it if you don't have to. For example, that page where there were 3 POVs on the page, I didn't need that paragraph about the hawks. The shift to them pulled me from the stories, because it felt jarring. And, all in all, I don't think I needed the paragraph about the hawks. It could have been much simpler and better without that shift.

Sometimes, I shift POV, but I like to ensure that it's always important. If it doesn't serve a point or if it risks being too jarring for the reader, there ought to be a reason that this risk was worth taking. If it didn't move the stories along well or could have been done in a different way just as well, then there was no reason to do it. A POV shift is noticeable to the reader. Do you want the reader to be distracted by 'um... why did they just do that?' when you're characters are running all over the place doing interesting things?

If I shift POV, I try to keep each section of POV relatively long. I mean, at least a page. True, there have been times when I flashed between characters every 200 words of so, but I had a good reason for wanting to do that. The conflict of the chapter was the characters running into each other, so I needed the reader to know how they both ended up where they weren't supposed to be. However, if the POV is short, it can be disquieting for the reader. It will be a lot of dashing back and forth between mindsets, creating a feeling of being chucked around. If they spend longer in each head at one go, it will feel more like separate chapters and less than mind ping pong.

I compare book reading to movie watching a lot in my head. In a movie with two MCs, or nine MCs even, how often do they jump around? I'm guessing it's a scene, a full length scene, per group of characters, maybe more, before they switch. They don't just do shot, shot, shot all the time. Otherwise, the audience wouldn't know what was going on and just feel unbearably frustrated.

Do you use multiple POVs? How do you feel about POV shifts?


  1. The Tender Graces blog had a great post about POV yesterday. I don't know the link off the top of my head, but it's in my blog roll, if you want to check it out. I don't shift POV, but I am guilty of having my mc know what's in other characters' head. I laugh when I catch those mistakes.

  2. I'll admit, one of the reasons I shift POV is that I want to show the emotions of my other big characters. I've had my MC do some sneaky stuff so that I don't have to POV shift.

  3. I shift pov in my stories, but it's not a lot...well, it's not a lot in my opinion. I've never had 3 pov changes on one page. I have had an agent tell me that she thinks I've done myself a disservice by not following one character throughout the book. I disagree with that, mainly because I think you can gain valuable information by my pov shift. In my current ms, my pov changes happen per chapter and it's not even every chapter. There could be three chapters in a row in the male mc's pov, then the next will be in the female mc's, then the next two will go back to the male.

    I've never really had a problem with the pov swich, it's the head hopping that sometimes drives me insane, even though one of my favorite authors, a wildly popular one too, is SO guilty of the head hopping it's a shame. lol.

  4. I don't mind head hopping as long as it's forewarned. But I've made the mistake before of hopping heads in one section, which is confusing for people.