Tag Archives: POV

So who the hell’s head are we in now?


Transitions between scenes, between acts, between storylines, are an important part of storytelling. They ease the reader from one place to another without making their eyes stop as they pause to try to puzzle out where the hell they are.

But in multiple POV storytelling, transitions are vital.

Who? What? Where? When?

Those four questions have to be answered at every transition from one POV to another.


Because transitions orientate the reader. They tell them: WHOSE head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE it is happening, and WHEN it is happening.

The biggest problem with Multiple POV storytelling, and the reason why they tend to be longer stories than those using a single POV, is the transitions. You always  have to reset the scene if you are using scene-breaks between POVs.

You can’t just switch and hope the reader keeps up. Clarity, always clarity, who/what/where/when needs to be absolutely clear at all times to the reader.

You don’t really want to confuse your reader with the simple stuff, do you?

If you are using POV shifting or Omniscient-head-hopping  then the Where, When, and What are taken care of by the initial Transition into the scene, but you still have to be absolutely clear about Whose eyes the reader is behind.

Think of it like speech attributions. When writing dialogue you have to attribute the lines to a character. You can sometimes do away with the attribution if it is obvious who is speaking, but it does have to be obvious.

It is the same with POV transitions, you can avoid the attribution of a POV but only if it is obvious and it is rarely that obvious. Err on the side of caution and let your editor tell you if it is unneeded.

Don’t go commando if you’ve forgotten to put your jeans on too.

With the more usual (these days) technique of using scene-breaks between POVs, you have to reset the entire scene, every time.

Even when using fast-cutting techniques, in a battle-sequence for instance, the reader still has to be told where on the battlefield the character stands, what is happening immediately around the character, and when all this is occurring.

There are dodges and tricks you can use to avoid too much set-up. It is a fast cut after all. You can avoid the When portion by having a scene every so often that orientates the reader in time, which avoids having to say, ‘three minutes later’ and other clunky phrases.

But clarity is everything. Clarity is the only real rule in writing. Be clear, don’t leave the reader guessing; unless of course you intend to leave the reader guessing, but don’t be ambiguous by mistake. Readers really don’t like that and your book might well make a nice dent in their wall if you irritate them too much. (Ah eBooks, the joy of throwing a crap book across the room will soon be gone from human experience. Shame that, I think its good for the wallpaper, it’s certainly good for the soul.)

Transitions should ideally take place in the first paragraph of a new scene, or as close as possible to it. And the first thing the reader needs to know is WHO. That is a vital bit of information because it orientates readers to the plot. If they know whose head they are in, then they know the back-story, they know that character’s (apparent) role in the story, and therefore they don’t have to think about this stuff.

They can think about all the other good stuff you are putting into the story scene instead.

After Whose head, the reader needs to know Where and When. If the scene is taking place in the same location as the previous scene then you just have to make sure the reader knows it is the same location. If it is happening immediately after the previous scene then, again, you just have make sure the reader knows this.

But if the location has changed or the time has changed then you have to orientate the reader. You have to tell them Where and When. This is like the establishing shot in a film. Is it a room, a moor, a bridge? Is it dawn or night, or day? This stuff is why multiple POV stories are longer, because this is description and no matter how efficient you are at description it takes up words.

Then there is What. This is not about what happens during the scene, because that is the purpose of the scene. It is about what is happening when the scene opens. Is it in the middle of a fight, a love-scene, somebody having a cup of tea. The scene will play out from there, but there is always an initial What, that helps to set the scene.

The easiest way to do this, and this is about as clunky as it gets because it’s an example, so it is deliberately obvious, is:

 David thought about Mary while he walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the moonlight.

David thought = David’s POV or WhoDavid is thinking about Mary = WhatBlackfriars Bridge = WhereMoonlight = When.

Then you can slot all the descriptions and so forth into the scene as usual. The reason that Multiple POV takes up space is because you have to describe it all as the POV character sees them. You can’t go on what another POV character has seen because the reader doesn’t know if this POV character has seen the same thing.

Another reason multiple POVs take up room is because you can’t keep using lines like the one above. Some writers do, some successful writers do, but I’d hardly call it craft. That’s like nailing four roughly equal lengths of wood to another wider piece of wood and calling it a table. It’ll do the job, but it is hardly crafted with loving care.

 The glimmer of the moonlight shone into David’s eyes, reflected from the surface of the Thames, but he hardly noticed. Mary. What should he do about Mary? He turned right onto Blackfriars, the steel cold beneath his hands, when he stopped and stared out over the glimmering river. Did he have the right? Should he do this? Mary. What was he to do about Mary?

