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Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Everyone says my writing's competent, but I'm not getting anywhere"

Ten Ways to Move Point-of-View (and don't let the self-appointed experts tell you otherwise)

If you've been hanging around the Itch for any length of time, you'll know that I think the creeping Creative Writing orthodoxy that you can't change point of view except between chapters is nonsense. (Click here for my full series of posts on PoV if you're not so sure what we're on about when we talk about point of view.)

It's a "rule" which has only been invented in the last twenty years or so, peddled by would-be writers who don't know good writing when they see it, and, I suspect, writing teachers who don't know how to teach it: such people may accuse you of "head hopping", when all you've done is changed point of view during a chapter.

But how you handle point of view really does matter: it's fundamental to the reader's experience, and there is such a thing as "head-hopping". When others say, wrongly, that you shouldn't use a moving point of view it's usually because you're

  • changing too often
  • changing at the wrong point in the scene
  • handling the moves badly
  • spreading the reader's interest and engagement between too many heads. (Remember that, as in real life, we don't need access to someone's consciousness to care about what happens to them.)
  • changing purely for plot convenience, not for a real reason of storytelling. (Instead, practise conveying non-viewpoint characters' thoughts and feelings using character-in-action.)

All of those mistakes can be put right, without giving up on this properly grown-up, flexible and sophisticated technique. But even if you've liberated yourself from the restrictive orthodoxies, or never knew they existed, and you understand what's going on when you have more than one point of view, how do you actually change point of view? Here are some things to try.

At a chapter break. This is the safe option: within each chapter you lock into a single character's point of view, and only change between chapters. Even so, do make sure that you have the reader by the hand as you move. Readers will tend to carry on perceiving the world through one consciousness unless you re-educate them, so avoid opening sentences which read equivocally, as possibly in the old viewpoint of the previous chapter. Instead, locate us firmly in this new viewpoint straight away: use facts and names, obviously, but also voice and the different perceptions of a different consciousness to clue us in intuitively.

At a double-line space or other scene or section break. The need to clue the reader in fast is much the same, but this kind of switch is available to you when you don't want to stop the chapter: you can keep chapter-breaks for the larger architecture of the story. But, generally speaking, such breaks alerts the reader that there's a jump in time or place. If a scene is, essentially, a unit of change, at the very least a double-line break suggests that one scene - one change - is finished. Which makes it tricky to use a section-break to establish a viewpoint move within that unit of change. We find we're not, after all, somewhere new, just the other side of the same room... Do you want that much disruption mid-scene? 

During a narrated change of scene. Moving from one scene to the next without the abrupt switch of a section break is a more fluent and interesting option and it's natural to our form. More about this here. Film can only work by jumps and juxtapositions. Prose narrative can also slide and morph, so make the most of it. Narrating the move also means you don't have to worry about clueing the reader in after an abrupt move, because you have the reader by the hand the whole time and take them with you. The key is to work Telling, in its role as Summarising, or Informing in a good way: to use it to condense time, while keeping things vivid.

So, if you started with: Oh, God, he'd slept through the alarm! John scuttled to work in a fluster where he had to wedge himself into a packed lift then you could keep that brisk, Telling feel to create the move:

Alan followed him into the lift, and they travelled in silence. At the twenty-third floor, Alan got out murmuring that he had to drop in on HR, but actually he went to the canteen. There were mornings when only a double hot chocolate with extra cream made the prospect of the day bearable: especially when it included a meeting with cretinous George. ...

and we're nicely settled into in Alan's consciousness, with Alan's thoughts in Alan's (free indirect style) voice.

In the middle of a scene.  Go on, be brave, you know you want to. Much of the time, you want the point of view to be with the character who has most at stake*, or where your and the reader's interest lies. But there are many scenes where the point of interest changes. It's often the peak of the "narrative triangle": the big moment of crisis which will cause change**.