Neither is that to be honest, I just knocked it up for this blog. But after an editor has got hold of it, after I have revised it a few times, then it will be crafted with loving care and then — if I’m lucky — it will sing.

Transitions are incredibly important, so make them sing from the page, make the reader barely notice that they are reading a scene-shift.

Because another thing about scene-breaks is that they are where a reader will put the book down and go off to do something else before returning to the book. Scene-breaks and chapter-breaks are like opening lines, so make them sing, but make them into transitions too.

(If you are writing in the Literary Genre, where stories are supposed to be ‘difficult’ and hard to read, just ignore all this. This ain’t art; this is craft. Leaving the reader constantly guessing about all this stuff might well win you a Booker, so go for it — just don’t think writing crafted novels is easy in comparison, it’s the exact opposite.)

 PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

  Image attribution: every stock Photo


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In Defence of Head-Hopping

My favoured Narrative Mode for novels is Multiple-Subjective-Third in the Past Tense. Or multiple-third-limited/close/deep: or whatever you want to call it when you stick behind one character’s eyes for a scene and then change to another at the scene/chapter break.

Needless to say, I don’t always keep to this for reasons I am about to explain. I sometimes shift POV during the scene and I occasionally head-hop too. The difference between shifting POV and head-hopping is one of degree. (The technical term for Head-Hopping or Shifting POV is Omniscient Third. However, Omniscient Third also includes Multiple Third, Narrator Voice, and a whole host of other techniques, so I’m breaking it down to individual techniques here)

If I just switch the POV from one character to another and then stay in that character’s head for the rest of the scene, then that (to me, the nomenclature for this is personal) is shifting POV.

If, however, I jump between characters, either the same two characters or more than two, and then back again, then that is head-hopping. I am very careful with a head-hopping scene. Doing it only for a specific story-telling purpose, taking great care to make sure the reader knows whose head they are in, and really working at the transitions; otherwise it will appear amateurish and, no matter how much care the writer takes, some people will always say it is wrong, because they think fashion = rules-that-should-never-be-broken.

Head-hopping can be very effective if the writer wants to show both (or more) sides of a conversation or event. It can increase dramatic tension and give the reader information they require.

The alternative is generally either: clumsy expositional dialogue, so the character (other than the POV character in the scene. Remember the writer are rigidly staying behind one pair of eyes because, you know, that’s like a rule innit, guv’nor) can quite literally tell the other character what they are thinking just so the reader can be told; or having to write another scene in the other character’s POV so that the reader can find out what they were really thinking during the conversation.

The first option is appalling and I would rather hand in my keyboard than use it as a general technique (I reserve the right to use any technique at any time if the story requires it).

It could work but only (IMHO) if the character is telling yet another character what they were thinking after the original conversation/event, but that requires the character to be someone who would tell their innermost feelings to somebody else. Not to mention having a somebody else to tell their feelings to in the first place. It can work, but it is liable to be pretty clunky unless it grows out of the character rather than out of the writer’s need to get this info to the reader.

The second option will lead to redundant wordage. One of the biggest problems of writing in Multiple POVs is that every time the writer switches POV they have to reset the scene. It’s the transitions  (even if they are using a scene break or a chapter break a transition is needed — an establishing shot if you will) that ups the wordage in a Multiple POV story.

The reader needs to know, WHO/WHAT/WHERE/WHEN as quickly as possible. Yes, there may be occasions when the writer needs to keep that stuff hidden for dramatic purposes, but usually you need the reader to know WHOse head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE they are, and WHEN it is happening within the first couple of paragraphs.

If, however, the writer shifts POV or head-hops, then all they have to worry about is the WHO. The other three Ws have already been established in the original set-up to this scene. The reader knows WHAT is going on, because that is the point of the scene. The reader knows WHERE it is happening, because the location has already been established. And the reader knows WHEN it is happening, because there is no time interval involved.

Over the past few decades novels have tended towards the bloated. The insistence on ‘No Head-hopping’ plus the insistence of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ have, in my humble opinion, led to the novel-you-could-beat-a-bear-to-death-with syndrome. Writers were constantly having to write whole scenes just to show something they could show in a couple of words if they just shifted POV for a moment in the scene.

As a general rule I write in Multiple Third, but I’d rather not take a thousand words to get to the point when a hundred, or even ten, will do the same job.