So if Beth has stiffened her sinews and got on a bus to go and propose to (as yet oblivious) Alison, then Beth's is the viewpoint which is likely to generate most drama and narrative tension. But once Beth has said, "Will you?", the chances are that the most narrative tension is going be generated by being inside Alison's viewpoint: what does she want? What will happen if she says Yes, or No? And what if she really wants to say, "How dare you?"?

But there is a further possibility: if we as readers know Beth is planning to propose, but before she does you change to Alison's oblivious viewpoint, there's potential for an extra level interest and engagement in the reader. As Beth chatters on (or silently fidgets with her glass) we'll get to hear Alison's oblivious take on what Beth does and says: it's in the gap between what Alison thinks, and what we know Beth is thinking, is where the comedy, pathos or irony is created.

Using psychic distance and the circle of consciousness. What goes wrong with point-of-view moves is that the writing "head-hops" straight from deep inside one consciousness, to deep inside another. The reader is disoriented and maybe even confused: it's a bit like having tuned into French only for the radio to flip to German, or from cynical satire to something very sincere and heartfelt: what and how are we supposed to understand?

It helps to think of a point of view as a circle of consciousness. (More  on this idea here.) Right in the centre of each character's circle is the inside of their mind - their feeling and thinking - but there's a much larger circle of what they can physically touch/see/smell, the information they know about the past and the wider present, and so on.

And, obviously, if there are several characters present, the circles of each character's consciousness will overlap. Meanwhile, the narrator's circle encompasses whatever you choose to allow it. Once you've understood that, then you just have to make sure we come out of one head in stages, via the overlap, into the next head. If you do it steadily and coherently, we'll go with you:

  • Oh, God, he'd slept through the alarm! This is rooted deep in John's point of view because it's not only John's experience, it evokes his voice and subjective experience by using free indirect style.
  • John scuttled to work in a fluster and wedged himself into a lift. This is all about him, and evokes his feelings (scuttled, fluster), but we're a little further out because it's not necessarily his voice: it may be the narrator's choice of verbs.
  • Alan followed him in, This is still John's experience, from within his circle of consciousness, but there's no special evocation of John's feelings. And, crucially, it shifts our attention away from John towards Alan, although using Alan's first name makes us assume he's someone John knows.
  • and they travelled in silence. At the twenty-third floor, This could be any of John, narrator or Alan: we're in the overlap of the circles of their consciousness, where they are all experiencing the same external facts. (Notice that simple information, not tied to a character's point-of-view, can still evoke things: the silence between the colleagues, the fact that the building has more than twenty-three floors...)
  • Alan got out murmuring that he had to drop in on HR, We're focussed on Alan's actions a little way inside the circle of his consciousness but still where it overlaps with John's, to whom he's presumably murmuring: this evokes something of Alan's character-in-action (murmuring) but the words themselves aren't coloured by his take on things
  • but actually he went to the canteen. We're still experiencing Alan from outside his head, but we've left John's circle, because John's stayed in the lift and can't know this.
  • There were mornings when only a double hot chocolate with extra cream made the prospect of the day bearable: Now we're further into Alan's consciousness, with his feeling and perhaps unspoken thoughts, but it's still consistent with the narrator's voice.
  • especially when it included a meeting with cretinous George. And here's Alan's voice coming in loud and clear in free indirect style: we're right inside his consciousness, with his voice and his take on his experience, as we were with John's at the beginning.

Put the external narrator in charge. If you have a narrator who's definitely a storyteller, then their voice is the anchor for the reader. We always know where we are, because where we are is the storyteller's story: they can tell us whatever they like, and admit us to whichever heads they choose. As with everything, whether it works will depend on the wider context of the paragraph and the story, but here are some tasters:

  • In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, Fulke would stare into the fire, cherishing a hatred deep in his heart for all women, for he believed they were the source of all sin; and yet Morwenna forgave him everything as she stooped over the soup-kettle, for she lived by the creed that you should judge men by their deeds not their words, and she knew she had never suffered by his deeds.
  • They sat down amid a flurry of waiters holding chairs and unfurling napkins, and although to Jerry it was the most ridiculous fuss of conspicuous consumption and capitalist greed he'd suffered in years, Max gazed blissfully at the crystal glasses and thick linen, and vowed, silently, that by hook or by crook he would find a millionaire to marry.
  • The day the first-ever train was due to arrive, Anna rode out into the mountains so she didn't have to see her parents innocently welcoming everything that was going to destroy their lives, while Bella locked herself away in the darkroom and started mixing her chemicals to be ready for three o'clock.
  • They sat in silence, but Jerry was furious, while Max was blissful.

Put the internal narrator in charge. Your narrator may be a character in your story, they may be saying "I" all the time, but they're still in charge of the storytelling, so they can still tell us whatever they feel like telling us: even, arguably (I argued here) if that means telling us things that they couldn't have known at the time:

  • Of course I wasn't going to be seduced into actually liking all this luxury crap - costs a fortune and you can't take it with you - but that was the night that Max decided, quite silently, to change his life.
  • School was a strange mixture of the progressive and the self-consciously archaic, so that while I and all the other pupils suffered chillblains, bread like pumice-stone and beds harder still, the staff sat in their Bauhaus-inspired quarters and congratulated themselves on destroying Victorian illusions and raising a breed of boys to embrace the modern world where we would all be workers of our own destiny.

Notice that when the narrator is very much in charge, we're probably not right deep into the centre of a character's consciousness (the sort that would be 5 on John Gardener's spectrum of psychic distance) in this kind of sentence. But if you think of it as the hinge on which the viewpoint turns, then in the complete paragraph you can use it to move from deep in one to deep in the other ; and it's quicker than the John-to-Alan move further up because when a narrator is firmly in charge you're not having to move via a neutral, external shared space: the narrator can tell us about both points-of-view right next to each other.

Educate the reader. I reckon you've got something like the first fifth of a book - say the first 20,000 words - in which to teach the reader how this book tells stories. More about this idea here, but for now the point is simple: you can do what you like as long as a) you do it well, and b) the reader is ready for it, and has learnt how to read it. And it's up to you to make the reader ready. So if you decide to have an external narrator, telling the story in third person but locking into a single point of view, then fine, but don't suddenly introduce a new point of view in the last act. If you have granted your narrator privileged access to several characters' heads, and maybe information that no character knows or at least doesn't think about, then that's fine too: but make sure you work that way from early on.

And, as ever, do take a bit of time when you're reading to notice how the writer handles point of view, both for good and ill, and if it seems to you ill, then have a think about what good reasons the writer might nonethless have had about doing it that way: just because an outcome isn't totally successful doesn't mean that the reason for doing it wasn't a good reason. And if you don't believe that readers will notice, and so I'm making a fuss about nothing, then click here.


* Of course, the character who has most at stake may not be the centre of the scene: in The Great Gatsby, the story is apparently Gatsby's, centring on his love for Daisy. But narrator Nick has his own life and self tied up in this world and the outcome of that love: he has a vast amount at stake in this story of, essentially, other people. Which is one of the million things which makes it such a great novel.

** More generally, these sorts of questions, not plot convenience, are the things to think about when choosing viewpoint characters and when to move between them: what will create the greatest drama and tension, what's at stake, and, of course, what do you not want us to know about? If you want Beth's proposal to come as a shock to the reader, then it's much easier to do convincingly if you don't let us into Beth's head beforehand, but work with a different point of view. In the Beth-proposes-to-Alison scenario, if you work through Beth's viewpoint and consciousness on the bus, showing us the world as she perceives it, but without showing us the huge I-am-about-to-propose thing that would also be colouring her thoughts and perceptions, then when suddenly she pops the quesetion, we'll intuitively feel conned: we'll sense that the writer was being dishonest with us to create surprise by artificial means.