But maybe that’s just me.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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The Beauty of Third Person

Don’t get me wrong, I like First Person as a POV. It is deep inside the head of the protagonist. You see, hear, feel, what they see, hear, feel. You are right there behind their eyes. It allows the writer to place narrative asides in the text and in the voice of the protagonist. Such a delightful choice, First Person.

But somewhat limited.

You can change the tense from Present to Past, but that’s about it. I’ve rarely read a Multiple First Person narrative that really worked. So difficult to differentiate between the voices, so hard to let the reader know who is narrating without a rather clumsy name-tag at the top of the scene or chapter. I’m a great lover of Heinlein’s work, but he never pulled off a Multiple First Person. Every character sounded like Heinlein (no matter what sex, age, or personality). Sorry, but it’s true.

One of these days I’ll have a crack at Multiple First myself, just to see if I can do it. I’ll probably fail, but I’ll be in good company when I do.

I’ve seen people attempt Omniscient First but, unless the character is a god or a telepath, it is just confusing. One of these days, I may well write from the viewpoint of a god, just to see, but it’ll an interesting experiment in humanising the divine rather than an actual attempt to find a new method of telling stories. Or from the viewpoint of a telepath, which might be an even more interesting experiment.

Second Person is best left for choose-your-own adventure stories. I’ve seen it used once, and only once, effectively, in Iain Banks’s A Song of Stone and even then the story was mostly told in First Person. To write an entire novel in Second Person would, in my humble opinion, be nigh on impossible. Mainly because, if your reader isn’t the same as your character in gender, age, and outlook, you have put a barrier between them and the story. It’s effective in A Song of Stone because it feels as if the First Person narrator is talking to his sister, as you would in the same circumstances. It sounds like a reminiscence.

(Since I originally wrote this post, I have written a short story in mostly second person. ‘The Ragged Dancers’ — under my TF Grant byline — is to be found in The Firedance Anthology: Words that Burn published by Firedance Books. Check it out if you feel the urge to see if I managed to use second person effectively. I think it works, the narrative mode grew out of the need to tell a particular story, rather than a need to see if I could do it, but you be the judge of its effectiveness.)

But Third.

Ah, Third Person.

The most flexible of POVs. In Third, you can be as close as in First: Subjective Third, Close Third, Deep Third, Limited Third (when you have so many names for a narrative mode you know it’s useful). You can be outside the characters looking at them like bugs on a plate: Objective Third, Distant Third. Or you can be above, dipping into and out of the heads of any character you choose, knowing everything, showing everything: Omniscient Third. Or the more limited version of omniscient, which is Close Third Multiple, where from scene to scene the writer moves from character POV to character POV, but only shows a single scene from a single viewpoint at any given time.

And (and this may well be sacrilege in these “this is the only way to write” times) you can use all of these narrative modes within the same story. (Iain (M) Banks does this all the time…my admiration runneth over for what that guy does with prose [Edit: RIP to one of the best writers of his generation. I’ll miss your work, man, but at least I’ll always have the Culture])

You can skip from Close to Distant to Omniscient and back again, you can stick like glue behind one character’s eyes for one scene and then head-hop to your heart’s content in another. You can insert narrator voice asides into the text or write everything in the pure voice of the POV character. In Third you can do whatever the story demands and, more importantly, whatever you have the skill to achieve.

Because don’t get me wrong, the very flexibility of Third is dangerous for a writer. The question is not, can you do this? But should you do this?

The thing is (and the reason why writing sites written by dogmatic writing teachers, jaundiced agents, and exasperated editors are so pedantic about their rules) that when you write your first story you probably will head-hop, slip into Omniscient, drop into narrator all the time. I know I did. The problem being of course is that you don’t know you’re head-hopping, you don’t know you’re in Omniscient, you don’t know you’re writing narrator asides.

Which means you are writing a confused mess of barely digestible prose nuggets. There may well be grand lines in there. You may well have fine grasp of character, of plot, of narrative drive, but your writing, quite frankly, stinks.

That is why the admonishments not to head-hop come down thick and fast, because you have to have control of POV. You have to know what you are doing. In my humble opinion, the best way to gain control of POV is to use Close (Subjective, Limited, Deep) third for a while and nothing else. This will teach you that your protagonist can’t see what is behind the door unless they look. They can’t know what another character is thinking but have to rely on supposition based on what the character does. This will teach you that you are stuck behind the character’s eyes and you have to stay there.

This is not something you can learn by any other way than doing (normal caveats apply).

But that doesn’t mean that all the other versions of Third Person are somehow wrong. It just means they are difficult to get right.

The beauty of Third Person is that when you have control of POV, you can do whatever the hell you want.

I like that about Third.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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